January 9, 2017
Francisco Rosas, Public Relations Coordinator
One of the most impressive and certainly one of the largest paintings in our current exhibition about the brothers Le Nain is The Nativity of the Virgin (ca. 1636) on loan from Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. One of the exciting aspects of this exhibition is the opportunity to view the majority of the existing artistic output of the Le Nain in one place. More than forty works are on loan from collections across France as well as from the United Kingdom, Germany, and America.
Just as important as understanding the works collectively, is acknowledging the settings for which they were commissioned. The Nativity of the Virgin is one of several works that was commissioned from the Le Nains for Notre-Dame. Two survive: The Nativity of the Virgin and another altarpiece Saint Michael Dedicating His Arms to the Virgin (1638-1639) on view in the same gallery; it is on loan from the Church of Saint-Pierre, Nevers, France.
Such prestigious commissions are evidence of both the respect the Le Nains must have enjoyed at this time as well as their possession of the requisite talent to execute the works. These altarpieces are considered to be some of the highest achievements in religious painting in seventeenth-century France.
A history of The Nativity of the Virgin’s location throughout its existence was extensively researched by curators and scholars as part of this exhibition and is included in the impressive catalogue. This history is called a work’s provenance. From the catalogue:
PROVENANCE: Chapel of Saint-Augustin, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, by 1763; transferred to the depot of the Petits-Augustins, Paris, on December 26, 1793; transferred to the depot on the rue de Beaune, Paris, on December 29, 1797; transferred to the church of Saint-Étienne du Mont, Paris, on February 15, 1811; returned to Notre-Dame Cathedral, 1964.
From this provenance we can understand that The Nativity of the Virgin was on view in Notre-Dame until the end of 1793. It was then transferred to another location for several years before being sent to the Church of Saint-Étienne du Mont, Paris in 1811. It was there for more than 150 years before being returned to Notre-Dame in 1964 – all before it came to the Legion of Honor for our exhibition.
When I was in Paris this past summer, I visited Notre-Dame to look for the chapel where The Nativity of the Virgin normally hangs. The chapel is one of several along the south side of the cathedral and is lit by one of Notre-Dame’s dazzling stained glass windows. I was thrilled to see that the Cathedral has installed a temporary plaque at the entrance of the chapel noting that the altarpiece was on an exhibition tour, first to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, then to San Francisco at the Legion of Honor. The altarpiece will return to France for the exhibition’s next stop at the Louvre-Lens where French audiences will be able to enjoy the altarpiece in the context of the Le Nain’s other masterpieces.
Nativity of the Virgin can be seen in The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France, now on view at the Legion of Honor through January 29, 2017.