So, imagine you’re a Seventeenth Century Parisian and you’re looking for a little something for the palace wall. Are you going to settle for some no-name artist? Or are you going to hire the guys who just installed the new altarpiece in Notre Dame Cathedral? You got that right! You’re going to pick the Brothers Le Nain.
How the Le Nains Spelled Success
The most frustrating thing about the current exhibition at the Kimbell is no one really knows very much about Antoine, Louis and Mathieu Le Nain. Oh, the curators can give you birth dates and show you a few paintings, but in truth, they can’t tell you much about how three guys came in from a small French burg and became the Toast of Paris. However, art voices spend a lot of words speculating about it.
The forty painting on exhibit at the Kimbell right now demonstrate the talent of this trio of brother artists, but talent alone doesn’t get you gigs like altarpieces for Notre Dame or portraits of bishops and musketeers. (Yes, those musketeers; the ones in the novel.) However, I do suggest you hurry over there and see the exhibit, because whatever their formula for success was, these guys knew how to paint.
Who Painted What?
After listening carefully to every word of the audio guide (included with the $14 price of admission) the one thing I can tell you for sure is the art world is very frustrated by their inability to identify which brother painted which painting. The Brothers didn’t sign their names to their work and while they may have kept some journal of who painted what, that log didn’t make it to modern times. Can you imagine the auction price if it ever came to light?
While talent certainly played a role, I think it may have been the brothers ability to play a variety of roles which brought their fame. Want a portrait? We’ll paint you up a humdinger. Need an altarpiece? We’ll go all mystical and ethereal for you. Need a little genre painting? Well, we do great peasant pictures. I can just hear one brother calling out to the others, “We got a few Brits on the way! Put out the Dutch look-alike paintings!”
The Le Nain Genius
Beyond the fact their oeuvre contains a variety of styles (which may or may not be related to which brother painted any given picture), I found several things of interest in the exhibit. My favorite observation was the presence of various models in more than one painting. There’s a mop-headed boy who plays both angel and peasant. A chubby cheeked girl made a merry appearance in a number of scenes. Even a donkey in an altarpiece is copied exactly in another painting. I’d like to spend more time with a catalog in hand making comparisons, but since it costs $75 I probably won’t be availing myself of one. I may spend time on sites like WikiArt, though, scoping out the faces and looking for repeats.
For another thing, I was struck by how religious 17th century Parisians were. It’s given altar pieces will be religious, but whether the Le Nains were painting soldiers cheating at cards or peasant children dancing by the fire, they included something religious. Whether the Le Nains themselves were religious or they were merely pandering to the tastes of their patrons, there is no way to know, but either way, that little something for your castle wall needed to have a Sister of Charity, symbols of communion or a little morality tale – or you’d look elsewhere.
Perhaps most interesting was their most frequent subject was peasants. Apparently, that was the going thing at the time. The Brothers captured them doing all kinds of things and there was always group of them. I painted a mental picture of the Seventeenth Century French Court singing a chorus of “What Do the Simple Folk Do” from Camelot, the musical. Meanwhile, out in the streets, the actual peasants were desperately trying to keep food on the table and shoes were out of the question. Perhaps if helping the peasants had been as popular as hanging pictures of them on the wall, there might be a few less to paint.
Regardless of the matters of taste or which brother painted which piece, I think you’ll enjoy The Brothers Nain. It will be at the Kimbell until September. Come back next week and I’ll tell you where we went to eat after the exhibit.