Plain Can Be Powerful

Paintings by the Le Nain Brothers

Sometime before 1629, three brothers named Antoine, Louis, and Mathieu Le Nain left their home in the Northern French province of Picardy to seek their fortune as artists in Paris. Though the reigning French king, Louis XIII, had inherited a relatively stable domain from his father, Henri IV, France still suffered from political, economic, and religious unrest. Wars against Spain and the Hapsburgs, court intrigue and dissension, financial crises (not least from the military budgets), and continuing confrontations between the Catholic majority and Protestant Huguenots marked much of Louis’s reign.

Culturally, however, when les frères Le Nain arrived in the capital, they found themselves at the center of a renaissance. It was the age of René Descartes in philosophy and Pierre Corneille in the theater; the poet François de Malherbe had just died; and the musician Jean-Baptiste Lully would be born three years later. In painting, Nicolas Poussin had brought classical dignity to the brilliantly hued, dramatic new Baroque style, and his younger contemporary Philippe de la Champaigne was finding favor, not least at the court, for his imposing portraits. 1629 was the year that the architect Jacques Lemercier began to design a splendid residence (we know it now as the Palais Royale) for Cardinal Richelieu, who five years later, in an act as much political as cultural, established the French Academy. And all this culture, and more, was dedicated to the grandeur of France and its king.

By the time Antoine and Louis Le Nain died, both in 1648, the three brothers had earned a name for themselves and for their plain yet deeply poetic studies of French peasant life. Over the centuries since, connoisseurs have cherished their works in museums from the Louvre, to the Victoria and Albert in London, to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. And now a beautifully, even tenderly curated recent exhibition in the Piano Pavilion of the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, has shown visitors how much broader the brothers’ range was. In addition to peasant life—itself a more differentiated subject than had been acknowledged—the sixty-five works on display also reveal the Le Nains’ excellence in religious work and genre scenes, mythological allegory, and portraits. 

The brothers’ birth dates remain conjectural, and the three present other mysteries as well. They lived together, never married and, as long as all were alive, seemed to work more as a team than as individuals. (Though they never signed a painting with more than the family name “Le Nain,” museums have sometimes taken the liberty of adding Louis’ name, since he was generally thought the most gifted of the three.) And so we have not only their art to admire, but a curatorial detective tale of who did what and how and why. A special gallery, together with a magnificent catalogue, edited by C. D. Dickerson III and Esther Bell, who organized the exhibition, took visitors on the winding path of the tale. (After closing in Fort Worth September 11, the show traveled to the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, and will later go to the Musée du Louvre-Lens.) 

Amid the general cultural florescence of the time, the Catholic faith played a major role. St. Frances de Sales had introduced a new spirituality centered on union with the loving will of God, and with his friend St. Jane Frances de Chantal founded the Congregation of the Visitation in 1610. Pierre de Bérulle established the French Oratory the next year, and his disciple St. Vincent de Paul, increasingly devoted to serving the poor, founded the Congregation of the Mission in 1625 and, eight years later, the Daughters of Charity (with Louise de Marillac). Architecture, sculpture, and painting served to embody this religious revival, known today as the Catholic Reformation or Catholic Revival.

The Le Nain brothers’ religious work included not only large altarpieces but smaller, private devotional work. The devotional Entombment (1650s), for example, shows Saint John tenderly lowering the body of Christ toward the tomb as Mary Magdalene, kneeling alongside, turns to console his mother Mary. In the slightly larger Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1635–1640), the adoring shepherds seem to be a family of three. The curators, comparing this endearing work to a darker, more dramatic Last Supper (1650s), surmise that the Adoration may come from the younger Mathieu Le Nain and the Supper from the same brother at a later age.

Among the brothers’ altarpieces, Saint Michael Dedicating His Arms to the Virgin (c. 1638) is generally considered their masterpiece, praised for its elegant composition, harmonized palette, and singing realism. (It is also an unusual, perhaps unprecedented, subject.) Also in this section of the show are three large crucifixion scenes, which may or may not have actually been altarpieces. One of them, a dark and almost surrealistic scene, was only discovered in the 1990s.

Of the portraits in the show, The Portrait of the Comte de Tréville (1644) is the grandest, but Three Men and a Boy (c. 1640–1645), which the curators attribute to Mathieu, is the indispensable one, an unfinished group portrait in which the three brothers appear in handsome three-quarter profile. Allegorical interests are reflected in such paintings as The Painter’s Studio, The Concert, and The Musicians (all 1650s or 1660s), while The Musical Reunion (1642), a small, superb oil on copper with twelve highly individualized bourgeois figures tightly crowded together, has more the character of portraiture. Such multiple perspectives permeate several highly engaging paintings of children—at prayer with their nursemaid, preparing for a dance, listening to the village piper, playing music themselves—which may appear joyous, moralizing, or simply documentary, depending on one’s focus. A similar multiplicity of moods and perspectives characterizes other genre pictures by the Le Nains, including their card-player pictures. This theme, popularized by Caravaggio, could play as a celebration of leisure or as a temptation to deception and vice.

 

THE FAMOUS PAINTINGS of peasants and the poor remain the most compelling of all. The exhibition divides this work into outdoor and indoor scenes. In the outdoor pictures, generally set in the cool light of Picardy, the figures are strangely out of scale (The Resting Horseman, c. 1640), seem timelessly immobile (Peasants in a Landscape, c. 1640–1641), or appear to invite you to join them (Peasants before a House, c. 1640).  Often several figures in the painting return your gaze. And little by little you realize that they don’t look so very poor after all: clothing, accoutrements, house, and the figures themselves all convey a comfortable dignity. This does not seem to be the grinding poverty of the real seventeenth-century French peasantry.

Among the indoor scenes, one painting that does show real poverty is Peasant Interior (c. 1640), in which a stern older woman offers food to a pilgrim, and another is the mysterious Peasants in a ‘Creutte’ (c. 1642), depicting figures in a cavelike shelter. Here bread and wine allude to the Eucharist, with a Jesus-like figure presiding at the table on which they rest. In The Peasant Family (c. 1642), the largest of the Le Nains’ genre pictures, two seated women appear as visitors to a simple but not indigent family, with very visible bread and wine again referring to the Eucharist, and cuing up the theme of charity. (The painting comes from the Louvre, and is a companion piece to the even more famous The Peasants’ Meal [c. 1642] in which the Eucharist and charity are once again thematized.)

These paintings are quiet masterpieces—inviting, engaging, and quietly strange. As Karen Wilkin wrote in a Wall Street Journal review, “The acclaimed scenes of peasants, seen indoors or against the rolling fields of Picardy, are the heart of the show. Especially in the outdoor scenes, the pale, eerie light, the subdued palette, and the odd dislocations of scale among the figures, lost in their individual worlds, make these haunting paintings strangely modern.”

This is the first presentation of the Le Nain brothers in North America since 1947, and the first anywhere of their work as a whole since a famous exhibition in Paris in 1978–79. The more a lucky visitor looks at their work, the more he or she will see why so many other, better-known artists have admired them over the centuries—from Gustave Courbet, who was instrumental in their first, 1848 exhibit in the Louvre; to Paul Cézanne, whose famous series of card players in the 1890s was inspired by their painting The Card Players (c. 1640–45); to Picasso, who collected two of their canvases, now hanging in the new Picasso Museum in Paris. And for those who can’t get to the show, anyone who lives near a good library can at least appreciate their mastery in reproductions while leafing through the gorgeous catalogue.

The show’s lessons are multiple: plain can be powerful; artistic integrity can trump celebrity; the almost forgotten often deserve a new look. Pierre Rosenberg, the renowned French art historian and former director of the Louvre, believes that the Le Nains, and most certainly Louis, rank with Poussin, Claude, and La Tour among the greatest of French painters. “Who among the great painters dared to avoid narrative in their paintings so stubbornly?” he writes in the catalogue. “In meditative calm and dignified silence, with no hint of vulgarity, each of their figures waits in solitude, in isolation, in a suspended state.” These figures takes us first into, and then beyond, ourselves.

Published in the November 11, 2016 issue: 

 

Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, is president emeritus of Georgetown University.

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