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Meunier, Constantin

b. 1831, Brussels, Belgium; d. 1905, Brussels

Au pays noir, ca. 1893 Oil on canvas, 81 x 94.5 cm Collection: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Le mineur, n.d. Oil on canvas, 45 x 30.5 cm Collection: Musée des Beaux-Arts, Charleroi 

Au pays noir derives its title from the Borinage, the region around Mons in the south of Belgium, which was transformed dramatically in the second half of the 19th century into an industrial landscape built around coal extraction. The region’s dull, grey atmosphere was characterised by small working-class neighbourhoods surrounded by slag heaps and smokestacks. Constantin Meunier first got to know the region when he made some engravings for Camille Lemonnier’s novel La Belgique (1888). The coal industry in the Borinage region and Cockerill’s metal industry left a deep impression on the artist, catalysing a change in the course of his work. Thereafter, Meunier would mainly use his work in support of the workers and thus had a large impact on social-realist art in Belgium. Au pays noir looks dark and sad, with its high smokestacks lending a threatening undertone to the smog-filled air. Meunier surveys the landscape from a distance. As though seized by smoke, the horizon gasps in vain for air; not a living soul is around. A steaming locomotive enters the picture from afar; a new load of coal is ready to be transported. The colour palette is applied in fragmented shades of brown, yellow, black and grey, the greyness broken only by the red brick industrial buildings. Au pays noir is part of a powerful series of socially engaged paintings and sculptures for which Constantin Meunier became famous internationally. Le mineur shows a miner sitting at ease, smoking a cigarette. He is likely waiting for his turn to go down the shaft and work his shift underground. Meunier completed a larger version of this scene, Mineurs à la recette du puits, which shows the miner waiting together with his colleagues, so Le mineur may have served as a study. MM