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Constantin Meunier

Toilers of the Sea


Constantin Meunier
Etterbeek, Belgium, 1831 – Ixelles, Belgium, 1905


Toilers of the Sea






59 x 96 x 13.2 cm


Cast B. Verbeyst, Brussels


Purchase, gifts of Mrs. Neil B. Ivory and Bruce McNiven, and anonymous gift, inv. 2000.7


Western Art

Constantin Meunier was one of the most highly regarded artists of the so-called Naturalist movement, which depicted peasant and working-class life. Although the sculpture’s title is also that of a novel by Victor Hugo, the subject is entirely original. At low tide, workers with sturdy horses are bringing sticks bound in bundles to repair the breakwaters that hold the beach sands in place. This common activity of the Belgian shoreline – the polders – is treated as an episode from the saga of rural life and the heroic struggle of people against the elements for survival. Belgian author Émile Verhaeren described it as “a very simple bas-relief, but of very great elegance . . . an everyday occurrence, a routine act, magnified by its epic conception.” The artist’s powerful social realism is tempered here by the sweeping lines of the sea, which are more typical of Art Nouveau’s spirit.

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