• France, Private Collection
On the occasion of the artist’s exhibition at the Berheim Gallery in 1929, the critic Arsène Alexandre summarized the especially endearing personality of Maximilien Luce:
"What shines forth in an overall examination of his oeuvre is the tremendous unity of his temperament in the course of very diverse efforts…what mainly dominates is a virile tenderness in the countryside, a serious and decided feeling before the spectacle of human activity.[…] His art has all the character of simplicity, strength, and kindness […]Through his painting, this warm, generous spirit communicated the ardor of his soul as a good honest fellow, as Corot similarly communicated his own Virgilian spirit".
Maximilien Luce worked as an apprentice and then assistant to an engraver, while studying at the Swiss Academy in the tradition of his Impressionist predecessors and being trained in the studio of Carolus-Duran. As a youth, the Parisian had been strongly affected by the Semaine sanglante, the bloody repression of the Commune in May 1771. His social involvement corresponded to the impact of this experience and could be seen almost thirty years later in the famous painting, A Paris Street in May 1871 (Orsay Museum, inv. RF 1977 235).
Maximilien Luce’s encounter during his military service with anarchist circles gave direction to his future political commitment. “If only I were Daumier!” he confided to Jean Grave, Director of the anarchist newspaper La Révolte who hired him as a draughtsman. His convictions, strong as they were, were still mainly those of a humanist rather than of an activist, and reflected his sensitivity and concern for placing humanity itself at the heart of his work.
Working people were the constant subject of Maximilien Luce’s visual efforts. Belgium was a revelation for him. Welcomed by Emile Verhaeren in 1896, he stayed in Brussels before exploring the Charleroi region. Close to the aesthetics of Constantin Meunier whose works he copied, Luce was deeply affected by this landscape punctuated by factories, slag heaps, chimneys, and blast furnaces. “This country frightens me. It is so terrible and beautiful that I doubt that I can render what I see,” he wrote to Henri Edmond Cross. In Paris, Luce found similar themes at the turn of the century in the capital’s public works, the construction of the 1900 World’s Fair, and the major undertaking to dig a subway. He discovered an abundance of subjects, be it the stevedores and dockers along the quays, the pile-drivers, navvies, masons, or asphalt pavers.
Maximilien Luce depicts a group of workers here on the quays of the Seine engaged in unloading a boat. The painter’s eye detects beauty where the passer-by wouldn’t notice a thing, and interprets the scene as a sensitive colorist. He employs a luminous palette of blues and soft greens, beige, pinks, mauves, yellows, and ochres, punctuated by the red of a belt and night blue shadows. In contrast to these soft hues, the brushstroke is broad and spontaneous, leaving its passage visible in reserve on the cardboard. A friend of Pissarro, Georges Seurat, and Paul Signac, Maximilien Luce was engaged in pointillism as of 1885. He gradually abandoned optical division in the second half of the 1890’s in favor of a more fluid and broader style.
The composition emits a robust power: the working men are solidly posed against a structured space composed of geometric lines of the pontoons and masts behind the curved rhythm of their bodies leaning on the crankshaft. Luce studied laborers at work at great length and easily translated this feeling of effort. One can find the same arched profiles in Workers loading a Ship (oil on cardboard, 59 x 72 cm. private collection). Quay activity was one of Luce’s favorite subjects, which he also illustrated in Pile-Drivers (1903, oil on canvas, 154 x 196 cm. Orsay Museum, inv. FR1977 234), which still bears the stamp of Neo-Impressionism, and in Workers on the Quay (oil on panel, 23 x 73 cm. private collection), in which the handling is much closer to our picture.
Bibliography Related to the Oeuvre
Jean BOUIN-LUCE, Denize BAZETOUX, Maximilien Luce : catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint, La Celle-Saint-Cloud, JBL, 1986, t. II, p. 231, n° 919.
Josiane GARNOVEL et al., Maximilien Luce et les bâtisseurs du Paris haussmannien, exh. cat. Guéret, Museum of Art and Archaeology, 2015.
Marina FERRETTI BOCQUILLON (dir.), Maximilien Luce, néo-impressionniste. Retrospective, exh. cat. Giverny, Impressionism Museum, 2010.
Maximilien Luce, peintre la condition humaine, exh. cat. Mantes-la-Jolie, Museum of the Hôtel-Dieu, Paris, Somogy, 2000.