The peasant world in the 17th centurye century

The peasant world in the 17th century<sup>e</sup> century

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Title: Meal of peasants.

Author : THE DWARF Louis (1593 - 1648)

Creation date : 1642

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 97 - Width 122

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage place: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Gérard Blot

Picture reference: 91-002079 / MI1088

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Gérard Blot

Publication date: October 2012

Professor at Paris VIII University

Historical context

The Le Nain brothers and the Saint-Sulpice parish

This large painting was produced at the end of the reign of Louis XIII, as evidenced by the inscription "THE DWARF. 1642. ”On the edge of the board placed on a barrel to serve as a bench. Since 1641, signatures accompanied by a date, until then without example among the Le Nain, have multiplied. As if to affirm a finally recognized status of consecrated artists.

Since 1629, the Le Nain brothers have resided rue Princesse, between the suburb of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the parish of Saint-Sulpice. He devoted great efforts to the organization of a militant charity, on the model of Vincent de Paul, because in this "somber XVIIe century ”struck by numerous food shortages, the parish of Saint-Sulpice saw a flow of men and women whom the texts call“ without fire, without place, without confession ”, in search of food, protection or work.

Image Analysis

A "realistic" scene

We are in the main room, and perhaps unique, of a peasant interior, the warm room, the one that shelters the sleep, the cooking of food, the meals, the evenings of the long winter evenings around the fire, the work too, when inclement weather does not allow you to go out. A woman and three children are identifiable.

Many concrete details also appear, immediately recognizable: a white tablecloth covers a low table, probably made of a wooden plank resting on trestles; wine was served in long, tapered glasses; Once opened, a large loaf of white bread, the bread of the rich, is placed on the table, with its thick crust, which retains moisture and delays the transition to stale bread.

A dirt floor; a glazed terracotta pot, but none of those "ringing pewter" objects which the historian knows to distinguish, more often than not, the richest; a three-legged stool (right); a wooden board (left), placed on a barrel; the leather back of a chair in the background. Also in the background (on the right) a bed appears quite clearly, the tall columns of which support a fabric sky.

The participants in this scene belong to clearly differentiated social groups. First of all, a wealthy man, whose clothes correspond to the style of the time. It has a beautiful and proud look and it occupies the center of the table. Is this a city dweller? Note his white collar, closed. Is he a sign that he's not working? His clothes are quite neat; his hair, beard and mustache are "in fashion" - "à la royale", as they used to say then. His son, obviously (clothes identical to those of his father), plays the violin, an instrument which was not rare in the countryside as attested by a number of accounts devoted to peasant festivals ... It emerges from this first group (the father in the manner of holding his glass and the handle of a knife, his son ready to play the violin) a certain air of distinction and civility.
Next, a relatively well-off peasant occupies the left side of the painting. Note, in contrast to the previous character, his simple clothes, in canvas or in serge (wool and hemp), little torn, except at the knees. He wears shoes. His wife is standing behind him, in the background, in an attitude of reserve and discretion. The clothes are simple: a red serge dress, a white blouse with a wide collar, a small white headgear concealing the hair. It is difficult to identify a distinctive garment from a particular region (no headdress or ruff, for example): we know that "regional" clothes will appear a century later.

Finally, the figure on the right clearly comes from a very poor social background. Her pose is modest, her eyes lowered, her gaze vague, her body packed down by a life of toil and misery. Who can he be? A peasant ? A beggar ? A stranger ? Her feet are bare, her clothes are torn; he adopts a humble, silent, even respectful attitude (his hat is placed on his knees while the character on the left has kept his cap). Is this the hiring (the "hired") of an employee or a worker, for example a plowman? Why did these three characters meet? What can unite them? Bring them together?


A painting with religious accents

Beyond a “realistic” painting, the three brothers Le Nain, Louis, Antoine and Mathieu, would have painted a scene of the Eucharist: we are here, fully, in the register of an offensive religious culture, that of the Catholic Reformation militant of the devotees of which the parish of Saint-Sulpice was precisely the epicenter. "We had not yet imagined that painters had a silent theology and that, through their figures, they made known the most hidden mysteries of our religion": this reflection by Charles Le Brun during a conference given on the 10th June 1671 at the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, on the Rapture of Saint Paul, by Poussin, applies fully to the painting of the Le Nain brothers.

In such a perspective, the real subject would be, perhaps, the fullness of the real Presence, of the Incarnation, Transubstantiation painted in the visible realities (bread, wine), socially visible in human history, until to the most humble of the needy, "filled with God if he wants" as Olier wrote (see bibliography).

If this hypothesis were confirmed, this painting, by the subject it deals with, would find its place in the great war of beliefs that has torn Europe apart since the first half of the XVIe century: the Le Nain brothers show the tangible evidence of the real Presence, against a Calvinism that rejects any possibility of transubstantiation ...

  • peasants
  • meal
  • campaign
  • absolute monarchy
  • Great Century
  • religion


  • Joël CORNETTE, The Peasants' Meal by the Le Nain brothers, Paris, Armand Colin, coll. “A work, a story”, 2008.
  • Jean-Jacques OLIER, Jacques-Paul MIGNE, Complete works of M. Olier, J.-P. Migne, Publisher at the Catholic workshops rue d´Amboise, Paris, 1856.

To cite this article

Joël CORNETTE, “The peasant world in the 17the century "

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