This is one of Constantin Meunier’s best-known works, initially designed as part of a Monument to Labour that was never completed. Meunier worked from life when planning the project, putting together a repertoire of typical poses for manual labourers including puddlers, smiths, and miners. This sculpture depicts a stevedore, employed to load and unload ships in Antwerp harbour.
The worker’s garb is realist in style, but overall, the sculptor idealises the figure, eschewing the trend for politically inflected works intended to rouse pity for the labouring masses. Meunier’s stevedore is not shown at work, hauling about heavy cargo, but rather standing tall and proud. His expression is noble, not resigned.
The deliberately studied pose, vigorous body, and noble mien expressing the labourer’s pride in his work all hark back to the classical canon. “You know my boundless admiration for Greek art. The more I advance in life, the more I observe nature, the more I conclude that the Greeks left works that are a triumph of beauty and life”, Meunier told one biographer. The harmonious proportions and contrapposto pose make the sculpted figure a sort of proletarian Apollo.
Though an interest in industry was somewhat fashionable and discourse on socially invested art was gaining ground in Belgium, critics refused to read Meunier’s work in terms of a denunciation of the conditions of the working class. What Meunier sculpted was an iconic image of the nineteenth-century labourer as a new deity and hero of contemporary art.
Micheline Jérome-Schotsmans, Constantin Meunier. Sa vie, son œuvre, Bruxelles, Olivier Bertrand Éditions, 2011: 284, and n. 155.
Paul-Louis Rinuy, « La collection de sculptures modernes du docteur Henri-Auguste Widmer », in Catherine Lepdor et Jörg Zutter (eds.), La collection du Dr Henri-Auguste Widmer au Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, exh. cat. Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Milan, Skira, 1998: 67-79, and n. 93.
Erika Billeter, Chantal Michetti-Prod’Hom et alii, Sculptures du Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts Lausanne, Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, 1990: 38-39.