Les Charbonniers by Claude Monet

Les Charbonniers by Claude Monet (c.1875)

When I think of Impressionism and Impressionist paintings I think of light airy scenes.  I think of lily ponds and flowering arches at Givenchy.  I think of colourful young things boating on the mirror-like waters of the Seine.  I think of people sitting on the banks of the Seine staring out at blue cloudless skies.  I think of fashionable people promenading along the Grand Jatte in gorgeous sunlight.  I associate Impressionism and the paintings associated with that particular “–ism” as being light, colourful and full of smiling faces on the people as they relax from the rigours of their working lives.

That all changed when I came across the work of the Impressionist, Caillebotte and his Floor Scrapers (see August 3rd).  Today, I am featuring another darker and more sombre painting by one of the greatest Impressionist painters of all time, Claude Monet.  He painted today’s painting in 1875 when he was thirty five years old and living at Argenteuil.  It is entitled Les Charbonniers (The Coalmen) or sometimes referred to as Les déchargeurs de charbon (Men unloading coal).

Before us is a view of the docks at the Quai de Clichy, a little downriver from Paris.  Framed at the top of the painting in the background, we can just make out through the haze, the broad arch of the Pont de Clichy railway bridge, one which Monet would have crossed many times as he took the train from Argenteuil to Paris.   It is also a bridge which he featured in a number of his paintings.  Horses and carts can be seen crossing the nearer bridge, the Pont d’Asnières.  These carts will transport the coal from the quayside to nearby factories, the chimneys of which we can just make out in the distance as they pump out their smoky pollutants.   Also on the bridge we see a few pedestrians gazing down at the unloading operation.

It is a dark and atmospheric picture.  We do not have the brightness of a summer’s day.  It is a dull grey wintery day with a smoke-filled sky.  We see the men struggling with their heavy bags of coal perched on their shoulders as they struggle up the narrow wooden ramps between ship and quay over the murky waters of the Seine, balancing like tightrope walkers on a high wire.  The wooden walkways bend ominously under the strain of man and his load.  We can just imagine the ominous groaning and creaking of the wood as it takes the strain.  Hour upon hour these men will trudge mechanically back and forth until all the coal has been discharged from the boat.  This is a labour intensive operation.  Les charbonniers have an unenviable job with its physical strain on the body coupled with the inhalation of coal dust into their lungs.  In the holds of the vessel itself we see men filling baskets with coal ready for the charbonniers to take them ashore.  These men will probably not live to an old age.  Unfortunately for them, the invention of quayside cranes and cargo escalators had yet to be realised.  This discharge of the coal from the boat would be a long operation, as fully loaded, the coal barge could probably transport about 300 tons of coal, which could take anything up to two weeks to manually unload.

The sailing barge has probably brought its cargo of coal from the mines in Belgium and Northern France along the Canal de Saint-Quentin which connects the rivers Oise, Escaut and Somme.  The canal, a great feat of engineering, was opened by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1810.

The painting by Monet is simply a depiction of urban life and he might not have intended it as a political treatise with regards the conditions suffered by some working class people.  However the artist has given the painting a dark and solemn ambience which emphasizes the plight of some of the lowest paid workers.  This work was one of 29 works Monet presented in the fourth Impressionist exhibition.

The Bellelli Family by Edgar Degas

The Bellelli Family by Edgar Degas

Today, My Daily Art Display looks at a painting by a French Impressionist painter who, to me, is synonymous with paintings and sculptures of young ballet dancers.  His name is Edgar Degas who was actually born Hilaire-Germain Edgar De Gas in 1834.  He was in the forefront of the Impressionism movement although he preferred to be labelled as a realist painter.  He worked on today’s featured painting between 1858 and 1867.  It is entitled Family Portrait or The Bellelli Portrait and is a masterpiece of Degas’ youth.  It is a deeply insightful family portrait, in which we observe four people, two adults and two children who are the family Bellelli.

Degas had a traditional École des Beaux-arts education in Paris and in 1856 travelled to Italy to continue his studies and the following year visited his grandfather, Hilaire Degas, in Naples.  He also spent time in Rome where he set about copying the work of the Renaissance Masters.  In 1858 he received an invitation from his aunt, Laura Bellelli, née De Gas, to visit her and her family in Florence and at the same time to take the opportunity to study the paintings in the city’s prestigious gallery, the Uffizi.  He jumped at the chance and so went to stay with the family.  The head of the household was Laura’s husband, Gennaro, who had been a political journalist as well as a fervent supporter and good friend of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, a leading figure in the movement towards Italian Unification.  When in 1854 the revolution against the Austrians failed, Gennaro was forced to flee from Italy to escape persecution by the Austrians over his participation in the failed uprising.  He first went and lived in exile in Paris but later returned to Florence.

Degas did not get on well with Gennaro and only remained at their rented house until the arrival of his cousins who had remained in Naples following the death of Degas’ grandfather, Hilaire.  Degas’ could sense the tension between Gennaro and his aunt Laura who once she confided in Degas about her relationship with her husband and her uncertain future saying:

“…my husband is “immensely disagreeable and dishonest… Living with Gennaro, whose detestable nature you know and who has no serious occupation, shall soon lead me to the grave….”

Part of the problem was that this exile in Florence separated her from her family back in Naples and to make matters worse, Laura was once again pregnant.  It is thought that the constant tension between her and her husband led to the death of the child in infancy and this tragic loss only added to the bitterness between husband and wife.  It was with this lack of domestic happiness in mind that Degas started this family portrait.

Before us we see the four members of the Bellelli family, Gennaro, his wife Laura, the sister of Degas’ father, and their daughters Giulia and Giovanna.  It is known that Degas made many sketches of the family before returning to Paris to work on the painting.

We see Laura dressed in mourning for the recent death of her father, and Degas’ grandfather, Hilaire, and in the background we can see a framed portrait of him.  Looking closely at how Degas has depicted his aunt.  We see a very dignified woman with a very stern countenance.  She stands upright as if posing for an official picture.  She coldly averts her gaze away from her husband. Her right hand rests protectively on the shoulder of her elder and favourite daughter, Giovanna.   Degas’ two young cousins are depicted with their mother, and are also dressed in mourning, in their black dresses and white pinafores. Giulia half sits on a small chair at the centre of the painting, arms akimbo, as she looks towards her father and in some ways forms a link between the two estranged adults.  Degas was very taken with his cousins describing them:

“….The elder one was in fact a little beauty. The younger one, on the other hand, was smart as can be and kind as an angel. I am painting them in mourning dress and small white aprons, which suit them very well…I would like to express a certain natural grace together with a nobility that I don’t know how to define….”

Note how Degas has positioned the husband and wife far apart in the painting, which was probably an acknowledgement of the tension between the couple and how the two had drifted apart.  There is no feeling of togetherness about the family.    The father sits in an armchair at his desk next to the fireplace, where he had been reading or writing a letter.   He has his back to us but his head is turned towards his daughter.  He appears unmoved and uncaring, showing little interest in what is going on around him.    His body is framed by a mantelpiece on which we see an ornate clock, some plates and a candlestick.  Over the mantelpiece there hangs a large mirror and in the mirror we see reflections of the room which in some way open up the space and fills it with more light.  We see reflections in the mirror of a curtained window, a chandelier and a framed painting.

It is interesting to look at how Degas has seemed to separate the husband from the rest of the family by a vertical separation formed by the leg of the table, the candlestick and the vertical side of the fireplace and mirror.   Just behind his chair, on the floor, we catch a glimpse of the family’s pet dog.  The drawing which we can see hanging on the wall behind Laura is a portrait of the recently deceased Hilaire Degas, which his grandson had drawn.  It is more than likely that Degas positioned this small picture where he did so as to give a sense of connection between the various generations of the Degas family.

Laura must have been appalled that Degas had to stay in a household, which exuded such unhappiness.   It is believed that Laura married Gennaro in desperation because her father had not been satisfied with any of her previous suitors and she was still unmarried at the “ripe old age” of 28.   She was extremely unhappy in her marriage and once shared her misgivings with Degas.   According to the American biographer and art historian, Theodore Reff, who wrote about a letter from Laura to her nephew, in his book , Degas: The Artist’s Mind .   In the letter she wrote:

 “…You must be very happy to be with your family again, instead of being in the presence of a sad face like mine and a disagreeable one like my husband’s…”

 It is thought that this family portrait was not to be a gift to the family but a work of art which he wanted to exhibit at the Paris Salon.  Whether he ever did that is uncertain but many believe he put it forward for exhibition at the Salon in 1867.  Degas kept hold of the painting until 1913 when he gave it to his art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, for him to sell.  In 1918 it was sold to the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris  and later the painting was moved to the newly opened Musée d’Orsay where it can now be found.

One should remember that this is not a photograph in which one can detect the mood of the sitters.  This is a painting by an artist who has the ability to paint the demeanour of his sitters in whatever way he chooses.  So this painting is how Degas views the family life of the Bellelli family.  How close it is to realism is known only by Degas and the Bellelli family.  So it is up to you  to decide whether Laura was a stern and disillusioned matriarch and whether Gennaro was the disinterested and curmudgeonly.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Auguste Renoir (1881)

My Daily Art Display today features one of the best known Impressionist paintings.  It is Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir which he painted in 1881.  Although I would rank Impressionism outside my top three favourite art genres, I was fascinated by this painting and the story behind it.

Maison Fournaise (c.1890)

I suppose firstly I should examine the setting for the painting, which is the balcony at the Maison Fournaise.  This building is situated on the ÎlIe de Chatou, an island situated across from the small town of Chatou, which is situated on the right bank of the Seine.   Boating on the Seine became a very popular form of recreation in the middle of the eighteenth century and whereas Argenteuil, a little way upstream from Chatou, where the Seine is wider and with its more prevalent winds, attracted sailors, the Îlle de Chatou was the ideal spot for rowers.  Alphonse Fournier, who was a river toll collector and a part-time boat carpenter, set up his boat building workshop along with his boat rental business in 1857.  Alphonse also used to organise boat regattas and water festivals.   At the same time, his wife, an accomplished cook, opened a restaurant next door.  This restaurant, combined with the boat rental facility and its many organised boating events, was a very popular family-run business.   Their daughter Louise-Alphonsine, who became a popular and well-known artist’s model, greeted the clients whilst their son Jules-Alphonse charmed the ladies and assisted them into the boats.  Artists visiting Maison Fournaise were never short of potential models for as Renoir wrote:

“…..I was constantly spending my time chez Fournaise-there I found as many beautiful girls as one could ever wish to paint!…..”

The Island of Chatou had other thing going for it.  Rail travel allowed Parisians easy access to this area in the countryside.  If you look carefully under the awning you can just make out, at the top left, the blue-gray outline of the Chatou railroad bridge, part of the government’s recently completed transportation projects that had made access to this riverside destination possible to everybody, not just to the members of the upper class.

La Maison Fournaise, today.

The setting also radiated   peace and tranquillity along with its ideal light conditions and proved a haven for artists with the likes of Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Berte Morisot, Edouart Manet and Camille Pissaro often visiting the location.   Auguste Renoir was also a regular caller and he once described his love of the establishment in a letter to friend:

“…You could find me anytime at Fournaise’s. There, I was fortunate enough to find as many splendid creatures as I could possibly desire to paint……….. I can’t leave Chatou, because my painting is not finished yet. It would be nice of you to come down here and have lunch with me. You won’t regret the trip, I assure you. There isn’t a lovelier place in all Paris surroundings….

The Fournaises’ two businesses flourished until 1906 when Madame Fournaise closed the restaurant and four years later Alphonse Fournaise wound down his boat rental enterprise.  Then, unfortunately, over the years,  the deserted premises started to fall into disrepair.  Madame Fournaise died in 1937.  By the 1970’s the buildings were at the point of complete dereliction.  However in 1977 the town of Chatou bought the building and five years later it listed it as a building of historic significance, joining the register of Les Monuments Historiques and restoration work began with the support from The Friends of Maison Fournaise and The Friends of French Art.   Currently the building is a museum, La Fournaise Museum, and in 1990 a restaurant reopened on the premises

So now we know the setting for the painting let me introduce you to some of the people featured in this wonderful painting.  As in a number of Renoir’s paintings, he liked to include portraits of his friends.

The Participants
  1.  Aline Charigot, seen holding a dog, was a seamstress and part time model for Renoir.  Aged twenty-seven at the time of the painting met Renoir in 1880 and they were married in 1890, despite a thirteen year age difference.  The couple had three children, Pierre, Jean (who became the well-known filmmaker) and Claude.  Despite being much younger than Renoir she died four years before him in 1915, aged 61 and was buried in the churchyard at Essoyes in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France which was her childhood home.  Renoir who died a few months before his seventy-ninth, in Cagnes, was laid to rest alongside his beloved wife.
  2. Jules-Alphonse Fournaise, wearing a straw boater and sportsman’s T shirt leans against the balustrade.  He was the son of the owner of Maison Fournaise and was in charge of the boat rentals.
  3. Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise, leaning against the balustrade is the daughter of the owner of the establishment and a war widow.
  4. Baron Raoul Barbier, sporting a brown bowler hat, has his back to us as he engages the proprietor’s daughter in conversation.  Formerly a cavalry officer and war hero later became mayor of colonial Saigon.  The two loves in his life were women and horse racing.
  5. Jules Laforgue, a Symbolist poet, journalist on the La Vie Moderne newspaper and private secretary to Charles Ephrussi (No.8)
  6. Ellen Andrée, seen drinking from her glass. Aged 24 at the time of the painting, she was a Parisian actress and mime at the Folies Bergère and sometime artist’s model for Renoir, Manet and Degas (See My Daily Art Display June 7th where the actress has modeled for the Degas painting).
  7. Angèle Leault, some time Parisian actress and singer and also a market flower seller.
  8. Charles Ephrussi, wearing a top hat and in conversation with his secretary.  Russian-born Ephrussi was a wealthy art collector and historian as well as being editor of the prestigious art magazine, Gazette des Beaux-Arts.  He was a great supporter of the Impressionist painters.
  9. Gustave Caillebotte, in the right foreground with a cigarette in his hand.  He was a good friend of Renoir and a well-known painter in his own right.  He was a collector of Impressionist paintings and also one of Renoir’s wealthy patrons.  Renoir’s prominent positioning of Caillebotte was not accidental but was a measure of his importance to Renoir.  He lived in a house overlooking the Seine, not far from Chatou.  Caillebotte  was trained as an engineer, built boats and was a great sportsman.  This maybe accounts for Renoir’s youthful portrayal of him (he was 33 at the time of the painting) in his boating attire, consisting of a sleeveless white T shirt and blue flannel pants.  On his head is a flat-topped straw hat around which a blue ribbon is tied.  This indicates that Caillebotte was a member of the privileged Cercle Nautique de la Voile boating club.  He was godfather to Renoir’s eldest son, Pierre.
  10. Adrien Maggiolo , Italian journalist on Le Triboulet newspaper.
  11.  Eugène-Pierre Lestringuez, official at the Ministry of the Interior and close friend of Renoir who often modeled for his paintings.
  12.  Paul Lhote, wearing a straw hat in conversation with Lestringuez and the actress Jeanne Samary.  He was a writer of short fiction and a journalist and close friend of Renoir.
  13.  Jeanne Samary, holding her black-gloved hands to her ears.  Actress at the Coméie-Francais in Paris.

With this group of people we can see that Renoir was illustrating the nature of Maison Fournaise which welcomed customers from a variety of social backgrounds from the wealthy aristocrats to the humble actors.   With the new rail system in place along with the shortened working week, everyone, no matter what their occupation, was able to escape the city and enjoy the pleasures of the Parisian suburbs at the weekends.  The forty year old artist in producing this large masterpiece depicted the modern life of Parisians as they relaxed.  Renoir’s painting captures the idyllic atmosphere as his friends wine and dine on the riverside terrace.  Renoir gathered most of the participants in the painting together early on so that he could organize the composition.  Later he worked on the individual figures as and when they were able to model for him.  It was a grueling time for the artist and Renoir felt the pressure on him to complete the work.  He had a love-hate relationship with the work commenting once:

“… I no longer know where I am with it, except that it is annoying me more and more….”

He made many changes to the work before he was completely satisfied. The final result was a veritable gem of Impressionism.