Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type



This essay performs a comprehensive investigation of the thematic possibilities for Georges de La Tour's Flea-Catcher (1630s-1640s) based on related artworks, religion, and emblematic, literary, and pseudo-scientific texts that may have had a bearing on it. The results of my research are grouped into two categories that embrace the range of interpretations for the work: religion and sexuality. While religious iconography characterizes most of La Tour's extant creations, the hypothetically religious content of his Flea-Catcher is difficult to discern. However, it is possible to analyze the iconography, as well as some of the ancillary motifs found in La Tour's painting, in relation to the various strains of Catholicism, including Jansenism, Franciscanism, Quietism, and the cult of Mary Magdalen, that ran through Lorraine in the early seventeenth century. The work seems to reflect the general tone of spiritual thought-one of passivity and bodily transcendence-prominent in La Tour's Lorraine. An examination of the popular understanding of fleas during La Tour's lifetime is particularly enlightening in the investigation of the iconography of the Flea-Catcher. The parasites made numerous appearances in contemporary poetry of an erotic nature. Moreover, the linguistic similarity between the French words for "flea" and "virginity," as well as the dominance of archaic natural science, which declared the pest to be a lustful beast, may have inspired the insect's amatory connotations. Read in conjunction with the presence of the sexually charged flea, the emblematic meaning of the flea-catcher's burned-down candle and her wretched and swollen form might indicate the demoralizing consequences of prostitution or of illegitimate pregnancy. La Tour's Flea-Catcher reveals a thematic density that is not necessarily characteristic of the rest of his works, which prove to be more straightforward in content. There is no reason to commit to only one interpretation of the painting, as the suggestions proposed by this essay are not mutually exclusive. Thus, the themes interweave in the painting, endowing it with multiple layers of possible meanings.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Mark J. Zucker