The French artist, Eugène Carrière, was a remarkable painter who worked almost exclusively in a colour palette of browns and deep yellows, using quick, semi-dry brush strokes to create his typical ghostly effects. Carrière’s name is little known now, but at his peak around 1900 he was one of the most celebrated figures in French culture. And it was in the year 1900 that Carrière turned his technique and subject matter from domestic portraiture to create a highly evocative industrial painting titled Le Fondeur or The Foundryman.
The Art of the Inferno
Context is important here. The world of work in 1900 and the early twentieth century was radically different from the world we know today. For many of us, a modern hard day’s work might involve deep thinking at a workplace with a ‘hot desk.’ While your ‘hot desk’ situated in an air-conditioned space is a metaphor for connectivity, the environment in the past for masses of industrial workers was a hard physical reality of intense heat, noise, noxious fumes, muscular exertion and the ever-present danger of appalling injury or violent death.
You might be aware that this inner-city industrial world has been evoked in recent years by a television series, Peaky Blinders. Set in the smoggy gloom of industrial Birmingham from the 1920s, the inner-city streets are far from the typically gentrified neighborhoods that we know today. Instead, the grimy, smoky, sulphureous streets are illuminated randomly by blasts of industrial fire that leap through open doorways and windows. It’s a reminder that today’s chic inner-city warehouse apartments once hosted furnaces and factories operated by masses of workers who were crammed into nearby terraces.
Everything that was made from metal – from massive steel-hulled ship plates to train rails and the locomotives that charged along them – had a large component of being ‘hand-made.’ From Birmingham to Berlin, from Pittsburgh to Paris, the inner-city industrial story was similar and it’s this world that Carrière illustrates through the medium of one individual worker.
The worker in Carrière’s hellscape is lit by the red- and white-hot metal that he is manipulating with his heavy steel implement. He stands tall amid the heat haze, fire and fumes that rise all around him. Although the painting is not ‘realist’ or photographic in a technical sense, the predicament of the steel worker is strikingly suggested by Carrière’s colour palette and technique. Note that the worker’s strong arms are not angular, but flow visually like the molten metal being manipulated beyond the frame.
We can see that he has no protection at all in this extremely dangerous industrial environment: no helmet, no goggles, no breathing apparatus, no gloves – nothing but his own clothes. Being wreathed in fire and smoke, he is alone and has no choice but to persevere working in this inferno. We can see that Carrière has painted the foundryman from slightly below, giving the tilt of the worker’s torso and head a defiantly heroic aspect. The respect that Carrière feels for the foundryman is powerfully expressed through this deliberate positioning of his individual subject.
Le Fondeur can be viewed at the wonderful Musée des Beaux Arts in Nancy, in the Grand Est region of France.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…