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Lives Veiled & Obscure – Le Nain Brothers

The Artists Studio

The above painting depicts a scene from an artist’s studio. The model is playing a lute with a dog seated at her feet; both of the lady and the dog are painted in a glowing light attracting everyone’s attention. But that is not where the centre of attention ought to be. There are three men in and around the studio; one who is seated on a stool directly in front of the model and seems to be totally engrossed in painting his subject; the second person is making a sketch on his notebook with his back to the audience; and the third person exiting the room through the doorway, somewhat undecidedly, stepping outside with an inclination with moving towards his right; the third man is wearing a red cloak and his back too is turned away from the viewer’s gaze. The three men could well be the three Le Nain brothers – Antoine, Louis and Mathieu.

Le Nain Brothers
The influential baroque painters of 17th century France, the brothers’ inspirations, lives and contribution to art are mostly based on speculations. The birthdates of Antoine Le Nain (circa 1599 – 1648) and Louis Le Nain’s (circa 1593 – 1648) are also speculative. Modern day art historians believe they were born early in 1600s. Mathieu Le Nain, the youngest of the three, was born in 1607 and lived until 1677. All three were born in or near Laon, France. By 1630 all three were busy working at the studio founded by the eldest brother Antoine. They also received continuous commissions and were sought after painters at the time. In 1648 all three were inducted into the Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture.

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
The style of painting was remarkably similar of all three brothers. They also signed their artwork as ‘Le Nain’ making it further difficult for experts to determine which one was painted by whom. Generally, the more eclectic portraits were attributed to Mathieu, the genre scenes to Louis and the miniatures to Antoine. But these attributions cannot be considered definitive. Their artwork focused on taking leaves out of the daily lives of peasants, children and common folks to depict on canvas. The only surviving religious painting that was completed by them is the Adoration of the Shepherds (National Gallery, London). It is possible that much of their work were destroyed in the turmoil of French revolution. It is also probable that they visited Italy to study the art of other great masters of the era. Their work showed influence of Dutch artist Pieter van Laer (circa 1599 – 1642).

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Antoine and Louis died within days of each other in 1648. Much of their lives are shrouded in mystery and obscurity. The only connections they have left with modern times are their works of art. Their way of painting humble yet gentle tales of life’s many precious moments is not only remarkable in its execution but also had a resounding effect on the generations of artists to come.

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