So, why the question mark after the artist’s first name? Louis was one of three never married Le Nain brothers who were all born in Laon, formed a workshop together in Paris, painted similar subjects collaboratively as well as individually, specialized in paintings of peasant life, stopped dating their works early on and never signed their work with their first names – just Le Nain. Clearly this has made life a challenge for art historians, and it has become common to treat their work as a single artist.
One brother though, Louis, is regarded as the ‘genius of the family,’ (1) and there is scholarly agreement (although no proof) that this canvas ‘can only have come’ from him. (2) Louis is described as appearing to have been a somber artist, pensive and self-contained, who shunned elegance and restlessly explored new horizons.” (3) With their air of melancholy, it could be that he modeled these peasants on himself.
Everything about this painting is earthbound and everything on the earth Le Nain paints is bound to each other. This is largely achieved by his overall use of subdued, chalky greys and ochres. The earth, the clothing, the stone of the house, the dog, the pet rooster, the skin tones – even the sky - are in these muted hues. The sole exceptions are the red cloak, the rooster’s comb and a red sleeve in the background, and one senses these were simply painterly decisions to add some contrast and energy to the canvas.
In many technical ways this is a remarkable canvas. Le Nain’s brushwork is confident and proficient. At times he paints loosely, openly as in the sky, at others his shading and attention to detail make for beautiful portraiture, and finally his fine brushwork carefully delineates the wispy grasses on the shed’s roof and the details of the mother and child standing on the stairs in the background. The peasant poses are static but varied and point to Louis’s known ability to “make a thousand different poses taken from life.”(4) The overall the composition is unified by a network of straight lines which intersect most dramatically at the man and boy in the foreground and is noteworthy its unusual and high abstractness. (5)
Besides binding earth and peasant, the monochromatic palette lends a quiet, stable air of dignity almost serenity to this family grouping. They may be peasants but we do not get the sense they are threadbare, destitute, lonely or in emotional or physical impoverishment. They have each other, infants, pets, a solid home, things look clean, their bodies appear strong and healthy. Rather than being unhappy, they are calm, expressionless, restrained, at worst stoic from hardship. In many senses their balance and restraint echoes classicism as does the statuesque stance of the father, the loose, flowing draping of the clothing worn by the three figures in the foreground.
However, for all its realistic and sympathetic portrayal of peasants, there are some critics who question how “taken from life” Le Nain’s work really was. Are these really peasants of their time? Assuming Le Nain painted the peasants with which he was intimate, those of his native Laon, these peasants were living in the midst of the Thirty Years War. This was a time of severe hardship, anguish, depredation by cruel armies marauding and living off the countryside. Yet these peasants are portrayed as calm, almost docilely engaged in homely activities despite real world conditions around them. Because of this disparity, some scholars have suggested Le Nain intentionally downplayed any misery to please wealthy urban patrons with these paintings. (5) Ciwt believes this thinking is reinforced by the miniature Madonna and Child on the steps in the background which would also have appealed to the patrons who, being French, were almost entirely Catholic.
But in conclusion, whether or not these peasants were entirely realistic in their portrayal, it is highly significant that they were portrayed at all and so masterfully. Their inclusion as subject matter represents a very original continuation of Caravaggio’s early Baroque humanism as well as the peasant paintings of 17th C Holland. More importantly, Le Nain’s art was placed in the Louvre in 1848, and likely had an effect on Jean Francois Millet, the influential painter of melancholy scenes of peasant labor, as well as the great French Realist Gustave Courbet.