Concurrent exhibitions devoted to Valentin de Boulogne and the Brothers Le Nain highlight the prescience and grittiness of seventeenth-century French painting.
ONE NIGHT IN Rome, in the summer of 1632, an expat French painter named Valentin de Boulogne stumbled home after a night of drinking. The evening was warm despite the hour, and Valentin decided to refresh himself by jumping fully clothed into the Fontana del Babuino, just down the street from Piazza di Spagna (the fountain, still in operation, was under the window of Valentin’s rival, Nicolas Poussin; one wonders if he was trying to send a message). An aging galant, known as “Loverboy” to his friends, Valentin was really too old for that sort of thing: he emerged from the water shivering; the chill became a fever, and a few days later Valentin de Boulogne was dead at forty-one.
It was a turning point in the history of French painting. Valentin had been a star of the French art world, which was just emerging as a serious rival to Italy’s. He was, more specifically, a leading exponent of a style of painting that Caravaggio had pioneered a generation earlier: shadowy, dramatically lit scenes drawn directly from life that pushed the boundaries of good taste through a commitment to verisimilitude and déclassé subject matter. With his death, that Caravaggesque tradition lost its most eloquent advocate, and Poussin’s brand of richly hued classicism moved into the ascendant—particularly in France.
No fewer than three major exhibitions are, right now, helping us to reappraise this pivotal moment. “Beyond Caravaggio,” at the National Gallery in London, emphasizes Caravaggio himself and the spread of his style through Europe in the early decades of the seventeenth century. “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the first monographic show devoted to Valentin, and makes a dazzling case for his importance. Smaller but perhaps most exquisite of all is “The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France,” now at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, after a stint at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and later heading to the Louvre-Lens. Each exhibition brings with it a first-rate, scholarly catalogue, alongside which may be set a revelatory new book by the art historian Michael Fried, After Caravaggio. Add to all this the fact that the Louvre has just reopened its own peerless seventeenth-century French galleries (their closure is, in part, what allowed so many works to travel in the first place), and there’s clearly a lot going on. To do justice to all of it will occupy art historians for some time; for now, the exhibitions in New York and San Francisco demand attention.
THE MET’S SHOW is curiously low-key: no banner announces to passersby on Fifth Avenue that a major event is transpiring inside. Yet “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio” takes its place after “Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions” (2008) and “Watteau, Music, and Theater” (2009) as the latest in a growing list of brilliantly successful shows of French painting. Curated by Annick Lemoine of the University of Rennes and Keith Christiansen, head of the Met’s European painting department, it is visually stunning, art historically significant, and pleasingly combative in its advocacy of a painter too often described as formulaic or a “follower.” It should be big news.
It would be easy, and not altogether wrong, to call Valentin a realist. Certainly, he and his colleagues painted directly from models instead of elaborate preparatory drawings, eschewed togas and flowing robes for everyday homespun, and renounced the mathematical perspective and bright colors of the sixteenth-century masters. As the art historian Charles Dempsey once said of Caravaggio, he laid emphasis on “the reality of individual experience, il vero, and by so doing called into question the very truth of the ideal itself, the truth beyond experience which had been given historical verisimilitude in the traditions of art.” 1 Yet Valentin was no Courbet (neither was Caravaggio, which is Dempsey’s point). Valentin may have called into question the truth beyond experience, but he by no means renounced it entirely. At issue was not so much an attentive recording of the empirical world as what has been called the “tragedy of incarnation,” the Fall from grace, from antique clarity into a world of shadow. 2 Realism, here, was a way to gesture toward the ineffable, to mourn it without renouncing the world thereby.
Valentin is pretty clear on this score. Antiquity is literally at the center of numerous early works in which a contemporary, socially mixed group sits around a block of Classical architecture. Usually set at an angle, this block—in essence, a carved stone cube—imparts spatial coherence to the scene. The figures are mere types, often conspicuously “low” or gritty: gypsies, ragamuffins, soldiers, musicians, the dregs of society alongside slumming rich kids. Compositions are nonhierarchical, even egalitarian, in that there is always some thing to draw the eye, some interesting incident, almost everywhere you look. Heads tend all to be on the same level, against dim backgrounds, producing the effect of a carved frieze that reiterates the carving on the central block. The affinities between ancient and modern, painting and relief, become very nearly literal in Concert with a Bas-Relief (ca. 1624–26), where a sculpted figure seems almost to caress the cheek of a soldier filling a bottle with wine. This seems less a break with antiquity, or with humanism, than a reorientation to it.
Then there are the tricks: the cardplayers cheat, pickpockets and cutpurses abound, everybody is at least a potential dupe. Sometimes you have to look quite hard to notice that a young girl is stealing a chicken, or that a deck of cards has been marked. Fortune-Teller with Soldiers (ca. 1618–20) juxtaposes two pickpockets on the left with men holding glasses of yellow wine on the right, contrasting deception with clarity. Between the groups, a “bohemian” woman reads a young soldier’s palm, yet an intervening body in the foreground seems to sever the hand from its owner. Chance, fate, fortune, folly: all are on display in this corrosively ironic canvas.
Amid all this incident and deception, what holds these pictures together is not plot or perspective, but shared or individual concentration. Making music, playing cards, reading palms, shooting dice, and picking pockets all serve this function in seemingly endless variations. There is an obvious analogy between the attentive looking of the depicted persons—reading, judging, deciphering—and that of the beholder in the gallery. We do what they do; and what they do, often as not, is play the fool. With time, the moralizing significance becomes increasingly prominent, and in works like The Four Ages of Man (1627–29) or A Musical Company with a Fortune-Teller (1631) the figures become frankly allegorical.
Valentin did not hesitate to reorder these stock motifs when he came to more formal commissions with religious themes. Such paintings use dramatic action, not absorbed attention, to impose unity; instead of distributing characters and incidents across the entire picture, they isolate the protagonists with shafts of light while leaving the rest in shadow. In Christ Driving the Merchants from the Temple (1618–22), the Savior literally upends the central table that had unified so many scenes of rogues and cardsharps, sending everybody tumbling: a fitting emblem for this approach. Tellingly, the inscrutable signs that draw attention in the genre pictures—dice, cards, open palms, sheets of music—often move outside the picture field altogether. The Getty’s magnificent Christ and Adulteress (early 1620s) is perhaps the pivotal work in this respect. It depicts the moment in the Gospel of John (8:2–11) when Christ, having written some mysterious words in the dust, reproaches the Pharisees who wish to stone an adulteress (“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”) and then forgives the woman (“Go, and sin no more”). Just what Christ wrote down there on the ground is a mystery, and Valentin leaves it outside the frame, but it draws the eye no less powerfully than a hand of cards or a roll of the dice. Christ points at the ground, his finger nearly touching the picture frame while evoking a world beyond it. The others cast their eyes down, and one Pharisee even adjusts his glasses, but there are some things that painting simply cannot show: the Word of God remains invisible. Christ, on the other hand, looks upward, toward the adulteress. Standing with hands bound and eyes downcast, she evokes the image of Christ himself after his scourging, the so-called Ecce Homo (Valentin’s own variation on this medieval motif appears in a Crowning with Thorns from ca. 1627–28). The woman’s suffering, in other words, prefigures Christ’s own. We may not be able to see, still less to read, the handwriting of God, but Valentin’s iconographic allusion sets a penumbra of grace around the humble sinner.
The Louvre’s Judgment of Solomon (ca. 1624–25) brilliantly reconciles this evocation of the invisible with Classical humanism. Once again, the main action consists in an act of interpretation. Two prostitutes approach the young king, each claiming to be the mother of the same infant; Solomon orders that the issue be settled by cutting the child in half; the false mother agrees to this expedient, the true objects, and Solomon promptly awards the baby to the latter (1 Kings 3:16–28). Valentin shows the climactic moment when a soldier lifts the child from the arms of the false mother, while the true one lunges from the right.
Christians of the 1620s will have understood this tale to be prophetic of salvation; the Old Testament was, as St. Augustine put it, “a promise in figure,” a veiled or coded prophecy of the New Covenant. Valentin has contrived an ingenious way to figure this double meaning, at once literal and symbolic. Despite the broadly realist idiom, he has stocked the picture with allusions to that great touchstone of classical painting, Raphael. As Christiansen observes in his catalogue essay, the composition derives from Raphael’s rendition of the same story in the Vatican (ca. 1519). No less important, however, is Raphael’s monumental Transfiguration of 1520. This late masterpiece pairs the curing of an epileptic boy in its lower half with the epiphany of Christ’s divine nature in its upper; human frailty with glory. Valentin has borrowed the lower scene’s most conspicuous pair of figures: the false mother quotes a woman at lower center, who kneels and twists with one shoulder bare, while the infant is a mirror-reversal of the epileptic boy, arms flung outward. For all of Valentin’s assertive realism, the painting calls for what one Renaissance theorist called “erudite eyes”: the ability to see the radiant Transfiguration latent in the shadows. 3 Just as Solomon’s wisdom prefigures Christian judgment, just as Raphael’s apostles lead us to the transfigured Christ, so Valentin evokes a splendor that he cannot show directly: divine revelation, by way of the Renaissance masters. Realism merges with classicism, and the picture secures exactly that “truth beyond experience” that Valentin elsewhere had subjected to such refined irony. In the end, though, the fast living caught up with him.
TO SEE THE WAY forward from Valentin, one must go to San Francisco. “The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France” is smaller than the Met’s extravaganza, but scarcely less satisfying and important. Little is known of brothers Louis, Antoine, and Mathieu Le Nain, save that they hailed from Laon, lived together in the Faubourg St. Germain, never married, and shared a single membership in the painters’ guild. So close was their collaboration that their hands are all but indistinguishable, and many pictures may have been jointly authored. All three joined the Royal Academy of Painting in 1648, the year of its founding, but Antoine and Louis died that same year; Mathieu lived for another three decades. A social climber, he eventually achieved entry in the noble Order of St. Michael, but was subsequently expelled; when he continued to wear its trademark collar all the same, he faced prosecution. His solo works do not match those produced when his brothers were still alive.
After falling into obscurity during the eighteenth century, the Brothers Le Nain were rediscovered in the nineteenth and claimed as ancestors of the new realism of the day (the same group of critics also rediscovered Vermeer at about the same time). They were basic points of reference for Courbet, Manet, and Cézanne: The Resting Horseman (ca. 1640–45), for instance, is essential to Manet’s Old Musician (1862). Not without reason does Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Louvre, class them alongside Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Georges de La Tour as the greatest French painters of the seventeenth century. 4
Superbly curated by C.D. Dickerson III of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (formerly of the Kimbell), and Esther Bell of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with key participation from Nicolas Milovanovic of the Louvre, “The Brothers Le Nain” concentrates on questions of connoisseurship that are no less urgent for being technical. As often happens nowadays, there is regrettable inconsistency in the composition of the show as it goes from one venue to the next; the Louvre, so generous in the case of Valentin, has understandably held back some of its treasures for the finale in Lens (although it is less clear why the lavish catalogue should give so little indication that this is the case). Even in its slightly diminished state, however, the show brings together numerous rarities from provincial museums and private collections that one could not hope to see otherwise. The first big Le Nain show was in 1934; the next was in 1978; this is the third. Best not to wait for the fourth.
The brothers did their share of cardsharps and musicians (sometimes in a slightly satirical manner, using children instead of adults, to comic effect). Yet the exhibition reveals a remarkable eclecticism and facility. Their early works, despite obvious differences of style and technique, share with Valentin an erudite realism that combines elevated themes, allusions to canonical works of art, and a reluctance to idealize. Bacchus and Ariadne (ca. 1635), for instance, shows the god of wine chancing upon his bride-to-be asleep on a Greek isle. Bacchus, a frowsy-haired boy in costume, steps tentatively, politely, down the gangplank of his ship, a red cloak billowing behind him; Ariadne dozes in pretty disarray. The overall composition is based on Roman sarcophagi; boatmen in the background, from a Mannerist fresco in the royal palace of Fontainebleau. Both the god’s pose and his costume suggest, with witty understatement, Titian’s famous version of the same scene, in which Bacchus hurls himself violently at the object of his lust. Part of the pleasure of such works is to savor the comparisons they invite.
Yet the brothers’ reputation rests chiefly on cabinet paintings—compositions meant for private displays—depicting the urban and rural poor: hypnotically still pictures in silver, gray, and brown, in which figures do little but pose, reflect, and look at the beholder. The Le Nains belonged to what has been called a “generation of saints,” deeply influenced by the preaching of charity in the sermons of St. Francis de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul. 5 This generation set aside theological disputes in favor of an emotional engagement with God. The great mathematician Blaise Pascal, an abstract thinker if there ever was one, attested to this new piety in a record of his own conversion experience, found after his death on a piece of paper sewn into the lining of his coat: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers or scholars. Certainty. Certainty. Feeling. Joy. Peace.” This could well describe some works of the Le Nains, at any rate while Louis and Antoine were still alive.
For these brothers, the great theme is not, as with Valentin, the fallibility of the senses, or the pathos of the Fall, but redemption and the sanctification of the everyday. In essence, as Milovanovic notes in his catalogue essay, they applied the formal conventions of upper-class group portraiture to low-class, anonymous subject matter. 6 The large, almost monumental Peasant Family (ca. 1642) assembles nine people of all ages in a humble room (two may be visitors). A boy in rags plays a pipe; the others are either lost in thought or look us in the eye. Nothing else happens, the only drama being the way a cat peers intently at a little cur; jars and animals have scarcely less prominence than people. Bread and wine are present, evocative of the Eucharist, and the humble table is an altar of sorts. In the background, three children stare into a fireplace; heavy beams frame them as a sort of picture within the picture. Their rapt attention is a model for the spectator’s own. On offer, as with Valentin, is transfiguration—but of a new sort, a transfiguration within the everyday, for which the real presence of God in the Eucharist is the model.
The extraordinary Peasants before a House (ca. 1640) adapts the conventions of theatrical prints and fashion plates by setting large, full-length figures against an architectural facade, in this case that of a farmhouse. An old woman sits pensively on a stool; a boy stretches on the ground, his body in profile, his face to the viewer; an older man (the humble ancestor, perhaps, of Watteau’s Gilles) stands formally en face. Color is muted and mostly silver and brown, shot with red, green, and yellow gold. Stillness prevails yet again; this time it is a dog in a doorway staring intently at a hen in the middle distance that provides a subtle hint of drama. As elsewhere in the Le Nains’ work, there seems to be a deliberate effort to make the literal shape of the canvas conspicuous. Both the boy and the woman seem to rest their backs against the sides of the picture; the boy, in particular, makes a right angle that conforms perfectly to the frame. The effect must have bothered a later owner, who added strips to both flanks in order to mitigate it; these have now been removed. Thus restored, the picture possesses a severe, almost cubistic geometry. A bar of shadow contributes to this severity while isolating the main figures; the luminous farmhouse seems altogether too far away, and resembles a theatrical backdrop. In these and other small ways, the painter (Louis?) sacrifices consistency to achieve an exquisite indeterminacy between the depicted world and the decorated surface, theater and realism.
Perhaps the most significant such incident occurs at the dead center of the canvas, where a door of roughly-sawn planks conceals a dark interior. Although the farmhouse stands at an angle to us, this doorway appears head-on, its foursquare orthogonals reiterating the shape of the canvas. The Le Nains reduce their technique to a minimum in this passage: just a few daubs and scumbles over a stretch of exposed, gray ground-layer. Yet everything in the picture frames this door and leads the eye to it. Does it make sense to ask what lies behind it? One might ask the same question of those expressionless faces. The net effect, at any rate, is of a picture at once self-enclosed and confrontational, emphatically surface-bound and yet possessed of hidden depths, theatrical and introspective—a picture, in other words, not unlike the blank, inscrutable people it represents.
This is something new. Valentin’s pictures, as we have seen, contained metaphors and are hence open to paraphrase. To see the world, says Valentin, is to read it, and reading can go awry; the senses are a crapshoot, or a game of cards, or a trick for the unwary; mere painting can never capture God’s splendor, but it can point the way, limn the ineffable. We may not know the words that Christ wrote in the dust, but we can study the painting that directs us to them, just as we can glimpse Raphael, and the Transfiguration of the incarnate deity, in the shadows of the Old Testament.
The Le Nains’ pictures, at their best, are something else again. They do not just contain metaphors, they are metaphors. 7 The various peasants and ragamuffins may exemplify types, but they are not allegorical. Nor do they gain significance by means of allusion, as does Valentin’s The Judgment of Solomon. Instead, the brothers invite us to see the picture as a whole, the picture globally, as somehow like the people it represents: confrontational, immobile, material, and yet irresistibly evocative of psychological presence. Metaphor of this sort does not reduce to propositions, for it works by mobilizing emotions, sensibilities, even fantasies. If the picture is like a person—an embodied person—that is not because it resembles one, but because the brothers have contrived to effect a transfer of affect between the two. They control not just what is to be seen in the picture, but how it is to be seen. Such artistry can imbue paintings with uncanny vitality, even as it brings home the fact that people are things, too. Here, there is a way of thinking about pictures, and of people, which is, in its quiet way, radical—even modern.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Beyond Caravaggio,” at the National Gallery, London, through Jan. 17; “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through Jan. 16; “The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France,” at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, through Jan. 29.
RICHARD NEER is a professor of art history at the University of Chicago.
1. Charles Dempsey quoted in Michael Fried, After Caravaggio, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2016, p. 16.
2. Pierre Rosenberg, France in the Golden Age, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982, p. 21.
3. Franciscus Junius, The Literature of Classical Art I: The Painting of the Ancients (1637), ed. Keith Aldrich, Philipp Fehl, and Raina Fehl, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1991, p. 36.
4. Pierre Rosenberg, “Preface: A Fascinating Enigma,” in The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of Seventeenth-Century France, ed. C.D. Dickerson III and Esther Bell, San Francisco, Fine Arts Museums, 2016, p. ix.
5. Orest Ranum, Paris in the Age of Absolutism: An Essay, revised edition, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002, pp. 167–94.
6. Nicolas Milovanovic, “The Le Nains and the Dutch Influence: The Question of Group Portraiture,” in The Brothers Le Nain, p. 72.
7. For a classic statement of this distinction, and the ‘metaphorization’ of the body, see Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 305–55.