The three Le Nain brothers — Antoine, Louis and Mathieu — have been challenging art historians for almost 400 years. The French painters insisted on only using their family name and refused to distinguish their paintings from those of one another. They all signed their canvases “Le Nain.”
No one, now or during the 17th century, has been quite sure which brother painted the large altarpieces, who did the portraits or who was the skillful artist who painted the miniatures on copper.
The Le Nains had a thriving business in Paris in the mid-1600s, during the reign of Louis XIII. They were so busy, in fact, that they employed assistants to help complete commissions from aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church.
They were recognized as highly accomplished artists of their time, and were founding members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture launched in 1648, the same year that Antoine and Louis died within days of each other. Mathieu lived until 1677.
That is all that is known about the Le Nains and their painting business. Their birthdates are conjecture; Antoine’s and Louis’ deaths were mysterious — perhaps a communicable disease? And there is no record of marriages.
So little is known about them that their works are often credited simply as “by Le Nain.” In the years since Mathieu’s death, there have been only been three Le Nain art exhibitions. The last one in the U.S. was in 1947.
The Le Nains were woefully due some attention.
This is what I enjoy doing — looking at material that hasn’t been under the microscope and bringing it to the public’s attention and trying to present it in a captivating way.
Curator C.D. Dickerson III
“This is what I enjoy doing — looking at material that hasn’t been under the microscope and bringing it to the public’s attention and trying to present it in a captivating way,” he says.
He and Esther Bell, curator in charge of European paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, teamed up to organize “The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France.” The exhibition will be on view at the Kimbell through Sept. 11, then move to San Francisco and on to France.
In this exhibition, the curators, abetted by conservators Claire Barry and Elise Effmann Clifford, tried to ascertain who painted what, with a side dish of what the meaning is behind many of the paintings.
The Le Nains were not helpful. They were complicit in the attribution mystery. They wanted their name to stand as a collective brand.
“They wanted it to look like a family enterprise,” says Dickerson.
The problem in breaking up the Le Nain attribution to three artists is that no single painting bears a first name. There are no historical documents that identify a work as being by a specific brother, and there is no dated painting after 1648 that would have by necessity been by the hand of Mathieu.
There is no starting place.
So there are three rather distinct piles of photos, with the largest pile going to Mathieu, as he lived so much longer than his brothers, but even that can be a leaky argument.
The ‘Le Nain problem’
Even during their lifetimes they were cagey about it, including misdirection in a group portrait. In The Painter’s Studio, the painting includes five Le Nain brothers, the three painters and two older siblings, and a painted portrait of their father.
The man seated at the easel looks to be the youngest. He is looking at the viewer, typically the eye contact made by the self-portraitist. This must be Mathieu.
But on the right side of the frame is another painter holding a palette, and he, too, is looking at the viewer. This is believed to be Antoine, the oldest of the painters. The style of the brush work suggests this is a work by Antoine, but there is room for rebuttal.
There are no historical documents that identify a work as being by a specific brother, and there is no dated painting after 1648 that would have by necessity been by the hand of Mathieu.
Neither curator will take a definitive stand. Barry is more sure and will place it at the feet of Antoine.
Nevertheless, the catalog entry states: “The Painter’s Studio is emblematic of the ‘Le Nain problem.’ There is mounting evidence that they ran their business by intentionally obfuscating which of them painted which of their pictures. Given that avoidance of individual signatures, why would they make their identities clear in a group portrait?”
Thus goaded, Dickerson and Bell took extensive photographs of all the known Le Nain paintings and spread them out on a large table, and began to sort them by telling details. While this methodology is subjective in most instances, there were little tells.
One of the brothers would use small dabs of lapis lazuli blue paint in the sclera of the eyes. Two of the painters had distinctly different ways of painting hair — one liked it as if it were gelled into clumps, says Barry, while another one painted silken hair like it was a Pantene commercial.
One of the brothers truly reveled in the high contrast of light and shadow, often putting his model in strong side light so one side of the face would be well lit while the other would be lost in shadow. Another one had a difficult time with perspective.
They labeled the groups A, B and C, and after much discussion and comparison, attributed a pile of pictures to each.
Painter A (Antoine) liked electrified hair or gelled clumps, was not as adept with perspective and probably painted most, if not all, of the miniatures.
Painter B (Louis) was all about the light source and the drama created by shadows. He liked his children smiling, and was comfortable with loose brush work, especially when painting animals and stones.
Painter C (Mathieu) had the most diverse technique, which makes sense, as he lived the longest. He used blue to accent the cuticles on fingers, and in the eyes. Bell and Dickerson write that “Brother C had the most refined approach to feminine beauty.”
And even though they have built a case for each artist, they came up short on definitive attributions.
“Ultimately, we were unable to develop any sure test by which to determine whether a particular painting belonged to a particular brother’s group,” says Dickerson.
The brand name Le Nain will continue to be the way in which many of these paintings are identified.
Works with a message
While that is a bit of a disappointment, the research has given historians a great deal more to work with. The extensive 454-page catalog of the research is the most definitive word on the work of the Le Nains and probably will be for a generation, says Dickerson. Plus, all these beautiful paintings have been gathered, many of them never having been in this country, so that is a huge plus.
There are several huge altarpieces, including Saint Michael Dedicating His Arms to the Virgin, considered the Le Nains’ masterpiece. It is the first known instance of that subject.
Originally in Notre-Dame, it was moved to the church of the Minims in Nevers, France. That was torn down in 1895, and the altarpiece was relocated to the church of Saint-Pierre, also in Nevers, where it faded from history.
The church was damaged during World War II. It was during the repair period in the late 1950s that the altarpiece was discovered by Jacques Thuillier, a Le Nain scholar.
Mathieu is usually given credit for this splendid work, and because of its size, it is often thought he had assistance. After thorough examination on scaffolding in the dark recesses of the church, the curators and conservators are more convinced that the design and technique indicate it is from only one hand, and that it must solely be the work of Mathieu.
Altarpieces are a revelation. The people thought to be peasants in many of the paintings are not.
There are color shifts in this painting due to its age. St. Michael’s mantle, now a dreary brown, was originally red, and the Virgin’s mantle, also a dingy brown, was probably originally blue.
While there were paints that were more stable, they were much more expensive and it was not known how badly the colors would shift or fade over time. For a large work such as this, less-expensive pigments were used.
The altarpieces are a revelation, as the Le Nains are known for their paintings of peasants. This is also misleading, as the people thought to be peasants in many of the paintings are not. They are people from a moneyed class; they wear shoes, they have brightly colored garments, they are in rooms that have glass windows, and they are drinking from crystal wineglasses. While they may be dressed rather humbly, they are not peasants.
It has been believed for some time now that these paintings were a call to service, an entreaty to help the poor, as it was the Christian thing to do.
While there may be some needy people in the paintings, there were also people much more economically privileged, and they were not sharing a meal. Only bread and wine are visible, a direct reference to the Eucharist. These paintings are equivalent to a president wielding a hammer at a Habitat for Humanity job site.
After his brothers’ deaths, Mathieu seemed to lose enthusiasm for painting, and he focused on social climbing and acquiring property. He began to leave a documentary trail of legal maneuverings, mostly to his disadvantage.
The conclusion is that when all three Le Nains were painting as one in the 1630s and 1640s, they were formidable. Any attempt to separate them is frustratingly difficult, and while untidy academically, it is perhaps unnecessary. Their story is more interesting for its lack of resolution.
The gallery that illustrates the research that went into the exhibition is fascinating, and it spurs the visitor to question each painting with the clues that have been offered. But soon the sleuthing seems purely a scholastic exercise.
These works are so much more than the brush strokes and the way the eyes are highlighted.
The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France
- Through Sept. 11
- Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
- 817-332-8451; www.kimbellart.org