Only a few paintings securely attributable to the Brothers Le Nain have been discovered since the great exhibition devoted to their works in Paris in 1978-79, and the present Saint Jerome is the only one to be fully signed and dated. It is also rare in their production in focusing on a single saint. A Saint Jerome by the Le Nains appeared at auction in Paris in 1810, but differences in the description of that painting and its dimensions preclude it being identified with the present painting, and it must have been another picture, now lost. Three paintings of the Mary Magdalene were recorded in Matthieu Le Nain’s estate at the time of his death, all presumably by one or more of the brothers, and a signed version of The Magdalene in the Desert, dated 1643, was sold in Paris in 1806, but only a single version of that subject survives today which can be given with confidence to the Le Nains (fig. 1). The present painting, which was discovered in 2015 in a private collection in France and was published and exhibited for the first time in 2016, is a beautiful, masterfully painted and finely preserved addition to the small corpus of major works by the brothers.
The painting depicts the 4th-century saint and ascetic scholar reading the Bible in the desert cave to which he periodically retreated and practiced repentance. Jerome sits in a rustic chair at a rough-hewn wooden desk on which rests one of his traditional attributes, a skull, with sacred texts at his feet and another of his attributes, a lion, barely visible in the distant landscape. Infrared reflectography has revealed that the lion was originally much larger and positioned close to the saint’s side, near the mouth of the grotto, before the composition was changed and the lion repositioned and significantly diminished in scale. As Dickerson and Bell note in their thorough examination of the painting, Jerome was venerated in Counter-Reformation France for some of the same reasons as the Magdalene: ‘Both exemplified the ideals of Catholicism through their faith and their willingness to endure physical deprivation in order to come closer to God.' The present Saint Jerome is remarkably similar in composition, palette, play of light, atmospheric effects and handling to the surviving painting of The Penitent Magdalene, and the two pictures must have been executed at almost the same moment and by the same brother or brothers. Despite the differences in format and size, the two paintings serve as virtual pendants, with both penitent saints withdrawn entirely into their private worlds of contemplation and repentance, inside the mouths of caves and situated in desert landscapes which, in their inexplicable lushness, resemble the green fields of Picardy, homeland of the Le Nain brothers.
Much ink has been expended by scholars in trying to distinguish the hands of the artistic collective that were the Le Nain brothers. Antoine Le Nain (c.1598-1648), Louis Le Nain (c.1600/5-1648) and Mathieu Le Nain (c.1607-1677) lived together and shared a studio in Paris. As the studio was headed by Antoine, he is presumed to have been eldest. They produced altarpieces and religious paintings; portraits; small, multifigural pictures on copper or wood of musicians or children; and peasant scenes. They achieved considerable success, received commissions from the Church and Crown and were founding members of the Académie Royale, established just two months before the near simultaneous deaths of Antoine and Louis, presumably from the same illness. Some of their paintings – including the present lot – are signed, but when they are, it is always simply ‘Le Nain’. Some of the pictures are clearly collaborations involving more than one hand, but three groupings of pictures have been proposed which appear to represent distinct hands, and which are tentatively assigned to individual brothers. Roughly divided, the small multifigural paintings on copper and wood are given to Antoine (or brother A, as per Bell and Dickerson), in part because Antoine was described in an early source (Claude Leleu’s Histoire de Laon, written before 1726) as having 'excelled at miniatures and small portraits'; the peasant interiors are generally given to Louis Le Nain (or brother B); while Mathieu (or brother C) – who lived and worked for 30 years after the deaths of his brothers – is given the widest range of pictures, including most of the large-scale paintings and biblical subjects, as well the paintings which, for one reason or another, can only have been made after the deaths of Antoine and Louis.
The Saint Jerome, dated either 1642 or 1643 – the last digit is hard to discern – was executed while all three brothers were alive. Dickerson and Bell, in their exemplary catalogue, wrestle with the question of to which brother the painting might be most reasonably assigned, acknowledging that the question is complicated. Employing Morellian connoisseurship, they 'place the painting – tentatively – in our group C (Mathieu?)', to whom they also give The Penitent Magdalene. In his recent review of the 2016-17 exhibition in Revue de l’Art, Jean-Pierre Cuzin, doyen of Le Nain studies, in praising the ‘beauty’ and ‘sculptural amplitude’ of the Saint Jerome, focused particularly on the cool but verdant landscape setting of the painting and its close comparison to celebrated landscape paintings in Washington and Hartford that have traditionally been attributed to Louis Le Nain, to support his own view that the Saint Jerome is more probably the work of Louis (fig. 2).
In the question of assigning individual authorship to the paintings of the Brothers Le Nain, the discussion will no doubt continue for many years to come, likely with no clear resolution unless heretofore unknown documentation emerges. Unmarried and childless, the Le Nain brothers lived together and shared a studio their entire lives, conditions which encouraged their tightly interwoven manner of production. As the connoisseur Pierre-Jean Mariette noted in 1750, '[The brothers] were so perfectly harmonized in their work that it was almost impossible to distinguish what each had done in the same painting, as they worked together, and rarely released a painting from the studio where [each] had not put their hand.'
Beyond dispute, however, is that the newly discovered Saint Jerome is a masterpiece of the highest order and an indispensable addition to the body of works by these great artists. While acknowledging sensible uncertainty, for the present author, the dry and brushy handling of paint, chalky facture, reduced palette of smoky grays and browns and the tender expressiveness of Jerome’s absorbed and weary face display all the characteristics of the paintings that have historically been given to Louis Le Nain, the brother who was, in Pierre Rosenberg’s assessment, 'the unquestionable genius of the family.'