In a Paris studio in the early baroque period, three brothers signing their pictures as simply “Le Nain” painted peasant life in a realist style that was about two centuries ahead of its time.
Largely unseen by American museum-goers, the quietly extraordinary paintings of the Le Nains are now the subject of a significant exhibition in San Francisco.
“The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France,” at the Legion of Honor, contains more than 40 oil paintings — genre pictures, portraits, religious scenes — by Antoine (1598-1648), Louis (1600/1605-1648) and Mathieu (1607-1677) Le Nain, who lived and worked together in the 1630s and 1640s.
Experts consider the Le Nains to be among the finest French artists of their day, on a par with Georges de La Tour and Claude Lorrain. The brothers are also regarded as influences on 19th-century masters like Courbet and Manet.
Because the Le Nains signed only their surname to their paintings, nobody knows for certain who painted what. Some works may be collaborations.
Art historians generally believe, however, that Louis (described as the “genius” by curator Esther Bell at a press briefing) painted the genre pictures, while the miniature portraits were created by Antoine and the large paintings by Mathieu. Scholarly material examining Le Nain authorship is one of the show’s intriguing extra attractions.
Uncommon in a period when French painting tended to feature classical architecture, mythological themes and royal feats, the Le Nains’ genre works picture sympathetically portrayed hardworking poor people rendered in natural hues resembling those of the surrounding buildings and earth. Sometimes, a patch of red, suggesting Caravaggio, grabs the eye.
Families relax after a meal; mothers hold babies in blankets; children play cards. Some figures look toward the viewer; others appear absorbed in thought.
In “Peasant Interior With Old Flute Player,” which comes complete with household pets (a Le Nain staple referred to as “Le Nainimals” by Bell), and “Peasants Before a House,” a highlight of the Fine Arts Museums’ permanent collection, we see realities like worn clothing, wrinkled skin, and the sense of comfort that exists among people deeply accustomed to one another’s company.
Scholars have noted that some Le Nain paintings of purported peasantry, including “The Resting Horseman,” feature possessions (the horse in this case) true peasants cannot afford. The questions raised by this issue are among the intriguing mysteries associated with the brothers.
The naturalism extends to the devotional works. A standout is “Nativity of the Virgin,” an altarpiece from Notre-Dame Cathedral. Even the angels look painted from everyday life in this picture featuring a wet nurse in the foreground and a tone as intimate as it is dramatic.
In “The Last Supper,” the Le Nains’ unorthodox composition features Jesus at the left and a coin-purse-grasping Judas at the center. Servers and, again, dogs are present. The table is round; beards are bushy; muscles are flexed.
Portraits include miniature depictions of children and a large painting of the comte de Treville — captain of the royal musketeers, an inspiration for Dumas’ novel “The Three Musketeers,” and a collector of Le Nain artwork.
The show also includes a technical study of the materials and artistic methods of the brothers.
The exhibition is presented by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in conjunction with the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, and the Louvre Museum, in Paris.
IF YOU GO
The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France
Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; through Jan. 19
Tickets: $7 to $22
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org