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.