The worker at the beginning of the twentiethe century

The worker at the beginning of the twentieth<sup>e</sup> century

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  • The lifting of the worker.

    ROBERT-FLEURY Tony (1838 - 1911)

  • Worker, hands on hips.

    STEINLEN Théophile Alexandre (1859 - 1923)

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - F. Vizzavona

Worker, hands on hips.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - T. Le Mage

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

Painting the worker at the beginning of the 20th centurye century: from activism to academism?

In 1905, the working population was estimated at over four million people, nearly a third of whom were women. Beyond the political, economic and social debates they arouse, they are the subject of various representations, and the "working woman" emerges as a literary and pictorial theme in its own right.

The working class world is often relatively familiar to artists who set out to portray it from the mid-19th century.e century. “Engaged”, they show the misery or the difficulties associated with working for social and political ends. Upon his arrival in Paris in 1881, he became associated with socialist and anarchist working-class circles, regularly illustrating their reviews and newspapers such as The black Cat, The Mirliton, The people's voice, Leaf or Socialist Chambard. Close to Toulouse-Lautrec, Aristide Bruant, Vallotton then Zola, this designer, engraver, caricaturist, illustrator, poster artist, painter and sculptor was especially known for his illustrations of periodicals and his posters, with iconography both militant and “Montmartre” (as with her famous black cats). It therefore played an important role in the visual and political culture of the time, in a context of demands, emergence and relative organization of the workers' movement.

But at the end of the XIXe century the theme of work and workers, long considered unworthy, eventually imposed itself beyond "engaged" artists to become more academic. If the Salon of 1905 exhibited not only Steinlen and his famous canvas The return of the workers, it also shows a more classical painter like Tony Robert-Fleury (1838-1911), specializing in historical compositions, genre scenes and portraits. The Worker's Rise would thus testify in its own way to the normalization of the representation of the working class world, treated in a primarily aesthetic mode.

Image Analysis

The worker is a woman

With The Worker's Rise, Robert-Fleury chooses an intimate scene that he works with in the sense of a certain eroticism. The viewer discovers, from behind, a partially naked woman stretching. The composition is centered on this character, and the very format of the canvas seems to respond to the need to show him from the feet to the highest hand, without extending the representation to the rest of the room.

Just standing up, the worker has tied a light white sheet around her hips which both reveals and conceals her lower body. Raised in a bun, her brown hair completely clears her back. Still barefoot and nestling her head in the crook of her left shoulder, she stretches in a movement that accentuates her lower back drop as much as it bulges her chest, part visible on the right. To better focus the gaze on the young woman, the painter has reduced the decor that surrounds her to an unmade bed with pillows still marked with her imprint, an alarm clock that sits on a modest wooden bedside table and a carpet where his slippers await him.

Worker, hands on hips presents an interesting work on colors through the use of charcoal and pastel. We can guess the influences and iconographic modernity of the environment where Steinlen evolves, as well as his talents as an illustrator. Hands on her hips, a worker probably from the Maghreb is standing in front of a red brick wall. This young and very beautiful woman is dressed in a blue work dress, tied at the waist with a black belt and whose sleeves rolled up show very brown arms. She wears an orange-red scarf around her neck, and her hair is covered with a blue cloth headdress typical of North Africa. The features of her face are very fine, where the pink of the lips contrasts with the eyebrows and the lock of hair of a deep black.



The two images suggest in a different way the eroticism associated with the worker. In The Worker's Rise, Robert-Fleury reveals little about the social condition of the young woman. Admittedly, the room is small, very modestly furnished, and the alarm clock reminds you of having to get up early to go to work. But this decor is only a kind of framework for a nude study, treated by Robert-Fleury in a naturalistic vein tinged with an eroticism that remains daring for the time. The youth and vigor of a body not yet damaged by labor suggests that workers who work and often live alone are also sometimes beautiful women. Unlike the representations that mark their condition (where they are often shown at work, in clothes, or with other workers), the worker is here captured in privacy, and thus almost abstracted from her social status. . Brought back to her body, the worker is no longer the object of debates, fights or fears, but the renewed opportunity for a pictorial approach, above all aesthetic and technical.

On the contrary, Worker, hands on hips does present a worker "in uniform", which leaves no doubt about her condition. Steinlen also chooses to suggest above all the beauty, youth and vigor of this woman. The eroticism here is more discreet and more modern: it is based on a certain exoticism (the woman coming from the colonies) and on the use of colors. So the power of seduction that this Maghrebi exerts is essentially born from the enigmatic expression of her face, her bewitching gaze and her lock of black hair. But she also owes her beauty to her dignified and proud demeanor: hands on her hips, she seems ready to face difficulties and toil, ready to take part in future struggles.

  • women
  • workers
  • portrait
  • working class


Georges DUBY and Michelle PERROT (eds.), Histoire des femmes, tome IV "Le XIXe siècle", Paris, Plon, 1991.Francis JOURDAIN, A large picture maker: Alexandre Steinlen, Paris, Éditions du Cercle d'Art, 1954. Gérard NOIRIEL, The Workers in French Society (XIXth-XXth century), Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "Points", 1986.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The worker at the beginning of the XXe century "

Video: View from the Top: Thomas Siebel,