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

Four Figures at Table

Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm
National Gallery, London

The early years of the three Le Nain brothers, Antoine, Louis and Mathieu, are ill-documented, and their individual artistic identities are submerged under the surname with which they signed their works. They were born in Laon between 1600 and 1610 and were working in Paris by 1629; Antoine and Louis died within a day or two of each other in May 1648 but Mathieu survived until 1677. All three became members of the French Royal Academy at its formation in 1648. In circumstances which have not yet been clarified, Mathieu seems to have enjoyed the personal protection of Louis XIV for 'his services in the armies of the King', and from 1658 aspired to the nobility.

Although the Le Nain first made their reputation with large-scale mythological and allegorical compositions and altarpieces (many of which were lost during the French Revolution) and continued to receive commissions of this type, they are now chiefly known for their small and striking paintings of 'low-life', especially those depicting peasants. Recent scholarship has associated their new kind of realistic rustic genre, neither romanticising nor satirising country dwellers, with an emergent class of bourgeois landowners whose ideals of the dignity of agricultural labour and of the partnership between owners of land and tenant farmers they seem to reflect.

Four Figures at Table is one of many 'peasant meals' painted by the Le Nain. The strong light falling from the upper left emphasises the darkness and stillness of the humble but respectable interior - brightened only by the well-washed linen - at the same time as it delineates form, texture and expression. It has been suggested that the picture depicts the Three Ages, the old woman's lined face, marked by resignation, contrasting with the interrogatory glance of the young woman, the wide-eyed eagerness or apprehension of the little girl and the contented indifference of the boy cutting the bread. But an allegorical interpretation seems neither necessary nor probable; the painting speaks to us directly of shared human destiny, borne with dignity.

What looks like a pentimento, a painter's change of mind, in the face of the little boy has been revealed by X-radiography to be a crimson ornament in the costume of a bust-length portrait of a bearded man painted underneath. This figure is not a sketch, but a finished, or nearly finished, work. He wears a ruff and a grey doublet with cream braiding. Whether the sitter refused the portrait, or was painted in preparation for a larger picture or an engraving, we do not know, but it seems that not long afterwards, and in the same studio, this prosperous citizen was effaced by four country people at their frugal meal.