Painting labor

Painting labor

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  • Coal unloaders.

    MONET Claude (1840 - 1926)

  • The coal collector.

    GERVEX Henri (1852 - 1929)

To close

Title: Coal unloaders.

Author : MONET Claude (1840 - 1926)

School : Impressionism

Creation date : 1875

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 55 - Width 66

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 94DE18265 / RF 1993-21

Coal unloaders.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

To close

Title: The coal collector.

Author : GERVEX Henri (1852 - 1929)

School : Impressionism

Creation date : 1882

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 70 - Width 117

Technique and other indications: (study) oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Lille Palace of Fine Arts website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. G. Ojeda

Picture reference: 98DE5278 / Inv. P. 1750

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

Publication date: October 2014


Painting labor


Historical context

Coal is identified, so to speak, with the first industrial revolution: it is its main - if not the only - source of energy. The growth in its production parallels the acceleration of industrialization: it was extracted almost twenty times more in 1914 than in 1850.

Imported from England or Germany or extracted in the mining basins of the North and the Center, coal is transported to the capital mainly by barge. This explains the care taken by the French authorities to develop, during the second half of the century, a coherent network of waterways and canals, the main node of which is Paris.

In the 1870s and 1880s, when economic growth in France faltered, it was still common practice to rely more on human power than on mechanical cranes to ensure the transshipment of coal. The unloader, the “coltiner” is one of the still extremely numerous trades which relate to handling, trades in contact with old artisanal habits and the new industrial world.

Image Analysis

Everything, or almost, opposes these two paintings in their conception and their destination.

It was during his journeys between the capital and its suburbs that Monet captured this scene of the unloaders. Although he keeps exhibiting and selling, he first paints to satisfy his own research.

For his part, Gervex was a very popular painter from the 1880s. He rubbed shoulders with the Impressionists and Manet. He befriends Maupassant and Zola, the masters of literary naturalism. But he was lucky to receive official orders, as well as the decor of the wedding hall of the town hall of the XIXe district, to which this study of Coltineur.

The same type of site is shown in each of the tables: a port in the capital. More precisely, for Monet, it is about the port on the Seine downstream from Paris, in Argenteuil; for Gervex, it is the quay of the Bassin de la Villette between the Saint-Martin canal and the Ourcq canal. In both cases, the background multiplies the barges and factory chimneys, signs of industrial activity correlated with the ports. Monet adds a span of the Argenteuil bridge, which frames the scene.

The two paintings show us the material conditions of this work. Physical strength is the first quality required: one perceives - very clearly at Gervex - how the flared basket filled with charcoal is loaded on a shoulder of the unloader, blocked by his neck and held by his opposite hand. But you also need to show a certain sense of balance: the planks connecting the boats above the quay to the depot are narrow and can be unstable; they must be practiced carefully and slowly, even when you reach the barge with the empty basket overturned over your head.

However, the difference in framing between the two paintings does not give the same vision of the work of the unloaders. With Monet, the backlight and the wide frame make it possible to capture mainly the comings and goings of men. For Gervex, the painter's concentration on a single unloader reveals its outfit (pants, bare chest and hat) and makes us feel the heaviness of the coal basket and the dirt it causes.

All this is confirmed by the dimensions of each work. Monet's small format and unloaders reduced to thin and short silhouettes oppose the monumental stature of Gervex's coltineur, destined to join a large republican setting.


No more than seven years separate these two paintings. We will therefore not be surprised at their similarity. Both reflect in particular the interest shown in social reality by painters of this generation, whether they are impressionists and marginalized, like Monet or, like Gervex, renowned painters in charge of public commissions.

Yet all the plastic parameters give a glimpse of Monet's true passion: light. It is his games that he likes to question and paint. They keep the unloaders at bay. Gervex seems much closer to them. Yet his realism does not seek to deplore the hardness of their work but to exalt the value of the work accepted, despite its hardship.

  • impressionism
  • workers
  • Harbor
  • industrial Revolution
  • steel industry


COLLECTIVE, Henri Gervex: 1852-1929, Paris, Editions of the Museums of the City of Paris, 1993.

Jean-Pierre DAVIET, The Industrial Society in France (1814-1914), Paris, Seuil, coll. “Points Histoire”, 1997.

Gérard NOIRIEL, Workers in French society in the 19th century, Paris, Seuil, coll. "Points Histoire", 1986.

Douglas SKEGGS, Monet and the Seine: impressions of a river, Paris, Albin Michel, 1988.

To cite this article

Pierre SESMAT, “Painting worker work”

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