Four Figures at a Table by le Nain Brothers

Four Figures at a Table by the le Nain Brothers (c.1643)

If I was an artist, which sadly I am not, I would always be sure to sign my name somewhere on my canvas after I had completed the work.  It would be a matter of pride.  It would be a matter of recognition even if it had not been the greatest work I had ever painted.  Today I am going to look at a painting which does not have an individual signature upon it.  It is not that it hasn’t been signed.  It is just that the signature is a kind of joint one, one signifying collaboration and it makes me wonder why that has been done.  Is it that the painting is a collaboration of three artists who each painted part of the work?  Was a decision made by the three painters that none of them should take more praise and recognition than the other two?  It is very strange.  My trio of painters are three brothers.  They are the Le Nain brothers. Louis who was born in 1593, Antoine  was born in 1599, although some art historians put his and Antoine’s birth date as “circa 1600”and the youngest, Mathieu, was born in 1607 and between them they created many amazing  genre and religious scenes as well as portraits.  Only 15 dated works survive, all executed between 1641 and 1648 and simply signed “Le Nain” but without a Christian name.

Their mother was Jeanne Prévost and their father was Isaac Le Nain who held the important position of Sergent Royal au Grenier à Sel in Laon.   The family were moderately prosperous and around 1615 had purchased a farm and some vineyards.  Historical records show that the le Nain brothers received their first artistic education from an “artiste étranger” which could mean that their tutor was from out of town or it could mean that he was a foreigner.  Unfortunately any of their early work, which had been kept in Laon like the fate of a lot art, would have been destroyed in the lead up to and during the French Revolution.

Sometime around 1629 the le Nain brothers moved to Saint Germain-des-Prés, a suburb of Paris and set up a studio, which because of its location, was outside the control and regulations of the Paris Guild.  Their business soon became very successful and they received many commissions, especially for their portraiture.  Surviving records show that in 1629, Antoine was admitted as master in the Corporation of Painters in Saint Germain and there is mention of a large commission he received from the Bureau de la Ville de Paris.  It is also recorded that Mathieu received many religious painting commissions and that in 1633, he was appointed painter to the city of Paris.  However the records mention little about the third brother, Louis.

All three brothers attended the initial meeting of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture held in Paris on March 1st 1648 and were admitted to the Society as founder members.  Sadly, two months later, both Antoine and Louis were dead.  They died within two days of each other in May 1648, probably of some highly contagious disease.  They are buried at the Saint Sulpice church in Paris, recently made famous for the church at the centre of the Da Vinci Code film.

There is another unusual fact about the brothers, or to be more precise, the surviving brother Mathieu.  Within ten years of the death of his two siblings, Mathieu’s financial situation had vastly improved and his social standing in the community had also risen.  Mathieu’s social pretensions also increased and soon he was referring to himself as Lord of La Jumelle, which was the name of his parents’ small family farm back in Laon.  More was to follow as four years later Louis XIV awarded him the collar of the Order of St Michel, a form of knighthood.   This honour was only usually bestowed on those of noble birth and not an unprivileged painter like Mathieu le Nain.  So why did the king bestow this award on him?  There is no definite answer to this although he had spent a lot of time as a military engineer which may have contributed to his “award for services in the armies of the King”.  However what is more strange is that a year later the king took back the award but Mathieu refused to stop wearing the regalia and in 1666 he was imprisoned for the offence of sporting the symbols of office when he wasn’t entitled to.   Historians have put forward the view that Mathieu had friends in “high places” which resulted in his initial award but he also had an equal number of enemies in the same high places and they persuaded the king to strip Mathieu of his honour.

Mathieu le Nain died in 1667 and was laid to rest with his brothers at the church of Saint Sulpice, Paris.

It has been difficult, if not impossible, to attribute certain works of art to certain brothers and the closest they have come is the belief that the small paintings on copper had been done by Antoine and the larger more austere peasant scenes have been done by Louis.  However it is agreed that this is not a foolproof method of deciding which brother did which painting.  It is also strange to note that because Mathieu lived on almost thirty years after his siblings died in 1648, any paintings with the le Nain signature after that date, could be attributed to him.  However there has never been a painting signed “le Nain” later than 1647.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Four Figures at a Table and was completed around 1643.  This small (44cms x 33cms) oil on canvas work is housed in the National Gallery in London.   The strong light emanates from the left of the scene and draws our attention to the darkness of the background in contrast to the pure white of the cloth and the cap worn by the mother.   There is a feeling of serenity and composure about the setting.  There is a sombre dignity to this painting of a peasant family at the meal table. Their clothes are of brownish-grey shades, which is in stark contrast to the white of the tablecloth.  I have featured many Dutch and Flemish paintings depicting peasants and in most cases there is a certain amount of squalor and drunken revelry associated with the scene.  Here it is quite different.  Here before us the le Nain brothers have given us a scene of tranquil dignity.  There is no sign of mockery with regards the characters depicted and there is no moralising symbolism.  This is simply a painting which exudes the quiet composure of the less well off.  Some art historians would have us believe that this is a portrayal of the Three Ages.  The old woman, hand on table, with her careworn face and look of resignation in contrast to the young woman, maybe her daughter, who is seated to the left, clay jug in hand,  with her fresh-looking face looking out at us questioningly and in the background the tiny girl staring out at us with wide-eyed fervour.

The under-painting

Strangely, when this painting was subjected to X-radiography in 1978 it was discovered that there was a bust-length portrait of a bearded man in a ruff wearing clothes which date back to the 1620’s, painted underneath the current work.  The X-radiograph exposed the man’s face and details of his costume with exceptional clearness. The underlying portrait, seen when the canvas was turned through 90 degrees, was thickly painted in colours containing a high proportion of lead white.  This colouration of the under-painting, in contrast to that of the final painting with its relatively thinly painted in colours containing little or no lead white, meant that it showed up strongly in the X-radiograph.   Why the original work was painted over by the brothers is not known and will never be known but where there once was a fashionable and wealthy citizen looking out at us, he has been replaced by four, less wealthy people sat at their meal table.

The subject of their painting, peasants, was an unusual subject for French painters at the time, most of whom were fixated with mythological allegories, and the “heroic deeds” of the king.  The paintings of peasant life by the three brothers have a realism unique in 17th-century French art.   However poverty and how to treat the poor was intensely debated especially by the Catholic movement in Paris.  It was much later, during the years preceding the French Revolution, that paintings of simple country life became popular.  So which of the le Nain brothers painted this work?  Or is this painting yet another collaboration by the three brothers?  We will probably never know the answer to that question but we do know that it was well received by the French Academy in 1648.