Painters of Seventeenth-Century France Exhibition
Brings their Lives Mystery to San Francisco

By Iride Aparicio

Photos Courtesy: FAMSF

“The Painters Studio” l640-1645 BUTE COLLECTION. Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland.  The five Le Nain brothers & probably their father at the corner

SAN FRANCISCO, CA— Art lovers know that completing an oil painting requires thousands of brush strokes, but what the visitors at “THE BROTHERS Le NAIN, Painters of the Seventeenth-Century France” exhibition at the Legion of Honor fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, will never know is which brother’s brush was used to paint the strokes in each of the 65 pictures, two-thirds of the surviving output of their  work, shown.


They were born and lived in Laon, a small agricultural hilltop region of Picardy in Northern France where they owned a small farm.  Nobody knows their birth dates, and we know only that three of them:  ANTOINE, LOUIS, and MATHIEU,  were painters, and that neither one of the three ever married of had children. All the brothers lived in the same house, shared the same studio, and worked together in harmony.   

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“Tree Men and a Boy” l640-1645, An unfinished portrait of three of the brothers. National Gallery, London U.K.

The puzzle their work still creates for museums' curators, is that the few paintings they signed, are signed  “Le Nains,” (no first name or initials) so nobody has been able to identify, without a doubt, which of the three brothers  painted what.

Admiring their masterful pictures, the public today joins yesterday's public asking themselves: Was each picture painted by one of the brothers?  Did the three brothers  collaborate in painting a single work? Did each brother had an specialty, such as painting hands, or hair or eyes or animals, or backgrounds and added his “touch  to another brother’s painting at a later date?  Sadly, since they left no drawings or sketches of their pictures, we may never get the answers.


Since at that time there were no painters in Laon, this is another question that has no indisputable answer. The catalogue indicates that in “Histoire de Laon” (l726) its writer CLAUDE LELEU, mentions that the Le NAINS received their training from a “foreign painter” who instructed them, from a year,  in the rules of art before they moved to Paris where they attained “perfection.”  Yet, based on the Le Nains altar pieces painted for the Petitis Augustins, one can see that they were already much to accomplished to have been students with only a  year of training.   The other conjecture is that the “foreign teacher” may have been Fleming painter PHILLIPE de CHAMPAGNE, but again no confirmation.

Yet, there are records indicating that in 1630, when their mother passed away the brothers moved to Paris and lived in Fauborug Saint-Germain-des-Pres, (an aristocratic district) where they remained until the death. Two of them in the same year, l648. (ANTOINE who was close to 50, and LOUIS who was around 48).  MATHIEU, now alone, remained in the same house until he died in l677, about the age of seventy. Maybe, the brothers learned their art while living in Paris.


Through the years, a careful analysis of Le Nains paintings, had made it clear that we are dealing with the paint strokes of three different painters. So, based on a systematic technical study of each painting and data based on style and technique, Co-Curator C.D. DICKERSON III, from the National Gallery of Arts in Washington, D.C. and Curator ESTHER BELL (FAMSF Curator in charge of European Paintings)  proposed for this exhibition, a three part diagram  of the 65 exhibited paintings in which they offer their best judgement as to the group each of the paintings belong in relation to each one of the three brothers. Their input could be read on the exhibition’s wall.

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This Composite of all their pictures gives the audience a way to try to identify their painters based on careful study of each picture.         Photo courtesy: ANTONIO GADONG

Their diagram divides the paintings shown in the exhibition into three groups:

Brother A
The small paintings may be the work of this brother. He had a peculiar way of rendering hair and did not have a good command of perspective and space.

Brother B
Shows intensity and sensibility on those painted. Recurrence of children grining. He also uses a distinctive brushwork to render animals and stonework.

Group C

(Since this group of paintings are not designed to a brother, they may include paintings painted by the three of them working together)
The painting in this group are the most diverse. They show a wide range of styles, and offer us the opportunity to discern the style’s differences. The painter (or painters) used blue to accent the cuticles, the eyes, and to render details in clothing.  In this group most of the background figures are blurred. When paintings female persons, the painter (or painters) have a refined approach.  

Religious and Private Devotional

Perhaps, inspired by the Flemish artists that were arriving in Paris around l630, the brothers adapted the conventions of the genre, painting pictures with the religious meaning of charity and poverty, that was prevalent in Paris at that time.  In many of their scenes we can see white tablecloths covering the tables, the bread and the wine, the symbols of communion in the Catholic Church.  In this Genre, Le NAINS produced magnificent Altar Pieces based on Saints or bible stories that hung in the churches, such as the picture of The Nativity of the Virgin (shown) which hangs on a wall in Notre Dame, in Paris, France.

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The Nativity of the Virgin, l636

In the Religious Genre, the brothers also painted “Private Devotionals” which were paintings, smaller in size, intended for quiet meditations which may have hung on the walls of wealthy Parisians’ homes.

Since their family earned income by leasing land to peasants, in l664 the brothers started painting peasants while the painters at the time were painting pictures of the nobility and mythological heroes. Because of that, their critics called their pictures “contaminated by realism, and the brothers “The painters of Poor People.”.

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“The Resting Horsemen” Victoria and Albert Museum” London, U.K.

The Le NAINS painted also several portraits, Allegory, and Mythology and as the Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, MAX HOLLEIN said in his Press Conference introduction, "The Le NAINS painted the world around them with such realism that looking at their pictures make us feel as if we could step into their environment, at any moment. "

Eight museums in American Cities hold paintings of the Le NAINS but this exhibition is the first, since the one held at THE GRAND PALAIS in Paris in l978-l979, dedicated exclusively to the paintings of Le NAINS, whose lives continue shrouded in mystery.

L-R MAX HOLLEIN, Director of FAMSF museums, FAMSF Curator in charge of European Paintings ESTHER BELL and Co-Curator C.D. DIKERSON, National Gallery of Art.                                                        Photo By: ANTONIO GADONG

The planning of the exhibition was done by COLIN B. BAILEY, former Director of the FAM museums in S.F. and PIERRE ROSEMBERG the doyen of the Le Nain Studies, and organized by C.D.DICKERSON III at the Kimbell Art Museum (Now the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.) and  ESTHER BELL at the Fine Arts Museum of S.F. 

The exhibition was organized by the FINE ARTS MUSEUMS of SAN FRANCISCO (FAMSF). the KIMBELL ART Museum and the MUSÉE du LOUVRE-LENS and presented by Sponsor DIANE B WILSEY, Curator’s Circle: The BERNARD OSHER FOUNDATION, Conservator’s Circle: Mr. LIONEL SAUVAGE. Benefactor’s Circle: PHOEBE COWLES and ROBERT GIRARD and supported by an indemnity from the FEDERAL COUNCIL OF THE ARTS AND THE HUMANITIES.

For their support the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco express their appreciation to Mr. LIONEL SAUVAGE, Mr. PHOEBE COWLES y Mr. ROBERT GIRARD

"THE BROTHERS Le NAIN Seventeenth-Century France" Exhibition will be at the LEGION OF HONOR Lincoln Park 100 34th Avenue until January 29, 2017. For information call 415-750-3600 or online to www.legionofhonor.org