‘The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France’ Review: The First Artists’ Collective
A once-famous, now-forgotten trio of fraternal collaborators.
By KAREN WILKIN
Say “Le Nain” and the response is likely to be “Who?”—unless we’re dealing with hard-core fans of 17th-century French painting. Then we might hear “Which one?” or “I love those strange pictures of peasants.”
The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France
Kimbell Art Museum
Through Sept. 11
The three Le Nain brothers, Antoine, Louis and Mathieu, were celebrated and sought after in their lifetimes. Their work has long been revered, especially by artists, including Gustave Courbet, Paul Cézanne, Edouard Manet and Georges Braque. But they are unfamiliar today, and little is known about them apart from their all having been born around 1600 in Laon, in the Picardy region of northern France. Antoine and Louis, the eldest and middle brothers, both died in 1648, but their precise birth dates remain speculative. Mathieu, born in 1607, died in 1677. The brothers moved to Paris around 1629, but nothing is known about their training. And just who did which painting is far from certain, since works are signed only “Le Nain.” The brothers, in fact, have been described as the first artists’ collective. And to complicate things, the “strange pictures of peasants” for which they are now best known are only a fraction of their efforts.
These mysteries are addressed, if not fully solved, by the brilliant exhibition “The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France” at the Kimbell Art Museum. A joint project of the Kimbell, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the Musée du Louvre-Lens, France, the exhibit was organized by C.D. Dickerson III of the National Gallery, Washington, and Esther Bell of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It will travel to the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, and the Musée du Louvre-Lens. Astonishingly, this is the first U.S. exhibition devoted to the Le Nains in almost 70 years and only the second full-scale survey since a 1978 show in Paris.
We begin with large religious paintings, including “St. Michael Dedicating His Arms to the Virgin” (c. 1638), an enormous altarpiece originally commissioned for the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris. The monumental canvas announces many of the brothers’ combined strengths: a spectacular play of textures, firm modeling, strong color, and individually characterized figures. The dramatic lighting and theatrical intensity of “Nativity With a Torch” (c. 1635-40) and the newly attributed “Penitent Magdalene” (c. 1640), flanking “St. Michael,” demonstrate the persistent influence of Caravaggio’s cinematically staged, expressively illuminated narratives, which the brothers must have known from works on view in Paris by some of the Caravaggeschi, the Roman innovator’s followers.
Arranged thematically, the exhibition’s groupings encourage comparisons between images. We notice the frizzy tendrils of one boy’s hair, the heavy locks of another’s; the convincing proportions of some figures, the awkward “folding” of a seated woman nearby; the broad modeling of one head, the sharper definition of another. And more. By tracking such distinctions and studying differences revealed by technical examination, the curators have identified three different hands, cautiously termed Artists A, B and C, each tentatively associated with an individual brother. One gallery is devoted to these findings, with helpful comparative photos of details. Antoine, it seems, specialized in small paintings, often on copper, while Mathieu probably concentrated on large paintings. Mathieu’s work became coarser after Antoine and Louis died, providing further support to the notion of collaboration. It’s possible to ignore all of this, but it’s fascinating. (There’s also a hefty catalog, with multiple authors, that clearly is the definitive document in English.)
The Le Nains’ forays into Caravaggesque themes—card players and musicians—produced such stunning paintings as “The Card Players” (c. 1640-45), with three soldiers of different ages grouped around a table, bathed in darkness. The youngest, in brilliant red and a breastplate, seems caught midsentence, mouth open, gazing at someone unseen. (Cézanne greatly admired this painting, which is in the Musée Granet in his native Aix-en-Provence, and derived his own series of card players from it.) The card-playing trio is reprised as well-dressed young musicians in an enchanting picture ascribed to Antoine because of its small scale, vigorous brushwork, vivid red and blue robes, and some of those snaky tendrils. (A thrifty reuse of models and particular figures seems typical of the brothers.)
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. It’s as if they point to Cubism. No wonder Braque liked them.
Portraits and paintings of children, usually dancing or playing musical instruments, complete the selection, giving us the full spectrum of the work of this extraordinary trio of painters. There’s a lot to look at. Don’t miss the fine still lifes that punctuate the paintings, or the charming dogs, donkeys and occasional cats. The Le Nains were all terrific animal painters.