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The Peasant Family

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

French painting

Kazerouni Guillaume

This is the largest of the Le Nain brothers' "peasant" paintings. The scene is not really one of a meal: the table is not laid, and only bread, wine and salt are actually shown.

A gift "in recognition of all that art has given me"

In his will of 1915, Arthur Pernolet - state mining engineer, member of Parliament, president of the Cher département council, and a widower without children - required his legatees to donate 100,000 francs to the Louvre "in recognition of all that art has given me". The money was used the same year to buy the Le Nain Peasant Family in an Interior from Demotte, the famous antique dealer. The picture, which had resurfaced in a sale not long before, is now acknowledged as one of the emblematic French works of the 17th century. Very much in tune with the artistic sensibility of the second half of the 19th century, the Le Nains' work came back into favor at that time, receiving high praise from painters such as Gustave Courbet. In 1915 the Louvre already had four Le Nains, including the Peasant Meal of 1642, in many respects similar to the picture presented here.

A peasant family

Nine members of a peasant family are shown grouped by the fire. Some of them are sitting aroung a little table, looking outwards at the viewer as if he has disturbed them in their routine. Four of the children are absorbed in their own activities: in the center a boy accompanies the crackling of the fire with a tune on the flute, while two other children warm themselves at the hearth. Here the painter transcends a stark - but in no way cruel - reality by investing it with a moral, not to say religious dignity his clients doubtless found most appealing. The work's relative chromatic restraint is an opportunity for the painter to demonstrate his considerable talent for handling light, whether coming from inside (the fire) or outside: there may be a window to the left. The fullness and presence of the figures, the size of the picture - as big as a history painting - and the nobly poetic gravity of the scene make this one of the Le Nains' greatest masterpieces.

Genre painting in the 17th century

Genre painting - portraits of everyday life - came to the fore in the 17th century, especially in Holland, where it became a national specialty. Originated in the second half of the 16th century by painters like Lucas van Leyden, the style swept through Europe under the impetus of dealers in the works of the Northern school, and found ready buyers at events like the Saint-Germain art fair in Paris. Much prized and frequently vectors for contemporary religious values and concepts of virtue, these small canvases soon gained a following among artists in both Italy and France. In the second quarter of the 17th century the manner found its leading French representatives in the Le Nain brothers, especially Antoine and Louis, whose works still pose problems of individual identification. What we see in this painting is not so much a meal as an evocation of food - bread, wine, salt - uniting three generations of a family.

Technical description

  • Louis LE NAIN (Laon, vers 1593 - Paris, 1677)

    The Peasant Family

    About 1642

  • Oil on canvas

    H. 1.13 m; W. 1.59 m

  • Acquired from the bequest of Arthur Pernolet, 1915 , 1915

    R.F. 2081

  • Paintings

    Sully wing
    2nd floor
    Le Nain brothers
    Room 912

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