The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France

at the Legion of Honor Museum, San Franciso

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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While admired and respected during their lifetimes in early 17th century France, the works of the three talented Le Nain brothers, Antoine, Louis and Mathieu, are now hardly known in the United States. In fact, the last U.S. exhibition of their paintings was 70 years ago, although an exhibit of their work was held at Paris’ Grand Palais in 1979. This lack of interest is unusual since the Le Nains were venerated contemporaries of Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and Georges de La Tour, and are one of the recognized sources of 19th century modern realism, and influenced Gustave Courbet, Eduard Manet, Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso.

Forty-four of the 65 known works attributed to the Le Nain brothers have been assembled from public and private collections in Europe and North America including the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, the National Gallery, London, Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Collection, the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., and the three sponsoring museums, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor (part of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums), Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum and the Musée du Louvre. Populating the show are remarkable, complex and pleasing large altarpieces, religious and devotional paintings, portraits, allegorical works and expressive images of soulful peasants and children.

Mystery surrounds the brothers’ lives and their work. They were born in Northern France between 1598 and 1607 and worked in Paris in the 1630s and 1640s. The Le Nain brothers never married; they lived and worked together, and were religious French Catholics. But beyond that, little is known. All their paintings were signed, simply, “Le Nain.” So it is unclear which brother is responsible for what piece. Or did they each contribute a part of each picture?

In an admirable piece of scholarship, curators Esther Bell of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor and C.D. Dickerson, formerly of Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, (now at D.C.’s National Gallery), in cooperation with the Musée du Louvre and their respective conservation departments, have dissected the Le Nain oeuvre to uncover new insights into the age, authorship and understanding of their art. They conclude that one artist, likely Antoine, painted the smaller works and children, the peasants were completed by another brother, likely Louis, and the larger religious figures were probably rendered by Mathieu.

The exhibit contains several walls filled with the fruits of their research, including x-rays, photographed details and a large chart that tries to trace out all the connections among the paintings by the Le Nain brothers. As you examine the research, it becomes clear that the brothers used similar figures in many works, for example, the heads of children. It takes a bit of time to read the material, but it is time well spent.

One handsome portrait at the start of the exhibit, “The Painters’ Studio” shows the three brothers looking aristocratic and courtly, with two of their other brothers and a lower right-hand portait of their deceased father accompanying them in the painting. The work is dexterously done, with the subjects’ delicate appearance well-crafted and composed, if a bit self-satisfied.

In “Peasants before a House,” idle peasants are looking out from the painting to the viewer. They are not poor, inasmuch as their house looks substantial, but are idle perhaps because the harvest has been completed or they are simply relaxing. Salvador Dali admired this canvas, especially its gray and blue color tone. I like its informal outdoor setting and simplicity of subject matter, which contrasts with some of the busier and darker colored images in the show.

The portrait of the aristocratic Comte de Treville, who was allegedly one of the three musketeers on whom Alexandre Dumas based his novel, appears to be one of many that the Le Nain brothers must have been commissioned to paint, given their status and fame. Sadly, few have been located. It is speculated that many must be hidden away in attics of old estates throughout Europe.

“The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France” is the start of an effort by the Legion of Honor to strengthen its Old Masters collection. The show is well-designed and lighted, and has edifying and explanatory labels. An audio tour is available, narrated by the show’s knowledgeable curators Esther Bell and C.D. Dickerson. Although 17th century French art is not my favorite school of art, the exhibition is enlightening and interesting — well worth a trip to the lovely Beaux Arts Legion of Honor overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge.

By Emily S. Mendel


© Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved

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