LE NAIN brothers
(b. 1598/1610, Laon, d. Louis and Antoine: 1648, Mathieu: 1677, Paris)
Peasants at their Cottage Door1640s
Oil on canvas, 55 x 68 cm
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco
In this painting the approach is unusually stark for the Le Nain brothers. Instead of a landscape background, there is a two-storey house belonging to the peasants, whose relative prosperity is indicated by the glass in the windows (all over Europe at this time many of the poorer classes lived in conditions far more primitive than those recorded by the Le Nain brothers).
This unassuming picture is one of the most perceptive paintings to be produced in the 1640s. As in the Forge, the treatment of the low-life subject is given a totally unexpected dignity. The boy on the right and the old man next to him stare through us into space, and together they counterbalance the large area of pale stone of the house behind them. Into their expressions the artist have distilled a timelessness as far removed from anecdote as possible. Whereas in Georges de La Tour this timelessness is easier to understand because of the spiritual content of his subjects, in the depiction of a peasant's face it is rare for the artist not to be interested in telling a story, but simply to be observing what he sees. This approach, which was to preoccupy many of the most important painters of the nineteenth century, from Courbet to the Impressionists, was an anachronism in the seventeenth century and the reason why the Le Nain brothers were so untypical of artists of their time.