culture Art & Lifestyle

The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth Century France

The Crucifixion, c. 1645–50 Oil on canvas (Le Nain)

If spending time outside in summer is a prospect you’d rather avoid, perhaps you should consider an opportunity to devote a day to enjoying a good art exhibit. I have to say that unless you are a great art enthusiast, who frequently travels to France, you probably never had a chance to fully enjoy the talents of The Brothers Le Nain – painters of seventeenth century France. Now is the time to partake of this incredible pleasure. Kimbell Art Museum has brought the first major exhibition of the works of the Le Nain brothers to the United States. The installation was comprised of masterworks from private and public collections in Europe and North America. The major contributing loans came from the Musée du Louvre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, as well as other museums of France.

Antoine, Louis and Mathieu Le Nain were active in Paris in 1630s and 40s, and left a large legacy of works that we still enjoy today. I would like to invite you to browse the cool halls of the Kimbell and immerse yourself in the atmosphere of by-gone days. Faces of the past – both beautiful and haunting – look at us today, as if wondering what life is like now in the 21st century.

The Nativity of the Virgin, c. 1636 Oil on canvas (Le Nain)

The exhibition consists of three main categories of works. You will enjoy an array of devotional paintings: illustrations of stories from the Bible and depictions of particular saints. Their imagery is solemn and subdued, intended to encourage quiet meditation and reinforce faith. High contrast visual representation characterizes many of the religious works of the Le Nains’. The dramatic content of many painting is accentuated by the frequent usage of red color – a clear allusion to blood.

Another category presented at the exhibit is genre paintings revealing everyday life of the seventeenth century, especially life of the poor. While other painters of the time accentuated the depravity of lower classes, the paintings of the Le Nain brothers often had hidden religious references, such as bread and wine laid out on a white cloth, clearly providing a parallel with an altar. The theme of charity and compassion, as exemplary charitable attitudes, is evident throughout all genre scene masterworks, especially those depicting children. Rendered with sympathy and compassion, the paintings of the children are more colorful, more individualistic, and portrait-like. The children in them are almost invariably poor, but always exuding charm, interest and lively magnetism.

Saint Michael Dedicating His Arms to the Virgin, c. 1638 Oil on canvas (Le Nain)

The category of portraiture shows a number of paintings, clearly completed by order. It is evident from the documents that portraiture was the main source of income for the brothers; however, perhaps because of the fact that the paintings were retained by private individuals, most of them did not survive. If not for any other reason, you should visit the exhibit to see the portrait of the comte de Tréville – the real comte de Treville that we all know as a character of the famous Alexandre Dumas’ novel “The Three Musketeers”. It is a real treat!

You may be wondering why the brothers Le Nain are referred to as a group, and not individually. Although art historians try to differentiate between the styles of the three men, it is almost impossible to attribute individual works distinctly to one, or another. They all signed their works with their last name, and their lives in many aspects still remain a big mystery.

Visit to learn more.

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Photography by: Via The Kimbell Art Museum