A woman and five children are crammed into a small space: it is hard to tell where they are, or what their relationship is. The main focus is on their individual facial expressions, which feel unconnected from one another.
The bright colours of the children’s clothes stand out against a dark background. The strange position of the woman suggests that the artist found it difficult to fit her into the scene: the perspective looks wrong and the tablecloth may have been added to hide this error. The terracotta jug, the bowl and delicate glass are painted with meticulous attention to detail. The white tablecloth emphasises dignity, but the empty vessels convey poverty.
The fact that the picture was painted on copper with bright, intense colours indicates that it was a luxury object. Perhaps it was owned by somebody who gave charity to the poor, and these are portraits of abandoned children cared for by wealthier benefactors.
A woman and five children are crammed into a small space. The main focus of the painting is on their individual facial expressions, which feel unconnected from one another. The strange position of the woman behind a table suggests that the artist found it difficult to fit her into the composition. She could be kneeling or seated on a low stool, but there is no sign of her legs. The perspective is probably wrong and the tablecloth may have been added to hide this error.
The glazed terracotta jug with its metal lid, the bowl and delicate-looking glass are painted with great attention to detail. The boy’s rough chair is similar to those in other Le Nain paintings. The room is plain and dark, and the bright colours of the clothes – olive, red, blue and beige – stand out against the background. The white tablecloth emphasises dignity, but the empty glass and bowl suggest poverty.
This small painting is on copper, and is signed and dated 1642 in the lower right corner. There were three Le Nain brothers – Louis, Mathieu and Antoine – but the signature here is merely of their surname. They are best known for their meticulous depictions of French peasant life. It has been suggested that this work was painted as a pair to The Village Piper (The Detroit Institute of Arts) which is also on copper, of a similar size and painted in the same year.
The artist’s decision to use copper for these scenes, which is more expensive than canvas, suggests the paintings were luxury objects. They may have been commissioned to represent the theme of charity towards the poor and could even be portraits of abandoned children being cared for by wealthier benefactors.
The National Gallery owns another Le Nain peasant scene painted shortly after this work: Four Figures at a Table.
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