Le Nain Brothers
Biography, Genre-Paintings of Antoine, Louis, Mathieu.

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Blacksmith at His Forge (1640)
Louvre, Paris. This type of realistic
depiction of peasants or 'low subjects'
was not found in French art again
until the 19th century in the works
of Gustave Courbet.

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Le Nain Brothers
Louis (1693-48), Antoine (1699-48) and Mathieu Le Nain (1607-77)

Contents

Biography
Early Life
Early Paintings: Royal Portraits, Painter to the King
Mathieu Le Nain: Portraiture and Religious Painting
Reconstructing the Career of the Le Nain Brothers
Genre Painting, Street Scenes (Bambocciate)
Group Portraiture
Grand Painting
Surviving Portraits
Greatest Peasant Scenes
Interiors
Subject Paintings and Landscapes
Attribution
The Le Nain Brothers Realist Art


Biography

A major contributor to French painting during the first half of the 17th century, the Le Nain Brothers based themselves on the tradition of the Netherlandish Renaissance - notably Dutch Realist Genre Painting - rather than the more classical Baroque painting of Rome. Like the art of Dutch Realist artists from Leiden, Amsterdam and Delft - which they interpreted with a French eye - the Le Nain brothers specialized in genre painting and portrait art (typically of peasants, beggars and artisans) which they executed with a realism unique for their day. Their subjects are invariably portrayed with great dignity and composure. Precise details of the brothers' lives are unknown, as is the extent of their individual contributions to their (mostly) collaborative works. Among their best Baroque paintings, all in the Louvre museum in Paris, are: A Blacksmith in his Forge (c.1639), Peasant Family (1641), Peasants' Meal (1642), The Happy Family (The Return after the Baptism) (1642). The Le Nain realist style of Baroque art contrasts sharply with the classicism of other contemporary artists such as Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) or Claude Lorraine (1604-82).

 

 

Early Life

More or less forgotten after the end of the 17th century before being restored to public attention by the novelist Champfleury in the mid-19th century, the Le Nain brothers are now ranked among the top French Baroque artists. They seem to have spent their childhood in a reasonably comfortable and enlightened home, though they remained in direct contact with the local peasantry. Their father Isaac, who came from a family of farm labourers and wine-growers near Laon, had acquired an official position at the local salt depot (1595) and also owned several houses, vineyards, meadows and woods in Laon and the surrounding districts. The three Le Nain brothers - Antoine, Louis, and Mathieu - followed a trade which was not entirely out of place in Laon where, around the Cathedral and the religious houses, there existed a fairly active artistic circle. For one year the brothers were taught painting by an itinerant artist, after which they travelled to Paris to pursue their studies. Choosing not to follow the slow, costly road towards becoming guild painters, and sculptors, they moved to St Germain-des-Pres, where Antoine was admitted as master painter in 1629 and where he and his brothers settled in the Rue Princesse. They remained in Paris from that time onwards, although they never completely severed their links with Laon, where they had family and property.

 

 

Early Paintings: Royal Portraits, Painter to the King

The workshop in which the three brothers worked so closely together rapidly made a name for itself. In 1632 they obtained from the City of Paris the commission for the portraits of the Municipal Magistrates (now lost). In 1633, Mathieu became one of the official painters to the city of Paris, and then some time before 1643 he painted the portrait of Queen Anne of Austria (also lost), wife of King Louis XIII, which suggests that he was already the Official Painter to the King. After this, the Le Nain brothers were chosen to decorate the Lady Chapel at St Germain-des-Pres (the ensemble disappeared at the time of the Revolution) and to execute the altarpiece art in the four chapels of Notre Dame (of which one, a Crucifixion, dated 1646, is lost). Their success is borne out by the literature of the day (Du Bail, 1644, Scudery, 1646). In 1648 all three were admitted to the French Royal Academy at it's inception. But Louis and Antoine died suddenly soon after, probably of the plague.

Mathieu Le Nain: Portraiture and Religious Painting

Mathieu was now alone and rich. Of a military inclination, he became in 1633 a lieutenant in a Parisian company and, after having probably served in the royal army itself, took the title of 'Monsieur de La Jumelle'. He aimed for a high place in Parisian society, which was at odds with his occupation as a painter. He continued to paint for a while (Portrait of Mazarin, donated to the Academy in 1649, now lost; the Martyrdom of Saints Crispin and Crispian, 1654, Laon, Eglise des Cordeliers, lost), but ceased to be peintre ordinaire du roi and in 1662 was awarded the Order of St Michel, which was almost equivalent to a peerage. His desire to forget his former condition as a commoner meant that he did nothing to keep the memory of his brothers alive, something which largely explains why, particularly after his death on 20th April 1677, the name of Le Nain was so quickly forgotten.

Reconstructing the Career of the Le Nain Brothers

The brothers' oil painting can be pieced together by tracing some 15 canvases, all signed and dated, and all originating between 1640 and 1647. For a long time these paintings were looked upon as the work of provincial painters taught by one of the travelling Flemish painters. They were believed to have come to the capital relatively late in their careers and to have tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Parisian public to accept their over-realistic peasant inspiration. This failure was supposed to have led to inept attempts at grande peinture and portrait art, before finally leading Mathieu into total decadence.

Genre Painting, Street Scenes (Bambocciate)

This view, coloured by the romanticism of the 19th century, is not borne out by the facts. The three Le Nains seem, on the contrary, to have made a swift impression in Paris due to their portrait paintings, as well as their religious art - mostly in the form of panel paintings for churches. Around 1640, when the pupils of Simon Vouet (1590-1649) - the leading French painter of the early 17th century - began to have more influence, and a taste for the burlesque, peasant scenes became popular with high society. The brothers probably tried to maintain their success by devoting a large part of their output to this general category of genre painting, especially bambocciate interpreted in the French style. (Note: Bambocciate, named after the handicapped Dutch painter Pieter van Laer (1599-1642), who was known as Il Bamboccio and who popularized a genre of urban street scenes).

Group Portraiture

In addition to these realistic genre scenes, the Le Nain brothers painted group portraits. This type of portrait was still relatively unknown in France, where up until then portraiture had been limited to votive offerings and official portraits. Following the example of Dutch painters they transformed these into genre scenes by reducing them in size; such clever innovations would appear to have enjoyed a large measure of success with patrons in Parisian society.

Grand Painting

Their serious religious or history painting (grand peinture) remains little known. One allegorical figure, probably intended to decorate a chimneypiece, the surprising Victory (Louvre), and two mythological canvases Bacchus and Ariadne (Orleans Museum), Venus in Vulcan's Forge (1641, Rheims Museum) suggest that they had only a mediocre knowledge of composition, but made up for this by their freshness of outlook and sensitive inspiration. The remaining religious works reveal the same faults and the same qualities; the series Life of the Virgin, probably painted around 1630-2 for one of the chapels of the Petits Augustins in Paris (four paintings found out of six, including The Adoration of the Shepherds [Louvre], does not yet reveal the mastery found in the altarpieces of Notre Dame (two found out of four; St Michael Dedicating his Arms to the Virgin [Nevers, Church of St Pierre] and Birth of the Virgin [Notre Dame Paris, formerly Church of St Etienne-du-Mont]).

In those canvases where the composition is less complicated, a monumental simplicity of form highlights the brothers' realistic vision and contained emotion (Rest on the Flight into Egypt [private collection]; The Repentant Magdalene [private collection], while a series of medium or small-scale works, containing numerous figures, may be classed with the genre paintings. Sometimes these are of high quality (The Adoration of the Shepherds [National Gallery, London]), sometimes they are so mediocre in treatment as to appear to be the work of imitators or pupils (the existence of at least two apprentices in the Le Nain workshop is attested by contracts of employment).

Surviving Portraits

Only a few portraits survive which are incontestably by the Le Nain brothers, and they vary both in format and in style: see, for instance, Old Lady (copy of an original dated 1644, Avignon Museum); and Bust of a Man (Puy Museum). Better known are the group portraits, which are dominated by a series of works treated as genre paintings; they include the series based on the Guard-House (1643, Louvre) and the five paintings formerly in the Seyssel Collection, including Backgammon Players (Louvre) and Children's Dance (private collection). Among these is a composition which is heavier, less relaxed and closer to the Dutch models, Reunion (Louvre), and certain small-format works, clumsy in composition, impressionistic in technique: Family Reunion (1642, Louvre) and Portraits in an Interior (1647, Louvre).

Greatest Peasant Scenes

But the pictures by the Le Nain brothers which make them exceptional are those depicting peasant scenes. Here the diversity of treatments and quality still surprise. Two enormous canvases, which should immediately be singled out from the others, contain all that is best in their art: Peasant Family (1641, Louvre) and Peasants' Meal (1642, Louvre). The power of the construction in bas-relief, the sober tones of the colours, in which browns and greys are highlighted only by a few touches of brighter colour, the sureness of treatment, which is both simple and firm: all these qualities heighten the sincerity of observation, which excludes the picturesque along with the cruel. There is a depth of psychological perception in the depiction of a few contemporary peasants that catches the spirit of the peasant soul for all time.

Interiors

Some of these exceptional attributes reappear in small-scale interiors such as The Visit to Grandmother (Hermitage) or The Happy Family (aka The Return after the Baptism) (1642, Louvre). A Blacksmith in His Forge (The Forge) (Louvre) adds to these qualities a treatment of lighting rendered with a skill and boldness of touch that are quite exceptional. The majority of subjects and themes are closely linked with the standard repertoire of Flemish painting, but their psychological depth probably derives from Caravaggism: see, for example, (The Card Players (Aix-en-Provence Museum); The Brawl (1640, Springfield, Massachusetts Museum). Very different from these is another series of interior scenes, small in size, painted on wood or copper and generally depicting groups of children, which reveal a naive observation and sometimes a heavy touch; the best example of this is Old Tin-Whistle Player (1644, Detroit Institute of Arts).

Subject Paintings and Landscapes

In contrast to these interiors is the surprising series of open-air peasant scenes. In some of these the motif is dominant (The Cart, 1641, Louvre), others are pure landscape painting (Peasants in a Landscape, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford); but in most cases these two aspects are balanced (The Milkmaid, Hermitage). The clear colour of these paintings and its unusually bold handling - realistic and unconventional depiction of the landscape, the silvery atmosphere - seem to establish an unexpected link between the era of Jean Fouquet (1420-81) and Camille Corot (1796-1875).

Attribution

The issue of attribution presents more difficulty. Quickly plagiarized, the Le Nain brothers work became overlaid in the 18th century with false attributions. Some of these are now identified as the work of Michelin; more difficult, however, is identification of the Master of the Corteges, painter of Cortege of the Fatted Ox (private collection) and Cortege of the Ram (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Equally difficult is the identity of the more austere painter of the Travellers at an Inn (Minneapolis Institute of Arts); or even the mediocre author of a number of outdoor scenes, often highly vulgar in intent and frequently attributed, for no good reason, to Mathieu in his later years (Village Meal and Drinking Trough, both in the Louvre).

As well as this, the attribution of the works between the three brothers (Antoine, Louis and Mathieu) has been a longstanding problem. It becomes somewhat less important if the supposed age gap (19 years between Antoine and Mathieu) is narrowed. The solution proposed by the art historian Paul Jamot (Les Le Nain, 1929) still seems the most plausible: small-scale, picturesque paintings of children and small group portraits should be attributed to Antoine; to Louis should be attributed peasant scenes, along with credit for profound psychological insight and a wholly modern feeling for landscape; while to Mathieu should go such elegant group portraits such as Les Joueurs de tric-trac. But this division is not without a number of difficulties, and cannot be applied to all the known works (full-length portraits, mythological and religious paintings). Nor does it take into account the constant collaboration between the brothers; most of the major works, apart from the portraits, appear to be the work of several hands.

The Le Nain Brothers Realist Art

The works produced by the Le Nain workshop are remarkably diverse yet at the same time have a profound degree of unity. Each in their own way, all three brothers deserve a share of the credit for having incarnated the ideal of elegance and light towards which Parisian painting between 1630 and 1650 was moving. In their 17th century Realism, there is a simplicity of composition, established over distinct planes, a subdued but clear use of colour, a carefully wrought atmosphere and a balance between psychological insight and expression, between the observation of the 'natural' and elegance of form. Whereas such painters as Laurent de la Hyre (1606-56) and Eustache Le Sueur (1616-55) looked to the Italian tradition for the development of their style, the Le Nain brothers - as far as portraits and genre scenes are concerned, in which French production remained closely linked with the Flemish tradition - arrived at a wholly original expression which, at least in its final form, seems almost unique in 17th-century European painting.

For more Baroque artists in France, see the caravaggesque painter Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), and the influential director of the French Academy Charles Le Brun (1619-90).

Paintings by Le Nain Brothers can be seen in several of the best art museums around the world, notably the Louvre.

• For more about painting in 17th century France, see: Homepage.
• For more biographical details about famous Baroque painters, see Old Masters.
• For an evaluation of important French genre pictures and portraits, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.


ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OLD MASTER PAINTERS
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