Constantin Meunier was one of the premier European Social Realists of the late 19th century, considered on par with Jean-François Millet and Charles de Groux. While he began his artistic career as a sculptor, he pursued only painting from 1857-1884. Thematically, his work was based largely in humanitarian interests, many of his subjects being laborers, miners, metalworkers, dockworkers, and women at home. In 1882, the Belgian government sponsored Meunier on a trip to Spain, where he painted religious subjects. Upon his return he refocused his energy on social themes, only now he began to express his empathy and respect for commonplace subjects by sculpting them in bronze. One of his most notable works was a large outdoor sculpture group entitled Monument to Labour, installed in Brussels’ Place de Trooz in 1930.
Constantin Meunier’s Marteleur, alternatively titled Forgeron, represents a 19th-century Belgian blacksmith, or ‘hammerman.’ Meunier was renowned for his depictions of working-class individuals, of which his Forgeron is a paradigmatic example. A monumental version of this work sits on the grounds of Columbia University. The sculpture exudes a sense of gravity, complete with certain elements of roughness and danger that are no doubt products of Meunier’s devotion to realism. He was committed to studying his subjects from life; in order to render them faithfully, he practiced live observation at the Cockerill steel foundry in Seraing. Around 1880, working primarily in paint, Meunier was commissioned to illustrate portions of the French periodical Le Tour du monde, specifically those concerning descriptions of Belgian miners and factory workers. These illustrations bore titles such as Melting Steel at the Factory at Seraing (1882), Smithery at Cockerill’s, and Returning from the Pit. In conjunction with his Forgeron, these illustrations spoke to Meunier’s belief in “la grandeur plastique de l’ouvrier industriel,” or, “the plastic grandeur of the industrial worker,” which would become the central theme of the artist’s oeuvre. Meunier exhibited a life-size version in Paris at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1886; reductions were cast from a plaster model between 1885 and 1886. The dating of this piece coincides with the Walloon insurrection of 1886, a wave of workers’ strikes that rattled the social and economic foundation of the Belgian state. Given the dramatic contrapposto and powerful solidity of his Forgeron, it is no surprise that Meunier saw a distinct brand of heroism within the realm of manual labor. By way of representation, he would advocate for the working class throughout the remainder of his career.
Private Collection of Ginette and Alain Lesieutre
Micheline Jérome-Schotsmans, Constantin Meunier : Sa vie, son œuvre, Brussels : Bertrand, 2012, no. 74, ill p. 153
Francisca Vandepitte, Constantin Meunier (1831-1905), Tielt : Lannoo, 2014, p. 309, cat. no. 87, ill p. 203