The shift of taste in the early seventeenth century, which discovered an interest in subjects drawn from common life, had different results in every place. The work of Louis Le Nain and his family, who were painters from Laon in Normandy, was essentially unparalleled anywhere.
Louis Le Nain most often painted family life around meagerly furnished tables, peasant life without plenty, occasionally outdoors, on the way back from the fields. He made the subject solemnly impressive. The grave presences seen around their low table in these pictures are as restrained as the abstemious existence presented. There is none of the merrymaking of raffish company that endeared such subjects in Haarlem, none of the Italianate indulgence of Utrecht. There is a guard room, but none of the disreputable exploits and exotic entertainments of soldiery. There is nothing comic or gallant, picaresque, satirical, or condescending. There is little of the material detail encouraged by still life , there is no moralizing and no immorality.
The emphasis is on the seriousness of the presentation in the subdued light and shadowy space. These figures are positively modeled in a half light that passes laterally across the group waiting pensively, as if to be painted. The subject is a life of labor in a condition close to poverty, yet conveying with equal awareness the philosophic dignity in which hardship is endured and extravagance resisted. In his other pictures, the narrative of the gospel or a mythological subject was similarly imagined with a restrained grace and ponderously portrayed.
One has the impression that this monumentally massive and simple state was remembered or invented as much as observed. It is certain that the patient balance and classically suspended animation of the greatest pictures from the Le Nain which invariably seem to be the work of Louis were not easily achieved or maintained. A great many versions exist in which the sublimity narrowly failed to materialize and the proportionate serenity missed its mark, to be replaced by the charm of childhood or a dwarfish naivete that were rarely as impressive.
The conception of a classic simplicity in household life is one that recurs in French painting, occasionally in the specific pattern of these pictures but very often with a harmonious balance that has only a general affinity with the humane ideal envisaged by Louis Le Nain.