Constantin Meunier and 19th Century Realism

A year ago I visited Brussels for a concert and, for the first time, didn’t visit an art gallery!  Shortly afterwards I discovered a beautiful painting by a Belgian artist, Leon Spilliaert and vowed to go back to the Musee de Beaux Arts to see his work: Haunting Symbolism:Leon Spilliaert

Serendipity struck again when I returned to Belgium this week to see the same band- thank you guys – and on Sunday, I was able to visit the museum.

With five museums under the banner,  it was going to be  difficult to see all five, so it was Modern Art, the Old Masters and the Fin de Siecle that we visited.

Sadly, I was disappointed with the section on Leon Spilliaert. They did not have any of the landscapes on display but my disappointment soon turned to joy when I found these four paintings:

I had found another new artist who was right up my street! Constantin Meunier. Born in 1831, Meunier lived through the upheavals new technology was bringing. Late in his career, Meunier achieved his fame through his depictions of the working man …and women. In both paintings and sculpture, Meunier explored the lives of the industrial workers, dockers, miners, and fishermen from a compassionate and commited viewpoint.  Clockwise from top left: Coal Mine in the Snow; The Black Country, Borinage; Removal of the Broken Crucible and  The Red Roofs. 

Meunier began his career studying sculpture at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Brussels at the age of 14. He moved to painting as his chosen medium in his early 20s and began to be influenced by the great history canvases that were expressing the social concerns that became a theme for his later works.  His 1872 canvas Episode of the Uprising in the Vendee shows a group of peasants armed with rifles, scythes and pitchforks in front of a crucifix. The cold, barren landscape gives this an air of foreboding.


The early works were mainly concerned with scenes of religious devotion but there was a link with the plight of the individual in these paintings. From 1878 onwards, agricultural scenes began to dominate-The Potato Sowers and The Gleaners being good examples of this genre. Meunier’s realistic depictions of the recurring cycles of rural living were far from idylic and it was obvious that he was more interested in reality than allegory.


From the 1880s, Meunier began to produce mounumental canvases that conveyed the overwhelming noise and heat of the foundries, rolling mills and factories. His use of chiaroscuro in Foundry of Seraing to depict the light and shadows created by the furnaces was powerful and created a scene of power and oppression.


Now in his 50s, Meunier returned to his early love of sculpture and produced a large number of bronzes showing the weariness and agony of the working man and woman. The famous, The Puddler, with his hunched back, fatigued face, is worn out by his phyical labours. Although muscular, this is through the hard labour of his work.


A retrospective was held in 2014 and this link covers the full exhibition.

Expo Meunier



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