Not until the major exhibition mounted in Paris in 1978 was it possible to establish a convincing body of works securely attributed to the three Le Nain brothers--Antoine (c. 1600-1648), Louis (c. 1600/1603-1648), and Mathieu (1607-1677)--and to separate the work of their followers and imitators. Jacques Thuillier, organizer of Les frères Le Nain (Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1978-1979), resisted the temptation to distinguish the hands of the three Le Nain and did not assign first names in his catalogue. Pierre Rosenberg, in his 1993 catalogue of the Le Nains' work, took the opportunity and challenge provided by the exhibition, assimilated the resulting literature, and assigned works to each brother, in some cases with inevitable reservations. The three Le Nain shared a Paris studio, and although some works are signed and dated from 1641 onward, it is only as "Lenain," without a first name.
The three Le Nain brothers were born in or near Laon, Picardy, on the French border with the Spanish Netherlands. They are reported to have learned the rudiments of their craft from a foreign painter in Laon. At some point in the late 1620s, the brothers left for Paris, where they settled in the quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In 1629 Antoine, probably the eldest, is recorded as having been received as a master painter in the corporation of painters in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, setting up a studio that accommodated apprentices and his two brothers as assistants. A series of decorations executed for the chapel of the convent of the Petits-Augustins survives and seems to be an early collective work (Rosenberg 1993, nos. 1-4). While little documentation remains, it can be surmised that by the early 1630s the brothers enjoyed a solid reputation in the capital. In 1632 Antoine is recorded as having received the prestigious official portrait commission for the aldermen of Paris (location unknown). Antoine seems to have specialized in portraits and genre scenes. In 1633 Mathieu was commissioned to decorate the Chapel of the Virgin in the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (location unknown), and other church commissions followed, including Notre Dame. In the same year he was made peintre ordinaire de la ville de Paris, perhaps with responsibility for the conservation of the city's paintings. Mathieu, who lived considerably longer than his brothers, was in demand as a religious painter, but some mythologies may also be attributed to him. Reportedly in the early or mid-1640s he painted portraits of the queen, Anne of Austria (1601-1666), and of Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661) (both location unknown), and he seems to have executed a significant number of genre scenes. Louis painted some religious works, but mainly his output was in genre paintings.
The bulk of the three brothers' work, however, was devoted to depicting genre scenes of peasant life, a naturalistic strain in French painting that had few precedents. Their increased production of genre scenes, some bearing dates, after around 1640 evidences a thriving demand for this type of painting in the burgeoning art market of seventeenth-century Paris. Nothing is known about their early provenance, however, so we have no idea of their clientele or how these scenes were understood or appreciated. All three brothers were founding members of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1648, the year in which both Louis and Antoine succumbed to what is believed to have been a contagious disease. Mathieu continued his artistic career, although no works from this later period are dated. He was received into the Order of Saint Michael in 1662 but expelled in 1663; in 1666 he was imprisoned for inappropriately wearing the collar of the order.
[Gail Feigenbaum, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 317.]
Thuillier, Jacques. Les frères Le Nain. Exh. cat. Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1978.
Rosenberg, Pierre. Tout l'oeuvre peint des Le Nain. Paris, 1993.
Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: 317.