About the Exhibition
The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France is the first major exhibition in the United States devoted to the Le Nain brothers—Antoine, Louis, and Mathieu—who were active in Paris during the 1630s and 1640s. More than forty of their best paintings highlight the brothers' full range of production, with altarpieces, private devotional paintings, portraits, and those poignant images of peasants on which their celebrity rests. These masterworks come from public and private collections in Europe and North America, with major loans from the Musée du Louvre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, as well as museums throughout France.
The Le Nain brothers have long been shrouded in mystery. Little is known of their lives, and the attribution of their paintings to the hands of individual brothers has been hotly debated. The exhibition debuts new research concerning the authorship, dating, and meaning of their works. It is accompanied by the results of a major study by the conservation departments of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Kimbell Art Museum in cooperation with the Musée du Louvre.
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The brothers Le Nain were accomplished painters in many fields, including the most lucrative: the production of large paintings of religious subjects for placement above altars in churches. Their earliest dateable commission in Paris was for a series of six altarpieces for a church affiliated with a convent patronized by the reigning queen, Anne of Austria. A short time later, by the mid-1630s, they had begun receiving commissions for an even more prestigious location: Notre-Dame Cathedral. Two of the altarpieces displayed in the exhibition were created for side chapels in Notre-Dame, and one still hangs in the cathedral. When creating large altarpieces, the brothers may have collaborated in order to expedite completion, although the division between hands is anything but clear.
Along with the wide success the Le Nains experienced as painters of altarpieces, their talents shone brightly in the field of private devotional painting. Intended for quiet meditation, these smaller scenes illustrating stories from the Bible or commemorating a particular saint would have hung in the homes of wealthy Parisians. The Le Nains lived during the height of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in France, when the demand for religious imagery was soaring. In the war against Protestantism, the Catholic Church encouraged the production of devotional paintings as a means of instilling and reinforcing faith.
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Beginning about 1640, the Le Nains began exploring a new kind of subject matter: depictions of everyday life, or genre scenes. Among the primary stimuli were the genre paintings by Flemish artists such as David Teniers II, whose scenes of soldiers and peasants cavorting in taverns began arriving in Paris during the late 1630s and found a receptive audience. Inspired by these examples, the Le Nains forged a new kind of genre painting distinctly their own—and one that was targeted at a particular group of wealthy and fiercely devout Catholics. The Le Nains took the conventions of genre painting and adapted them to create scenes that are layered with religious meaning.Many of the genre paintings in the exhibition address the theme of charity to the poor. Poverty was pervasive, even endemic, in the Paris of the Le Nains. Efforts to combat the problem became the focus of a small cadre of affluent Catholics, who believed that by showing compassion to the poor, they gained proximity to Christ, the exemplar of charitable action. Many of these scenes include bread and wine set on a pristinely white tablecloth, similar to that on an altar. These ordinary symbols of Holy Communion were placed both to encourage Christ-like behavior and to defend the doctrine of the Eucharist in Christian life. The Le Nains were at times more traditional in their approach to genre, as testified by the various scenes of card players. But even these are steeped in mystery. What story are they truly telling?
Children and Outdoor Scenes
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One of the Le Nain brothers—likely Antoine—had a penchant for painting small scenes of children. Most depict song and dance or the preparations for such merrymaking. Only one of those works seems to be overtly religious; and in only one are the children well dressed, from the middle class. Otherwise, the focus is on poor children and their pastimes—such as listening to a beggar play his flute on the streets. The children are not presented as miniature adults. Instead, reflecting recent trends in Dutch and Flemish art, they reveal the emotions peculiar to the very young. Clearly intended to arouse our sympathy, the children are rendered in an individualistic, almost portrait-like manner. In order to suggest the inner lives of his child subjects, Antoine—or whichever brother is the artist—took to enlivening their expressions with the deft application of a single, tiny, stroke of white pigment to the dark irises of their eyes.
The Le Nains grew up in a small town in the agricultural region of Picardy, in northern France. Their father earned income by buying land that he then leased to professional farmers to work. Often originally peasants, these tenant farmers had succeeded in attaining some degree of financial stability, becoming members of the lower middle class—which permitted them, for instance, to own a horse. Some of the outdoor scenes reflect this reality, which the Le Nains knew intimately, while others are more difficult to decipher. These pictures may have been painted for wealthy Parisians who owned large estates and felt a special bond with the workers who managed them. But who are these strange characters, and how do they relate to one another?
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Portraiture was a key source of income for the Le Nains, a fact that is not apparent from study of their surviving body of works. Only one of their paintings is a traditional depiction of a posed individual: the Portrait of the comte de Tréville. The rest are informal group portraits, most small and on copper. (An exception is the unfinished portrait of three men and a boy also in the exhibition.) Among the clearest indications that the Le Nains were prolific as portraitists is that many of their multifigured scenes of daily life were painted on top of bust-length depictions of individuals, visible in X-radiographs. Evidence for their activities as portrait painters also comes from documents. On May 11, 1632, for example, Antoine Le Nain signed the contract to execute the yearly group portrait of the municipal officials of Paris, a commission of great prestige. Although now lost, the portrait originally hung in the Hôtel de Ville, the town hall of Paris.
All but one of the portraits in this exhibition are ascribed to Antoine, who seems to have had a particular talent for rendering likenesses on small panels of copper or wood. Which brother painted the large portrait of the comte de Tréville is unknown. In truth, were it not signed “Le Nain,” it would probably be classified as anonymous. Ironically, the very fact that it resembles many anonymous portraits of its time gives hope that there are other portraits by the Le Nains awaiting discovery.