LE NAIN brothers
(b. 1598/1610, Laon, d. Louis and Antoine: 1648, Mathieu: 1677, Paris)

Smokers in an Interior

Oil on canvas, 117 x 137 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Not all the Le Nain genre scenes depict peasants. Some of them show middle-class sitters, even rarer in art than the depiction of the poor. It is one of these larger 'bourgeois compositions' which admits the Le Nain brothers into that small group of painters capable of creating a masterpiece. This is the Smokers in an Interior in the Louvre, dated 1643. Its technique must have been learned during the painting of the Forge, but the brushwork is far more precise. The composition is much less original, being closer to the type familiar from the Dutch. The figures are grouped round a table illuminated by a solitary candle, and the figure on the left has fallen asleep at the table.

In this painting it seems that the depiction of low life - here middle-class men smoking in an interior - has risen beyond its normal pictorial limitations to create a masterpiece which is, perforce, unexpected. While Nicolas Poussin was obsessed with the concept of beauty and with the need to be able to paint exactly what he thought, here the painter's desire arises from an opposite need, the need to observe. Each of the models appears to be a portrait, although it is difficult to explain why the sitters should have chosen to be depicted with such casualness. There is no clue to the possibility of a confraternity, although the curious emblems on the carpet on the table could be symbols of some secret society. The eerie quality of the picture is emphasized by the fall of the shadows on the faces and by the way in which the figures stare into space just like the peasants in other pictures and the seated figure on the right has all the appearance of being under the influence of some drug.

There is no satisfactory explanation for such a picture; it is as if this trio of painters, observers of a small fragment of their times, never intended the meanings of their pictures to be divined.