The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France is the first major American exhibition devoted to the three Le Nain brothers. 44 of the 65 known works attributed to the Le Nains have been assembled from sources including Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, London’s National Gallery, Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Collection, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the three sponsoring museums, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, and the Musée du Louvre. The exhibition can be seen at the Legion of Honor through January 29, 2017.
Antoine (c. 1598–1648), Louis (c. 1600/1605–1648) and Mathieu (c. 1607–1677) Le Nain were born in Laon, a small town in the Picardy region of northern France, and were trained by the same unidentified artist. Around 1629 they left Laon and moved to Paris. By the time of the deaths of Antoine and Louis in 1648, they were among the best-known painters in France, famous for their portraits, altarpieces and other religious works, scenes from mythology, and sympathetic depictions of poor and working people. They were also among the first members of Paris’s Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. All three remained unmarried and childless, and they always worked together, never identifying themselves individually in the paintings, all of which are simply signed “Le Nain.”
The unfinished Three Men and a Boy (c. 1640-45) is thought to be a portrait of the brothers. Conventionally, the painter of a painting is depicted looking straight out at viewer – in this case, the man in the middle. There is some stylistic indication (i.e. the curl of the hair) that the painting is by Mathieu. Therefore it may be that he is at the center, with the older brother, Antoine, at his right and Louis at his left. But no one knows for certain. During a cleaning in 1968, the boy at the right was revealed, along with the colors at the lower right that were probably part of a composition that was never finished.
The exhibition arranges the paintings by theme rather than chronology, with religious works coming first. Their earliest known commission in Paris was for six altarpieces for a convent church associated with the reigning queen, Anne of Austria. In the mid 1630s, they received a commission for three altarpieces for Paris’s greatest cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, an indication of the fame they had achieved. Two of those, intended for side chapels, are included in this exhibition; the third still hangs at the cathedral. The Nativity of the Virgin (c. 1636), probably by Mathieu Le Nain, is full of naturalistic details and expressive faces. A wet nurse holds the infant Mary, while in the background, St. Anne, Mary’s mother, is resting from her labor, helped by two nursemaids. Mary’s father, St. Joachim, looks on, backed by two angels, one of whom points upward at heaven, emphasizing the holiness of the scene.
St. Michael Dedicating His Arms to the Virgin (c. 1638) is another of the Notre Dame de Paris altarpieces. One of their masterpieces, the painting draws the eye from St. Michael’s shield and the lovely landscape beyond, up to the Christ child blessing the saint, and into the brightly lit, yet veiled, heavenly realm. Once again, the characterization and sheer humanity of the faces and gestures are noteworthy. An influence of Orazio Gentileschi, who had also recently worked in Paris, is clear in the harmony of composition and the colors. Caravaggio is an obvious influence on another of their large religious works, Nativity with a Torch (c. 1635-40), with its single source of light, cinematic staging, and compressed figures.
Another religious genre in which they excelled was paintings of devotion intended for private homes. These usually took the form of depictions of saints or stories from the Bible. The Le Nains lived during the Catholic Counter-Reformation in France, and such paintings were much in demand. The Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1635-40) is especially beautiful. Its subject is taken from Luke 2:8-20, when the shepherds have just arrived from the fields to worship the newly-born Jesus. Mary, idealized with her perfect skin and almost unearthly clothing, contrasts with the tattered clothes and dirty, wrinkled feet of the shepherd at the front, and the slight glow that seems to emanate from the central Christ child. The painting is full of arresting, poignant details: the piece of straw in the foreground, the patient humility of the donkey, the dangling vine on the arch above the scene, and the chips in the columns.
The Le Nains also became specialists in depictions of charitable acts. Poverty was a big problem in Paris at that time, and a group of wealthy, religious-minded people believed that compassion and charity for the poor were part of a properly religious life. In Peasant Interior with Old Flute Player (c. 1642), the bread and wine on the table, with its beautifully white tablecloth, is probably meant to evoke the sacrament of Eucharist, and the woman with child Mary and Jesus. Jean-Jacques Olier, the Le Nains’s parish priest, wrote that the Eucharist is closely associated with the poor, in that both symbolized sacrifice, and that every meal should be regarded as a sort of Eucharist.
The Peasant Family (c. 1642), possibly by Louis, may depict a visit to a poor family by a woman from the Daughters of Charity (Filles de la Charité), wealthy women who did Christian acts of charity. The woman at left wears a blue-gray dress and white headdress, the standard garb for the Daughters of Charity. The water and wine once again stand in for the Eucharist. The size of the painting indicates that it was probably commissioned.
Around 1640, the Le Nains turned their attention to depictions of humble everyday life, perhaps influenced by the paintings of peasants and soldiers by Flemish artists like David Teniers II. The Le Nain brothers’ father bought land and leased it to farmers, and so the Le Nains grew up well acquainted with these people. There is never any sense, though, of looking down on the poor or pitying them, though – even in straightened circumstances, they are proud and confident. Personally, I feel ennobled looking at the peaceful, patient, dignified faces of the people in these paintings.
In The Resting Horseman (c. 1640), perhaps by Louis, those qualities are evident in the faces and stature of the figures – the dignity of the man at right, the kindly expression of the woman at left – and their placement slightly above line of landscape. Much the same goes for the farmers in Peasants Before a House (c. 1640), part of the Fine Arts Museum’s permanent collection and recently conserved. The stone building is typical of the time, with a storeroom below and stairs leading to the living area above. It’s possible that the bare feet of the boy was meant to recall the 1639 Revolt of the va-nu-pieds (barefooted ones), in which Norman peasants protested a salt tax. The restrained colors and sometimes unusual scale of the different figures, isolated in their own spaces, has, for some, called to mind the abstraction of Cubism (Georges Braque was an admirer of the Le Nains).
Paul Cezanne’s paintings of card players in the last years of the nineteenth century were inspired by The Card Players (c. 1640-45), about which Cezanne supposedly said, “This is how I would like to paint.” The dark, slightly ominous and tension-filled scene – there always seems to be some intrigue in artistic depictions of card playing – once again calls Caravaggio to mind. Despite their religious background, the Le Nains didn’t shy away from depictions of “suspect” activities like dancing and card playing. Sometimes there is some moralizing involved, for instance with one figure apart and standing in judgment.
Children are very often featured in Le Nain paintings. The kids are always sympathetically painted, and seldom look like little adults. For instance, in the charming Preparations for the Dance (c. 1643), painted on copper and therefore likely by Antoine, the children, each depicted with great individuality, dance to the music of the flute player, with a woman smiling with amusement in the background. A small touch that frequently brings their facial expressions to life is a tiny dot of white paint within the dark iris of the eye. Poussin and Rembrandt admired this work, and Jean-Antoine Watteau even copied the heads of the children and the old woman in a chalk sketch. Likewise, the composition might be a little congested, and the perspective not quite perfect, but how can one resist the subtle and vivid characterization, the expressiveness and distinctiveness of the faces of the children, in Woman with Five Children (1642)?
While portraits of the wealthy was a major source of income for the Le Nains, as it would have been for most painters of their time, only one such traditional portrait of theirs still survives – the grand Portrait of the Comte de Tréville (1644). The subject, Jean-Armand du Peyrer (1598-1672), had been a captain in the Mousquetaires de la Garde, or Royal Musketeers – a character with his name shows up in the Alexandre Dumas novel. But the painting was made after his musketeer days, as his musket is not depicted. The fine brushwork and the details of the lace, leather, and lush fabric make this work a standout.
Allegory and mythology were also fairly frequent subjects for the Le Nains. Among their masterpieces in this area is Bacchus and Ariadne (c. 1635). Ariadne, languorous and beautiful and glowing at the lower left, and the similarly graceful Bacchus at right, who instantly falls in love with her (signified by his hand at his heart). The ethereal quality of Ariadne contrasts with the physicality of her pose and the cloth around her arm and behind her. In the Allegory of Victory (c. 1635), a figure with wings and a palm frond (traditionally representing victory) stands on a female figure whose legs end in a tail of a serpent. Given that this was painted in the time of the Counter-Reformation, are we seeing here Catholicism’s victory over Protestantism?
As their works were not individually signed, attributing specific authorship to the three brothers is difficult. However, there are some stylistic hints, certain kinds of figures and repetitions of models and layout, that help identify the individual painters. This question is a fascinating sidelight of the exhibition. Generally speaking, the curators believe that Antoine painted the smaller works on wood or copper, as well as those featuring children. In his paintings, small brush strokes are the norm, along with brighter colors and a bit of impasto for textures. Louis, with his more muted colors and frequent shadowing of parts of faces, may have produced the peasant-populated genre scenes. Mathieu, who had the longest career, worked in light and varied colors, and probably was responsible for the larger religious works.
While their star has dimmed somewhat over the centuries, artists like Paul Cézanne, Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet all expressed their admiration for the Le Nains. This exhibition, and the beautiful catalog that accompanies it, should help restore the brothers to their rightful place in art history.