Style, Identity, Genre: Inventing the Le Nain Brothers in Seventeenth-century Paris

Cheng, Y. S. Grace
2016
Supervisor: Dr. O. Mansour

Since the rediscovery of the Le Nain by Champfleury in the late nineteenth-century, their unique representations of the poor have both fascinated and puzzled viewers and scholars alike. The Le Nain brothers’ work and career have failed to fit in neatly within the aesthetic values of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, or in later art-historical narratives of the rise of classicism in French painting. The singularities of the three brothers’ work have generated a large body of interpretation, both iconographic and stylistic in its approach, that has sought to define and explain the nature and motivation of their “realism”. This dissertation proposes a fresh approach to this issue, one that is grounded in contemporaneous discussions of the nature of pictorial naturalism, on the Le Nain’s attempts to define their status as painters in the context of Paris in the 1630s and 1640s, and on the analysis of their work as portrait painters – an aspect of their work that remains under-studied.

While the fact that the Le Nain brothers were portraitists throughout their careers has long been known to scholars, the implications of this have not been fully explored. This thesis argues that the Le Nain incorporated conventions of portraiture in their paintings of everyday life, and that this practice is one of the reasons why it has proven difficult to interpret their work in conventional terms, whether in terms of the influence of Northern genre, or the academic dichotomy between high history-painting and low genre. It considers the brothers and their œuvre, and argues that the Le Nain’s distinctive fusion of genre and portraiture provides an important framework for understanding their work. It also demonstrates how identifying as portraitists became central to the brothers’ claim for status in the social milieu of mid-seventeenth-century Paris.