Liège 1735-1805 Liège
La Visite à la forge
Signed and inscribed, lower right, L. Defrance/Liege
Oil on panel
15 ½ x 23 inches
41.3 x 58.2 cm
Possibly, sale: London, Sotheby’s, 26 October 1960, lot 120
Galerie Cailleux, Paris
Sale: Paris, Hôtel Drouot, Beaussant & Levèvre, 19 April 2016, lot 6, illustrated
Didier-Aaron, New York, 2016
Matthew Rutenberg (1956-2019), New York
F. Dehousse, M. Pacco, and M. Pauchen, Léonard Defrance, l’oeuvre peint, Liège, 1985, cat. no. 282, p. 159, illustrated
Painted circa 1789
The Flemish painter Léonard Defrance produced some of the most interesting and politically sensitive pictures of industry during the second half of the eighteenth century. He specialized in documenting workers at their trades whether in the dark recesses of a forge,¹ as in our picture, in a printing shop,² or in the open-air work yards of a marble quarry.³ Often, the workers and foremen are engaged with members of the bourgeoisie whom one must assume are the owners of the factories.
In the present fine example, the artist shows the visit of the proprietor and his family to their smithy. Three workers, wearing heavy leather aprons, are concentrated on submitting a large piece of white-hot metal to the force of the hydraulic sledgehammer. On the right, the foreman, doffing his hat, greets the owner and his wife who are dressed in the latest fashions. The artist has incorporated two women caring for young children, in the background and left foreground. While their presence animates the composition, the effect of seeing such scenes of domesticity in such an inhospitable environment is incongruous and perhaps a deliberate comment on the conditions and subjugation of the working classes at the time. Both women look frightened by the visit of the owners.
The single source of light in the picture is the heated ingot over the creuset, or crucible, in the center of the composition, which illuminates each person clearly and delineates the space in the dark forge. As is usual for Defrance, the color is restrained, a study in various shades of brown, with the exception of the dazzling bright colors of the clothes worn by the owner and his wife. This judicious lighting illustrates perfectly the maxims of Defrance: “Les ombres portées par un foyer large et éclatant sont bien différentes de celles de la lumière d’une lampe, d’une chandelle. C’est la largeur de ces sortes de foyers de lumière qui donne à une scène de nuit cette belle harmonie parce que nulle part des ombres ne son tranchantes.”⁴ This particular fascination with the nocturnal light and shadows found in forges and foundries pre-occupied several artists; in addition to Defrance, his exact contemporaries, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) in England and Pehr Hilleström (1732-1816) in Denmark, were the two other most prominent artists working in this genre.
A preparatory drawing for our picture, including studies of two of the forge workers in the middle ground and a study for the figure of the proprietor in his frock coat, is in the Cabinet des estampes at the Musée de l’art Wallon, Liège.
Primarily a genre painter, Léonard Defrance trained in Liège under Jean-Baptiste Coclers (1696-1772) from 1745. In 1755, he began a long trip through France and Italy, where he studied painting at the Villa Medici under Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821) for a year. Defrance returned to Liège in 1763. His genre works sold well, and he opened an academy in Liège which he directed from 1775 until 1784. His liberal views clashed with the conservative reign of the Prince-Bishop of Liège, Constantin François de Haensbroech, and he went into exile in France on several occasions, exhibiting in Paris regularly until the Revolution of 1789. His finest pictures are those like the present one recording progressive technology in industry.
For another example of the interior of a forge, see La Forge, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 71.93; signed, oil on panel, 32.1 x 41.9 cm.
La Visite a l’imprimerie, Grenoble, Musée de Grenoble, inv. MG 2009-8-1; signed, oil on panel, 47.5 x 64.5 cm.
Extraction des marbres Sainte-Anne d’une carrière, Paris, Musée Marmottan, inv. nr. - 690 ; oil on panel, 41 x 57 cm.
L. Defrance, Mémoires (MS; ?1784), cited by F. Dehousse et al., op. cit., p. 157.