The Simple Life, Sweetly Rendered

Some small paintings, like short pieces of music, more than hold their own in a world dominated by the large and important. Take this tiny, French 17th-century painting of poor children in Glasgow's Burrell Collection.

Labeled "Antoine le Nain," it may be by any of three Le Nain brothers who worked together and used a common signature. Living at the time of Louis XIII, they were from Laon, northeast of Paris. But their provincial background did not disqualify them from high patronage in Paris after they moved there in 1629.

The fewer than 70 surviving Le Nain works demonstrate versatility: portraits, mythical and religious paintings, and - perhaps most distinctively - quietly posed "peasant" groups, either in interiors or landscapes. Often featuring children, these groups look like families. Musicians often are pictured as well. Though these "genre" scenes are rooted in the rural, the brothers continued to produce them in the city, presumably for an appreciative clientele.

Genre painting (popular in Holland at the same period) was still free from the academic stigma later accorded it. Such paintings could depict ordinary people without being condemned as merely "low." The Le Nain genre pictures (except for some of squabbling card-players) tend to be placidly idealized while still having a ring of authenticity.

The music played in these peasant groups likely sounded simple and straightforward; it adds to these images a suggestive touch of solace or even sweetness.

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