· France, Private Collection.
A Realist painter and sculptor, Constantin Meunier was one of the most eminent representatives of late 19th century Belgian social art. His brother Jean-Baptiste had been an engraving student under Luigi Calamatta and strongly influenced his younger brother’s art. Simultaneously with his training at the Academy of Brussels with Louis Jehotte as his sculpture professor, Constantin Meunier followed the teaching of the sculptor Charles-Auguste Fraikin. He exhibited for the first time at the Salon of Brussels in 1851. During this Salon, he discovered Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers and his realism which would profoundly mark his own work.
Until 1884, the artist devoted himself entirely to painting, producing genre and history pictures, as well as a number of religious compositions inspired by his retreats to the Trappists in Westmalle. In 1878, the son of his friend Charles De Groux invited him to Herstal near Liege, a region famous for its arms factories. But Meunier’s real encounter with the industrial world took place in 1880 when Camille Lemonnier undertook an encyclopedic study of the Borinage region, the mining country of Hainaut, and invited Meunier to join him.
This was a major artistic turning point, a second career for Meunier who also discovered a passion for sculpture and bronze casting which seemed to him to come closer to the actual labor of the workers. Profoundly marked by the workers’ condition, he determined to henceforth transcribe social and industrial aspects of Belgium in an uncompromising undiluted reality, beginning with Lemonnier’s work, Belgium. The artist became equally militant in the Belgian Worker’s Party.
In 1886, his Hammersmith, conceived in the context of his project, Monument to Work, received an honorable mention at the Salon of Paris. He was also invited to participate in the exhibitions of the Group of XX, the Belgian avant-garde movement, and in the Vienna Secession in 1998.
A cast of remarkable quality, our work dates to the same year as the oil on canvas entitled The Black Country. The figures with angular features is an archetype in Meunier’s oeuvre: these figures can be found in profile, exhausted by labor in the Black Country in the low relief bronze exhibited in the Salon of 1893, Miners at the Shaft Exit, and then in the plaster and bronze plaques, right up to the one commissioned in 1904 by the coal merchant Edouard Taymans of which several examples were cast.
The identical profile to our also appears in an undated engraving by Meunier entitled Miners. Borinage District which is connected with the artist’s work on the Triptych of the Mine (Ascent, Calvary, Descent) (oil on canvas, Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, inv. 10000/176).
The originality of the Head of a Miner lies in the fact that it forms a pendant with the profile of the Hammersmith, a plaque which came out of the 1886 sculpture. The exact distribution remains difficult to determine, but it appears to have been limited in comparison to other models.
Of almost identical dimensions, the two low reliefs present the head of a man in left profile who seems to be one with the material, while at the same time the powerful irregular features of the models are rendered with surprising acuity. However here, the edge of the helmet forms a mechanical cutting diagonal which is in contrast to the rest of the modeling done with a sure hand without resorting to chisels. The pupils are not hollowed out and the irises are not indicated. The sculptor concentrates on the silent manifestation of effort as he heroicizes and glorifies work.
“It is this pride expressed in the noble harmony of forms, in the gaze of Meunier’s figures; even when these figures express lassitude, they still express the energy that will again renew itself. These are the Atlantes that will stand up again, conquerors of the burden.” (Vanzype).
A.Z. et M.L.M.
Morceaux choisis du XIXe siècle dans les collections des musées d’Ile de France, exh. cat. Paris, mairie du IXe arrondissement, 1989, p. 222, no 183, ill. (proof from the Museum of Art and History of Saint-Denis).
Les XX, la Libre Esthétique 100 ans après, exh. cat. Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, 1993, no 166, p. 486, ill. (proof from the Museum of Fine Arts of Brussels).
Marguerite DEVIGNE, Constantin Meunier. Les grands Belges, Turnhout, 1919.
Gustave VANZYPE, “Constantin Meunier, une œuvre d’exception?,” Bulletin de la Classe des Beaux-Arts de l’Académie royale de Belgique, 1931, 5th series, vol. 13, pp. 59-72.
Micheline JEROME-SCHOTSMANS, Constantin Meunier, sa vie, son œuvre, Waterloo, Olivier Bertrand Éditions and Belgian Art Research Institute, 2012.
Francesca VANDEPITTE, Constantin Meunier, exh. cat. Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, 2014.