The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France
Through Sept. 11
Kimbell Art Museum
3333 Camp Bowie Blvd.
Admission is $14, $12 for seniors and students with ID, $10 for ages 6-12, free for children under 6.
Kimbell Fest: France
Texas rock bands White Denim, Oil Boom and Gollay are among some of the performers scheduled to appear at the free event on the lawn of the Kimbell Art Museum.
2 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The Kimbell Art Museum’s new exhibit is an eye-opening art-history lesson.
The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France is a comprehensive look at Antoine, Louis and Mathieu Le Nain, three brothers who worked in Paris in the 1630s and ’40s.
“The Le Nains are major figures in French art, yet they are not as well known to American audiences as they should be,” said Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell. “I hope this exhibition changes that.”
The last Le Nain exhibit in North America was almost 70 years ago, and that was a small one. The only comprehensive exhibit took place almost 40 years ago in France.
And in fact, only nine American cities have Le Nain paintings in public collections. The Kimbell is one, with its Peasant Interior With an Old Flute Player (c. 1642), acquired in 1984. That’s credited to “Louis (or Antoine?) Le Nain,” illustrating one of the fascinating aspects of this exhibition: Scholars don’t really know which brother painted what. Sorting that out, or at least advancing the scholarship on the question, was one of the aims of this show. And there’s little definitive information about the brothers’ lives or the dates of the paintings, giving curators lots of detective work to do.
The Brothers Le Nain — organized by the Kimbell, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Musee de Louvre-Lens — gathers some 50 paintings out of the 65 known to exist.
The Le Nains painted altarpieces, traditional portraits, mythological subjects and – something they became particularly known for – “moving, unpatronizing scenes of peasants and humble folk,” as Lee puts it.
Curators C.D. Dickerson III, a former Kimbell staffer now with the National Gallery of Art, and Esther Bell of the San Francisco institution led a preview of the exhibition.
It opens with a room of gorgeous religious paintings, including the altarpiece Saint Michael Dedicating His Arms to the Virgin (c. 1638), originally installed in a chapel at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Saint Michael depicts the warrior saint laying down his arms before the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Bell, who calls it one of the spectacular paintings of its century, points out the faces of the cherubs, who “look like they could be your next-door neighbors.” Bell considers it one of the great paintings of its century.
There’s more startling realism in The Nativity of the Virgin (c. 1636), borrowed directly from Notre-Dame for this show and making its first trip to the United States. It shows the Virgin Mary being breast-fed by a wet nurse. Bell points out how the painters show us the dirt caked upon her feet. “This is not idealized the way that other painters are painting at the time,” she said. “This is one of the great contributions of the Le Nain to the art of their time.”
She said curators hope people leave the show understanding that “the Le Nains were very highly regarded religious painters.”
Two works that show groups of painters are believed to be self-portraits of the Le Nains. Wall texts explain the complicated reasoning that has led scholars, including this show’s curators, to deduce which brother is which and who painted these two pictures. Dickerson joked that the complications can tend make your head explode.
The exhibit includes a gallery that’s particularly good for geeking out in. The Kimbell agreed to clean The Young Card Players (1643), a small oil painting on copper, and in exchange, its Massachusetts museum lent it for the show. Because of the Kimbell’s close work on this picture, Kimbell conservator Claire Barry and Elise Effman Clifford, a colleague at the San Francisco museum, were able to do a deep analysis of the brothers’ process, detailed in an engaging display. This explanatory gallery also has a close-up look at various clues to which brother painted what.
Much has been made of the Le Nain’s depictions of the laborers and peasants, including in the Kimbell’s own marketing materials. A closer look at the paintings rounds out the picture a bit. In some of the peasant paintings, Bell singles out figures who are posing with expensive horses, or wearing a bright red-colored clothes (red dye was costly). They were people of some means. Dickerson points out that “something much deeper is going on” in a scene where the only foodstuffs visible are wine and bread. Some of the paintings “are operating on a religious level that has much to do with charity.”
There’s much to learn. The catalog, principally by these two curators, is a fat 450 pages. It’s the first text on the Le Nains in English and is intended to stand as the definitive work of scholarship for years to come.
For less rigorous extracurricular fun, this summer’s KimbellFest, held June 18, will have a French theme to tie in with this exhibit. It will include a “Tour de France” bike ride, a little French music, local rock bands, food trucks, art-making activities and more.