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

The Brothers Le Nain

Painters of 17th-Century France

Oct 8, 2016Jan 29, 2017

The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France is the first major exhibition in the United States devoted to the Le Nain brothers—Antoine (ca. 1598–1648), Louis (ca. 1600/1605–1648) and Mathieu (ca. 1607–1677). The presentation features more than forty of the brothers’ works to highlight the Le Nains’ full artistic production, and is organized in conjunction with the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Musée du Louvre-Lens in France.

Active in Paris during the 1630s and 1640s, the brothers are today best known for their startlingly realistic depictions of the poor. Painters of altarpieces, portraits and allegories, the brothers’ work was rediscovered in the 19th century by such art historians as Champfleury, and influenced many artists including Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. The brothers then became famous as “painters of reality,” admired for their deeply sympathetic and affecting portrayals of hard-working men and women. In these paintings, we see smiling field laborers, city beggars with deadpan expressions, mothers cradling infants with perfect intimacy, and children that dance and play music with a lack of pretension. The Museums’ Peasants before a House is one of the finest examples of this subject.

Despite their renown, many important details of the brothers’ lives and work continue to elude historians. This comprehensive presentation and its almost five-hundred-page catalogue offer new scholarship concerning the authorship, dating and meaning behind their art. As the 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 compare these pieces side by side in the Legion of Honor’s galleries. The exhibition also includes a substantial technical study from 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. The exhibition also includes loans from the Musée du Louvre, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Patrons of the brothers 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. A portrait of Tréville will be on view 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 early members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in the French capital.


Seniors 65+
College students with valid ID
17 and under

Audio guides: $8 General | $7 Members

Ticket include same-day general admission to the de Young museum in Golden Gate Park. Groups of 10 or more have access to priority booking, discounted tickets, and private tours. Learn more.

Exhibition Highlights

Le Nain, "Peasants before a House", ca. 1640. Oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 26 5/8 in. FAMSF, Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection, 1941.7
Le Nain, "Three Men and a Boy", ca. 1640–1645. Oil on canvas, 21 ¼ x 25 3/8 in. National Gallery, London, NG 4857. © National Gallery, London
Le Nain, "Bacchus and Ariadne", ca. 1635. Oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 59 7/8 in. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans, France, 70.4.1. Photo by Christophe Camus
Le Nain, "Peasant Interior with Old Flute Player", ca. 1642. Oil on canvas, 21 ¼ x 24 ½ in. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, AP 1984.22
Le Nain, "The Adoration of the Shepherds", ca. 1635–1640. Oil on canvas, 43 x 54 5/8 in. National Gallery, London, NG 6331. Photo National Gallery, London, UK / Bridgeman Images
Le Nain, "Peasant Interior", ca. 1640. Oil on canvas, 21 7/8 x 25 ½ in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.20


The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France

Featuring more than sixty 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 generously illustrated volume presents new research concerning the authorship, dating, and meaning of the works by well-known scholars in the field. 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.

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This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Kimbell Art Museum, and Musée du Louvre-Lens. Presenting 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.

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.