The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France

Le Nain, "Peasants before a House," ca. 1640

Le Nain, "Peasants before a House," ca. 1640. Oil on canvas. 21 3/4 x 26 5/8 in. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase

October 8, 2016–January 29, 2017 | Legion of Honor

SAN FRANCISCO—The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are pleased to announce The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France, the first major exhibition in the United States devoted to Antoine (ca. 1598–1648), Louis (ca. 1600/1605–1648) and Mathieu (ca. 1607–1677) Le Nain, who created some of the most beautiful and enigmatic works of art in history. Organized in conjunction with the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Musée du Louvre-Lens in France, this presentation features more than forty of the brothers’ masterpieces and spans their full artistic achievement.

Active in Paris during the 1630s and 1640s, the brothers Le Nain were among the earliest members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and are considered, alongside Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, and Georges de La Tour, some of the finest artists of their era. Painters of altarpieces, portraits, and allegories, they are most renowned for their poignant scenes of peasants. In these paintings, men and women stare with deadpan expressions, mothers cradle their infants with a natural intimacy, and children dance and play music with a lack of pretension.

The brothers’ work was rediscovered in the 19th century by such art critics as Champfleury, who championed them as painters of reality, and they influenced many artists including Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet and Pablo Picasso. The Le Nains were admired for their sympathetic and affecting portrayals of hard-working laborers in the fields or in the city. The Fine Arts Museums’ Peasants before a House is one of the finest examples of their treatment of these subjects. Similar to other works by the brothers, this genre scene is marked by its contemplative mood and its pronounced details.

“The brothers Le Nain have not been the subjects of a major exhibition since 1979, when more than 300,000 visitors first came to celebrate their masterful paintings at the Grand Palais in Paris,” says Max Hollein, Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “In fact, San Francisco is one of only nine cities in the United States to boast a public collection with a painting by the brothers.”

Despite their immense talents and extraordinary imaginations, the brothers remain largely unknown to American audiences today. This comprehensive presentation of many of their masterpieces offers new scholarship concerning the authorship, dating and meaning of the brothers’ art. As their works were not individually signed, assigning a specific painting to a specific brother has long been a matter for debate. Extensive new research has been conducted to address questions of authorship through direct comparisons of key works from the brothers’ oeuvre. Visitors will have the rare opportunity to contemplate these pieces side by side in the Legion of Honor’s galleries. The exhibition also includes a substantial technical study conducted by painting conservators at the Fine Arts Museums and the Kimbell, detailing the materials and working methods of the brothers.

In their day, the brothers were celebrated not only as genre painters, but also as portraitists and painters of religious subjects. One of their most important devotional works, Nativity of the Virgin, an altarpiece from Notre-Dame Cathedral, will be on display for the first time in the United States. This touching image of a nurse feeding the Virgin Mary, while her mother Anne recovers from childbirth in the background, is indicative of the brothers’ method of combining elevated subjects with palpable intimacy. The exhibition also includes important loans from the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London.

“Although Antoine, Louis and Mathieu Le Nain are not well known to the American public, this long-overdue presentation will reveal the power and mystery of their paintings, which are among the finest of France’s Golden Age,” says Esther Bell, Curator in Charge of European Paintings for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 

Collectors of the brothers’ paintings included Anne of Austria, Cardinal Mazarin and the captain of the royal musketeers, le comte de Tréville—one of the inspirations for Alexandre Dumas’s celebrated novel The Three Musketeers. An ambitious and meticulously rendered portrait of Tréville—who is conveyed as youthful, confident and nobly outfitted—will be on view in the exhibition for the first time in more than sixty years.

About the Artists
Unmarried and childless, the brothers lived and worked together in a tightly interwoven manner to produce some of the most enigmatic and arresting paintings of their time. Born in the small town of Laon, in the Picardy region of France, they were reportedly trained by an unknown artist who may have been traveling through their hometown. Very little is known about the brothers’ artistic activity until 1629, when Antoine Le Nain is documented as a painter in the guild of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris. Recognized by their peers as leaders in the contemporary artistic landscape, all three were elected members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in the French capital.

Media image gallery of exhibition images available here.

legionofhonor.famsf.org/lenain | @legionofhonor | #lenain

Visiting | Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco Open 9:30 a.m.– 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays–Sundays. Open select holidays; closed most Mondays.

Tickets start at $20
For adults, tickets start at $20 and include general admission; discounts are available for seniors, students, and youths. Special Premium tickets are also available. Members and children 5 and under are free. Prices subject to change, more information is available at legionofhonor.famsf.org/legion/visiting

Exhibition Catalogue
Featuring sixty-five key paintings highlighting the artists’ full range of production, including altarpieces, private devotional paintings, portraits, and the poignant images of peasants for which the brothers are best known, this illustrated volume presents new research by leading scholars in the field concerning the authorship, dating, and meaning of the works. Also groundbreaking are the results of a technical study of the paintings, which constitutes a major contribution to the scholarship on the Le Nain brothers.

Exhibition Organization
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Kimbell Art Museum, and Musée du Louvre-Lens. Curator’s Circle: The Bernard Osher Foundation. Conservator’s Circle: Mr. Lionel Sauvage. Benefactor’s Circle: Phoebe Cowles and Robert Girard. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The catalogue is published with the assistance of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment for Publications.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprising the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, are the largest public arts institution in San Francisco.

The Legion of Honor was inspired by the French pavilion at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and, like that structure, was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. Its holdings span 4,000 years and include European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.

The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park and was established as the Memorial Museum in 1895. It was later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog and de Meuron, opened in October 2005. It holds the institution’s significant collections of American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.

Media Contacts
Miriam Newcomer | mnewcomer@famsf.org | 415.750.3554
Francisco Rosas | frosas@famsf.org | 415.750.8906