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The Coalmen

Claude Monetcirca 1875

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Monet shared the preoccupations of some of his contemporaries, such as the painter Degas or the novelist Zola, who were trying to describe all the facets of modern life. The artist lived at Argenteuil from 1871 to 1878 and often went to Paris by the train which crossed the Seine over the railway bridge at Asnières, near where this scene takes place.

The bridge in the foreground is the road bridge at Asnières, and the Clichy bridge can just be made out in the grey haze of the background.

A scene showing labourers is unusual in Monet's oeuvre. The Seine here is not the light-hearted setting for regattas, but the river plied by heavy barges. The banks are lined not with trees, but smoking chimneys. Sunday strollers have given way to workers unloading coal from the barges to supply the nearby factory.

Admittedly, social criticism is not the aim here: the urban landscape in the distance is a commonplace, everyday spectacle. But the deadened tones, ranging from green to grey, give the scene a muted atmosphere. The backlit, depersonalised figures filing mechanically along the parallel planks are also an image of the bleakness of the workers' plight. The figures are strongly constrained by the rhythm of the composition: the span of the bridge weighs heavily upon them and the powerful diagonal of the barges cuts across the canvas while the lines of the planks beat time in a particularly haunting way. There is a clear analogy with the Japanese prints that Monet collected, views of Edo by Hokusai and Hiroshige.

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