Scenes of Everyday Life
The three Le Nain brothers – Louis, Antoine, and Mathieu – are some of the most enigmatic figures in the history of art. Born in Picardy, northern France, between about 1600 and 1607, the brothers spent most of their working lives in Paris, collaborating so closely that their individual hands cannot be distinguished. Today, they are best known for their small-scale portraits and intimate scenes of peasant life.
The Le Nains began painting their genre scenes of peasant families around 1640, when Dutch and Flemish paintings of similar subjects started to arrive in Paris. The sharp realism of Adriaen Brouwer may have been one such precedent. Interiors with peasants by David Teniers were also very popular, though often more humorous. So strong were the similarities that paintings by the Le Nains were often described in sales catalogues as being by Dutch artists.
In the 18th century, the taste for paintings of everyday life – both by 17th-century Dutch artists and by contemporary painters such as Jean-Siméon Chardin – reignited interest in the work of the Le Nain brothers. Since the 19th century, Louis, Antoine, and Mathieu Le Nain have been seen as the pioneers of the great French tradition of realist painting, leading not only to Chardin in the 18th century, but also to the work of Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet in the 19th century.