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The Le Nain Mystery

mercredi 22 mars 2017

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  • L'Abreuvoir, Maître aux Béguins (milieu 17e siècle), musée du Louvre
    L'Abreuvoir, Abraham Willemsens (middle of 17th century). Musée du Louvre
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Gérard Blot
  • Les Mendiants, Sébastien Bourdon, musée du Louvre
    The Beggars, Sébastien Bourdon. Musée du Louvre
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
  • Les Joueurs de trictrac, Mathieu Le Nain, musée du Louvre
    The Tric-Trac Players, Mathieu Le Nain. Musée du Louvre
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle
  • Le Reniement de Saint Pierre, Antoine Le Nain, musée du Louvre
    Saint Peter's Denial, Antoine Le Nain. Musée du Louvre
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle
  • La famille de la crémière, Louis Le Nain, Saint-Petersbourg, musée de l'Hermitage
    The Milkmaid's Family, Louis Le Nain. Saint Petersburg, Hermitage Museum
    Photo (C) Archives Alinari, Florence, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Fratelli Alinari
  • Portraits dans un intérieur, Antoine Le Nain, musée du Louvre
    Peasant Family in an Interior, Antoine Le Nain. Musée du Louvre
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado
  • La Vierge au verre de vin, Mathieu Le Nain, Rennes , musée des Beaux-Arts
    The Virgin with a Wine Glass, Mathieu Le Nain. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes
    Photo (C) MBA, Rennes, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Manuel Salingue
  • Préparatifs à la leçon de danse, Antoine Le Nain, Allemagne, Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle
    Preparation for the Dance, Antoine Le Nain. Germany, Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle
    Photo (C) BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Annette Fischer/ Heike Kohler
  • La charrette ou le retour de la fenaison, Louis Le Nain, musée du Louvre
    The Farm Wagon, Louis Le Nain. Musée du Louvre
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux
  • Le Marchand de pains et les porteuses d'eau, Jean Michelin, musée du Louvre
    The Bread Seller and Water Carriers, Jean Michelin. Musée du Louvre
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado
  • La Tabagie ou le corps de garde, Mathieu Le Nain, musée du Louvre
    Smokers in an Interior, Mathieu Le Nain. Musée du Louvre
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux
  • La Tabagie ou le corps de garde, Mathieu Le Nain,musée du Louvre
    Smokers in an Interior, Mathieu Le Nain. Musée du Louvre
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux
  • Le Concert, Mathieu Le Nain, Laon, musée municipal
    The Concert, Mathieu Le Nain. Musée municipal de Laon
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski
  • Le Repas de l'artisan, Maître aux Béguins (milieu du 17e siècle)
    Le Repas de l'artisan, Abraham Willemsens (middle of 17th century). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes
    Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais / René-Gabriel Ojéda

French 17th century painting is spotlighted at the Louvre this spring. While Paris pays fitting tribute to the great Valentin de Boulogne, its northern branch, the Louvre-Lens, puts on a retrospective dedicated to the Le Nain brothers.

The venue chosen for these artists should come as no surprise because, almost forty years ago, they were honoured in Paris in the memorable 1978 exhibition devoted to the magnitude of their genius. This new exhibition provides a dual-fold opportunity: on the one hand it performs an inventory of our knowledge concerning one of the most fascinating enigmas of French painting, and on the other hand it pays homage, in the North of the country, to these artists who were almost “local children” and who, despite their predominantly Parisian career, remained strongly attached to the rurality of their Picardy roots as depicted in a large part of their art.

The Le Nain Mystery

Mystery shrouds the Le Nain Brothers, who paradoxically were the most talented and rightly renowned artists of their time, authors of many paintings which are now icons of French art and two or three of which are ranked among global masterpieces.

The crux of the mystery concerns above all the respective role of each brother in their common work: the corpus is heterogeneous, although main themes seem perhaps to reveal the dominant personality of one or the other. Some works – and this does not make the approach to the matter any easier – were probably created by several hands in the workshop they shared, leading to paintings signed by the surname only,  Le Nain.

These works present real challenges for art historians and are the very essence of the “Le Nain Mystery”: a real “textbook case” for the discipline with a subtle blend of enigma and  connoisseurship  where historical knowledge is intimately entwined with the sensitivity of aesthetic judgement.

One workshop…

There were three Le Nain brothers: Antoine, the eldest, then Louis and lastly Mathieu. They were all born in Laon between 1600 and 1610. Following a youth and education of which we know little, they moved to Paris in 1629, to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where painters from the provinces and abroad lived, unlinked to any guilds. At the time, only Antoine was acknowledged as a Master and workshop head; his two brothers simply worked alongside him.

Very quickly their joint production, which covers a period of around 20 years, became successful. The Le Nain brothers practised all genres: religious or mythological painting, individual or group portraits, genre art, in short. In the 1630s, orders for religious paintings seemed to dominate. The brothers then turned to portraits and a new spirit of peasant genre art, showing the poorest of people with unprecedented human truth and dignity, which took up the principles of Dutch group portrait painting.  Their art comes close to perfection in these works.  The masterpieces date from the 1640s, for example the Peasant Families, the Forge or the Farm Wagon displayed in the Louvre, which show, with absolute accuracy, the simple and spiritual image of the peasant situation: a truth that frees itself of the anecdote of the time and of the century to become timeless and universal.

But three brothers…

While workshop production was joint, it was still the work of three different individuals. Historians have striven to identify and isolate them, because our era imbued with individualism (an essential imperative for the expression of a genius!) struggles to cope with the vision of “collective art”, of a workshop, despite this structure being the dominant standard of all artistic production of the time.

Three figures thus seem to appear: Antoine, the eldest, was probably the author of small group portraits, with a slightly archaic style and awkward proportions, of scenes of children too, with a dainty hand but also free and vivid in terms of colour. Louis is considered to be the real artistic genius in the family, the author of the “grand style” of the Le Nain brothers. We attribute to him, alone or sometimes with the collaboration of his brothers, all of the most ambitious works, the most innovative or the most accomplished: the peasant scenes, naturally, but also the mythological scenes, which demonstrate sensuality, or the best portraits. His style is sober, powerful, often with piercing gravity, in shades of brown, green, grey and blue. Mathieu is the most disputed figure in the family and opinions concerning him diverge, sometimes widely. The fact that he survived his two brothers, who both died in 1648, does not seem to go in his favour: enriched by the workshop's reputation and the succession of his brothers, Mathieu seems to have given his best – we attribute to him a skilful manner, a sense of poses and a more varied colour range – for the common work.

After 1648 and until his death in 1677, he seems to have lost everything that made up his qualities in the common workshop and from then on practised a more bastardised form of art, without the need to maintain a position or artistic reputation. At the same time, he sought civilian and military honours, and even nobility.

Like his brothers, Mathieu enjoyed a reputation as a portraitist; however, few individual portraits by the Le Nain brothers have reached us considering the significant part they played in their production. Naturally, genre art and collective portraits bear witness to their skill in this field, in which the naturalness and the truth of the expressions reveal the models’ workshop poses.

But the mystery surrounding the Le Nain brothers does not stop there and beyond the assumed diversity of their personalities, the veil of mystery also shrouds many of their compositions. Why this particular interest for peasant scenes treated with such dense and new empathy, in silent poses and eyes that search the viewer; why the unusual blend of popular elements and more bourgeois elements that never occurs in reality; why, finally, this over-abundant presence of children, sometimes clothed pitifully, sometimes in a more bourgeois style, all in the same painting? Some see the particular empathy of the Le Nain brothers towards charitable actions which were appearing in favour of the poor in these years of trouble and war, such as those of Saint Vincent-de-Paul for the numerous orphans of the time.

The steps to recognition

Although not entirely forgotten, the Le Nain brothers owe their return to the limelight to the writer Champfleury, himself from Laon, a friend of Courbet and an apostle of Realism. He saw in these artists precursors, painters raising awareness of the miserable reality of the peasant situation in their time. Nothing could be further from the truth than this perfect historical misinterpretation; however, the underlying concept would persist until the early 20th century, reaching its peak in 1934 when two exhibitions – Le Nain at the Petit Palais and Les Peintres de la Réalité at the Orangerie – due to the work of P. Jamot and Ch. Sterling – honoured the definitive popular rehabilitation of the Le Nain brothers and G. de La Tour.

These exhibitions also seemed to endorse a false dichotomy which opposed an official 17th century art  – that of the Academy and classic idealism – to another, more humanist and more sincere, rooted in the popular soul. This is wrong, as we have seen, and “Art of Reality” does not exist as a doctrine for our 17th century. On the contrary, this current contributes to trends and tastes related to Flemish tradition, both among bourgeois enthusiasts and the powerful of the time. The Le Nain brothers were fully integrated into the official system, they were sought after, well-known and enjoyed a grand reputation and endorsement from high levels for private and religious orders.

It is in this sense that the works of J. Thuillier were decisive. His Le Nain exhibition in 1978 was the culmination of this work, offering the public, which came in masses, the first true view of the three brothers’ art.

Different opinions about the “Le Nain Mystery”

The exhibition in Lens brought together over 70 works of art by the Le Nain brothers (a remarkable effort for these artists for whom today we can only account for around one hundred paintings, whereas their total production must have been over 2,000!), alongside the paintings of a few followers or imitators, sometimes including a few artists not without their own value, such as Jean Michelin or Maître des Cortèges, and who, from the 18th century, were negotiated under the name of Le Nain for purely lucrative reasons.

Thus, beyond the learned hypotheses and academic debates, it is up to the visitor – outside all derisory speeches – to directly confront the implacable truth of the works, the ineffable power of their humanity, the silent depth of their spirituality, in their own personal dialogue.

Because, by forging one's own opinion, the enigma of the “Le Nain Mystery” will be solved.


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