Antoine (c. 1600 – 1648), Louis (c. 1600 / 1603 – 1648), and Mathieu (1607 – 1677) Le Nain remain among the most mysterious painters in art history. Active in Paris during the 1630s and 1640s, they are famous chiefly for their images of the poor and of rural life. An excellent example, entitled Peasant Interior, is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art. The painting shows three figures in ragged dress sitting around a barrel that serves as a table. A white tablecloth covers the barrel, which is set with a full plate of food and a spoon. At center is a woman holding a spindle. Her companions are a boy with a pitcher and a bearded man who rests a wide-brimmed hat on his knee. In the background, a girl tends to a fire. The immediate question is what is going on in the scene. Has one of the Le Nains simply erected his easel before a group of peasant friends and painted the reality he saw before him? Among the reasons to think not are the figures’ lost gazes, which introduce a strange note of quietude into the scene. Is there not a more complex, even spiritual, message at play?
During my residency at CASVA I thought about these questions as part of preparations for an international exhibition on the Le Nains that I am helping to curate. The exhibition, which is scheduled for 2016 – 2017, will open at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth before traveling to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Musée du Louvre-Lens. At CASVA I concentrated on drafting my catalog essay, a biographical introduction to the artists. I chose the subject because the extensive literature on the Le Nains includes no synthetic biography of the three brothers. By integrating the known documents with the visual record, I have shown that it is possible to construct a seamless narrative of their lives in which their enigmatic paintings of the poor and rural life can be more logically situated. In the course of my research it has become increasingly apparent that the Le Nains harbored high social aspirations and were closely connected to members of the royal court as well as to other elite circles. These discoveries led me to reevaluate the importance formerly placed on the artists’ rural origins in Picardy. Their social network in Paris seems in fact a more fertile field for research.
One member of that network was Gaston de Renty (1611 – 1649), a wealthy and fanatical Catholic who may have been one of the people responsible for encouraging the Le Nains to undertake their genre paintings. My residency at CASVA afforded me the time to read de Renty’s vast correspondence, which makes clear his deep concern for the poor and his strong belief in charity. His letters also reveal an admiration for the peasants who maintained his several estates in Brittany and near Paris. Through the lens of de Renty, who inspired numerous followers, paintings such as Peasant Interior come into sharper focus. This is almost certainly a painting about charity, which helps explain why the man at left bears some of the traditional attributes of a pilgrim, such as the staff by his legs, the wide- brimmed hat on his knee, and the beggar’s bowl tucked inside his mantle. The woman and boy, even though they themselves have little, must be offering him food — just as de Renty, with his much greater resources, is known to have fed the poor of Paris.
The mystery of the Le Nains also extends to attribution. We still cannot be certain which of the brothers executed which of their paintings. They did not use their first names when signing, and no document or contemporary source has yet to come to light that identifies a known work as being by a specific brother. A goal of the exhibition is to make progress on solving the problem through a campaign of technical study. While at CASVA, I was joined by the two conservators who are directing the research, Claire Barry of the Kimbell and Elise Effmann Clifford of San Francisco. Working with Elizabeth Walmsley, senior painting conservator at the National Gallery of Art, we were able to spend precious time examining the two Le Nains in the Gallery’s collection. Beyond close looking with magnifying glasses and microscopes, we were able to study the paintings with the aid of x- radiography and infrared reflectography. The resulting observations have become part of a growing database of technical information. We hope that it will reveal patterns in technique that may help resolve issues of attribution and chronology.