How well do you know Constantin Meunier and his artworks? To be able to fully understand the story of this Belgian painter and sculptor, we need to go back into the history of Belgium, into the period when the country faced with issues of cheap labor in its coal mines as Belgians no longer wanted to go down to extract minerals.
In 1946, tens of thousands of Italians came to Belgium to work in the coal mines of Wallonia. After the Second World War, Europe needed to rebuild, and coal was the only energy source immediately available. In return for its laborers, Italy received coal, for which it still paid the total price. The working conditions in Belgium were appalling! The workers were packed into barracks, and work in the mines was grueling.
Ten years later, the Belgian population became aware of the lack of safety in the mines following a dramatic accident in which over 200 workers lost their lives.
It is undoubtedly one of the lesser-known monuments of Brussels. Le Monument au travail (The Monument to Labor) shines with its simplicity made of beige stone. A Belgian artist, Constantin Meunier, devoted the last fifteen years of his life to it. The ensemble consists of four large stone reliefs representing L’Industrie (The Glass Industry), La Moisson (The Harvest), Le Port (The Harbor), and La Mine (The Mine). Five statues completed the composition with La Maternité (Maternity), Le Forgeron au repos (The Smith at Rest), Le Mineur accroupi (The Crouching Miner), L’Ancêtre (The Ancestor), and Le Semeur (The Sower). The city purchased the work in 1930 after raising funds through local support.
Sitting with her two children, the mother is in good health, feeding her newborn. She represents the renewal of the generations of workers. Children and teenagers born at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century had to help provide income for the household. It was common for them to go directly to work in the mining industry instead of attending school. Infant mortality was extremely high.
The blacksmith is full of vitality and has a muscular body. He is strong and handsome and represents the youth stolen by the hours spent at work.
Kneeling on the ground, the miner looks contemplative. He has sunken cheeks and a frail body. He does not look healthy. One might think he is dreaming of a better life. The sad truth is that he could only dream in his days (1903). He might also wonder if the work was worth it. This figure represents the physical weakening in the face of the harshness of labor.
An older man waits with folded hands. His body is stunted and damaged, his back bent and with an air of sadness about him. This figure represents the end of life and the expectation of death. It was not uncommon to see forty-year-old workers who looked seventy. He lost his strength after spending decades in the industries.
Finally, above these statues is a sower with an outstretched hand. He invites us to admire the composition of Constantin Meunier’s work. In reality, he was sowing seeds to renew the harvest. The cycle of life was complete.
Meunier was born in Etterbeek (Brussels) in 1831. Initially a painter of religious scenes, he was deeply moved by his visit to the Borinage, the Black Country, the mining basin of the province of Hainaut. He became one of the masters of realist and social art. He contributed to giving a face to the worker and depicted the new realities generated by industrial development. He made himself one of the interpreters of this development through his dark and dramatic paintings. His work represents the Belgians of the time primarily.
The visitor encounters a scene of hell at the corner of a passage in the Fin-de-Siècle Museum. The landscape is composed of small mountains, the sky is covered with thick smoke, and the earth is burned. One might think that there was no life in these places. This painting was called Pays Noir—Borinage (Black Country—Borinage), dating from 1893. One can almost feel that death was present. The air must have been unbreathable. One-third of the composition depicts a wagon on rails heading toward the entrance of a coal processing plant. The painter used dark colors with small touches of orange to represent bricks, tiles, and fire. The painting clearly expressed man’s hand on nature and the ugliness of the Belgian industrial revolution on the Walloon landscape. Belgium was the most industrialized nation of the 19th and early 20th centuries, after England.
Constantin Meunier’s work has been recognized worldwide! One could compare it to the work of a reporter denouncing social inequalities around the globe. His work has been shown in Bern, Berlin, Edinburgh, Stockholm, and Los Angeles. In Belgium, he is exhibited at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA), the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, and the Meunier Museum in Ixelles. He died in 1905 in his house in Ixelles (Brussels).
The Meunier Museum is located in a classic Beaux-Arts style bourgeois house which was the last residence of the artist. There stood a few small-scale models of sculptures and paintings on display. The visit itinerary lacks coherence due to the poor maintenance of the building. On the other hand, there are few other visitors around if you want to be left undisturbed. The entrance is free. The workshop is worth seeing. The most beautiful pieces of Meunier’s work are exhibited in the Fin-de-Siècle Museum in Brussels.
In 1900, many people worked more than ten hours per day in horrible conditions. In some regions of our country, entire families worked in the coal mines. New economic districts were built by the mines for a better organization of working time. These districts were overcrowded, and the hygienic conditions were deplorable. Work was hard, and there was only one day of rest, Sunday. The “black faces,” as they were known, went underground thousands of meters deep. There, it was cold, but the workers were often bare-chested. Indeed, the physical effort required of these men to extract coal was colossal. The miners became the victims of the Industrial Revolution.
In these deep galleries, workers could only go forward by stooping. They entered standing, but as they got closer to the extraction, the dimensions of the passage became smaller. Men would sometimes have to lie on their sides to dig. It was common for them to lose their breath because of the arduous and repetitive tasks and the contact with the coal. Unfortunately, miners died very early from various diseases, including silicosis, which today has almost disappeared.
Indeed, the inhalation of silica particles in the dust during extraction caused an irreversible reduction in respiratory capacity. It led to chronic inflammation and progressive pulmonary fibrosis. Life expectancy rarely exceeded forty years.
Women and children also helped in production in different positions. At first, mothers and young girls began to help transport the stones. Soon they were placed outside and on the production line to separate the precious minerals from various dirt such as earth and rocks.
In addition, they were also expected to keep a decent household after work. Children could work in the mine from the age of thirteen. An improvement in workers’ rights pushed back the age at which children could work in the coal mines. In 1813, children were allowed to work in the mines as young as eight. Little boys and girls pushed wagons through the tunnels to bring coal up to the surface of the mine. Some of them carried baskets filled with stones on their backs to the outside of the mine. They climbed up the ladders, which were hundreds of meters long.
In 1956, 262 people died in a fire in Marcinelle. This disaster, known as the “Catastrophe du Bois du Cazier” or “The Marcinelle mining disaster,” shocked public opinion. This incident moved the whole country, raising awareness about the working conditions in the coal mines. This tragedy caused much emotion in Belgium and abroad and a surge of solidarity to help the victims. The rescue operations lasted for fifteen days. One can imagine the pain and anguish caused to the family members of the victims. Mothers, wives, and children desperately clung to the gates of the collieries, hoping to see their loved ones again.
It all started with a misunderstanding between a worker and the surface. A worker engaged a wagon at the wrong time that was supposed to push an empty one to the other side, but a defective brake blocked it. The cage, therefore, had to go back up with one wagon fewer. At 975 meters below ground, one of the two small wagons caught a beam. This quickly fell and damaged an oil pipe, two electrical cables, and a compressed air pipe. A veritable inferno spread through the underground. On 30 September 1992, the last coal mine in Belgium closed its doors at Zolder in the Campine Basin.
Today, the site of the Marcinelle tragedy is open to the public and includes a museum, Le Bois du Cazier. There you can learn more about the history of mining in Belgium. A memorial is also present to pay your respects. With commemorative plaques, Le Mur du Souvenir (Wall of Remembrance) bears witness to a memory that does not fade away.
Nearly 120 years after his death, Constantin Meunier remains one of the few artists to have followed miners’ daily life to expose the difficulty of their work. He carried a strong message of compassion to defend those crushed by 19th-century European industrialisation. Through his works, he humanized the working class and gave a face to thousands of people who lived in the shadows. They will never be forgotten.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium: https://www.fine-arts-museum.be/en
Meunier Museum: https://www.fine-arts-museum.be/en/museums/musee-meunier-museum
Le Bois du Cazier: https://www.leboisducazier.be/en/
KMSKA : https://kmska.be/en
Constantin Meunier MBA Bruxelles (Sous la direction de)