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Antoine or Louis Le Nain, Peasant Family in an Interior

Antoine or Louis Le Nain, Peasant Family in an Interior, 2nd quarter of the 17th century, oil on canvas, 1.13 x 1.59 m (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Speakers: Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: We're at the Louvre and we're looking at a painting by the Le Nain brothers. We're not actually sure who the artist was. The museum thinks it might be Louis, but it may also be Antoine. It's called Family of Peasants in an Interior and that's precisely what it is. It couldn't be a simpler painting in certain ways. Dr. Harris: That's what the Le Nain brothers were known for, these somber and serious images of peasants, which we would call genre paintings or scenes from everyday life and it's something that we see a lot of, especially in Holland in the 17th century. Dr. Zucker: This was a new type of painting and it's interesting to think that it really took a middle class to develop a taste for the lower class. Dr. Harris: Right, so there's a sense of the virtuousness and morality of this peasant family. Dr. Zucker: Of simplicity. Dr. Harris: But even in their poverty there's something intrinsically good about them and we see several generations of the family, we have a very simple interior, we have a cat and a dog, and a figure playing an instrument, and the figures arranged in a relief across the foreground. Dr. Zucker: Right, and it does feel like a relief because of the light that rakes through. You had mentioned the colors are very simple. They are, they're mostly browns and beiges with some gray. Some off-whites and a little bit of green and almost nothing else, this very reduced palette, but the artist is able to really use that and use tone to show the beautiful modulation of light as it passes across the folds of the cloth. Dr. Harris: Yeah, it's hard not to think about Caravaggio here, right? Because the figures are very close to the foreground, we have that raking light coming from the right and very strong contrasts of light and dark. If you just take the female figures, who are close to the foreground, the right side of their faces illuminated, the left side as we look at it, in shadow. Dr. Zucker: Almost completely obliterated in the darkness, actually. Dr. Harris: But that has a kind of psychological feeling to it that almost reminds me at the same time of what Rembrandt is doing with light, using light and shadow on the face to indicate a kind of psychological depth. Dr. Zucker: There's an interest in all kinds of optical effects that result from light. You have that raking light that we were talking about just a moment ago, but then the boy is really silhouette against the light of the fire, so you have the exterior light coming in from a presumed window on the right side and then you have the interior light of the hearth. Dr. Harris: And you have this repeated lines from folds of drapery that help bring your eye across the canvas. Dr. Zucker: Yeah, and really enliven that surface, that's absolutely right. This issue of simplicity is shown not only, of course, in their economic class, it's shown not only in their dress and the simplicity of the interior, but even in the food that's out, the bowl of salt, there's wine, and there's one loaf of bread. This is elemental, it is literally the salt of the earth. I think it's really telling of a culture in the 17th century that prizes, to an enormous degree, pomp and ceremony, that there's also real interest in the most simple life. (jazz music)