Decode the Puzzle at the Kimbell's Newest Exhibit

The world knows little about the brothers Le Nain — Antoine, Louis, and Mathieu — who worked during the first half of the 17th century in Paris. This will begin to change on May 22 when the Kimbell Art Museum opens "The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France." It will be only the second exhibition held anywhere in the world to focus on the brothers’ works. The exhibition will run through September 11.

With the chance to view most of the Le Nains’ surviving paintings side-by-side, the art world hopes to discover more about the three brothers.

“The Kimbell has a long tradition of organizing important exhibitions of 17th-century artists, many of which, like the Le Nain brothers, are not as well known in America as they should be,” director of the Kimbell Art Museum Eric Lee said.

Amazing altarpieces, scenes of peasants, paintings of gods and goddesses, and portraits were borrowed from all over Europe and the United States for the exhibition. One of the Le Nains’ paintings, Peasant Interior with Old Flute Player, part of the Kimbell’s permanent collection, acquired in 1984, helped inspire the exhibition.

The subjects’ piercing gazes leave the viewer mesmerized and intrigued. Most expressions are quiet, leaving one absorbed in the scene. What are the subjects feeling and thinking? What are the artists attempting to convey? What can we learn about human nature?

“Beggars stare with deadpan expressions, teaching lessons of human equality to the privileged; ravishing Madonnas cradle their infants with a perfect intimacy, distilling the essence of motherly love; and children dance and play music with a total lack of pretension, reminding us of the innocence of youth,” reads the Kimbell’s 472-page exhibition catalogue.

Curator C. D. Dickerson said that bringing the entirety of the Le Nains’ body of work together is not possible because some are in poor condition and some museums would not lend their paintings for fear they would be damaged during transit. But the exhibition will feature nearly 50 paintings, about 85 percent of the brothers’ surviving works. 

Since the last time the Le Nains were the subject of a major exhibition was in Paris in 1978-79, Dickerson said an entire generation of scholars hasn’t had the chance to see all the brothers’ paintings together. Part of the mystery of the brothers is that they only signed their paintings “Le Nain,” hence art historians and museumgoers do not know which brother completed which painting. It is also possible that they collaborated on some. Seeing a majority of the works together will allow experts and the general public to contemplate an answer.

“The exhibition will be unusually participatory for our audiences, and visitors will be presented with evidence to help solve the long-standing mystery of which brother painted which works,” Lee said.

Part of the exhibition will have notes, musings and guesses by the experts inviting the art viewer to become the scholar. Maybe he or she will see variations or consistencies that will indicate one brother handled the portraits, one the altarpieces. Maybe he or she will come to the conclusion all three participated.

Famous for their scenes of peasants, the brothers arrived in Paris around 1630 and were active through the 1640s, when the two oldest brothers died. It wasn’t long before they had fallen off the historical radar, and not much was recorded about them, but we don’t know why.

Nearly 150 years ago the Le Nains experienced their own renaissance, which led scholars to begin asking questions like: Which brother painted which painting? Did one excel in one medium and another in another medium? Who were their patrons? We know two of the paintings in the exhibition came from Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Where and with whom did they train? One hundred and fifty years ago, scholars and art historians did not have the advantage of seeing most of the brothers’ works all in one place like viewers will in the Kimbell’s Renzo Piano Pavilion.

“Scholars will enjoy wrestling with some of the questions,” Dickerson said.

During the time these works were produced, Paris was riddled with poverty. Dickerson said these scenes and faces are not idealized but express the need for human compassion. Children’s faces express innocence and wonder, devoid of shame or sadness.

“These are about charity and are very much expressions about the goodness of human nature,” Dickerson said.

But again, these expressions are subtle, which is why the Kimbell’s exhibition invites you to engage with the works in person.