One of the highlights of our current exhibition Impressionism: The Art of Life is a collection of small bronze casts depicting French labourers, overlooked by a sculpture of a much larger worker. A model of Jules Dalou's incomplete Monument for the Working Classes. In this week's blog, our Exhibitions and Collections Officer Hannah Foster reveals the story behind this collection of sculptures. 

Monument for the Working Classes in Impressionism: The Art of Life

Jules Dalou was, at his time, a very famous French sculptor. However, over the years his contribution to French Impressionism has dwindled in the shadow of his contemporaries. Credited for his ability to create sculpture with vivacity and realism the works of Dalou can be seen in some of France’s iconic public gardens and spaces including the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris. In contrast to his large public works, Impressionism: The Art of Life brings to life Dalou’s little-known works, created with the intention to be a part of a significant public monument.

Jules Dalou, Woman Gathering Bushel, c.1890 (C) The Sladmore Gallery Ltd.

These works, cast from clay sketches, were intended to be incorporated into a monument of the artist’s own invention that was never realised, entitled a Monument for the Working Classes.

The glorification of labour had been a growing concern of artists during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Several artists, including Rodin, prepared schemes for a public monument to honour and commemorate labour. Dalou’s idea, which he conceived as early as 1889, was unique in its ambition. His dependence on contemporary reality as a source for his art, is nowhere more apparent than here. Urban workers in his native Paris were always present for first-hand study, but Dalou needed to travel in order to observe other workers. Over a period of two years, study trips took him across France, where he made rapid drawings of the workers he saw. These images were then transformed into brilliant clay sketches which totalled almost one hundred in number - raw material for the monumental figures.

Jules Dalou, Woman Returning from the Fields, c.1890 (C) The Sladmore Gallery Ltd.

Jules Dalou, Worker with Shovel at the Ready, c.1890. (C) The Sladmore Gallery Ltd.

Unfortunately, Dalou never found a satisfactory format for incorporating these sketches into a single monument. His final plan was for a large column covered with garlands of worker’s tools in relief with his sculpture The Large Peasant on top. Beneath, arranged around its base, would be other workers. Dalou planned to include on his monument every aspect of labour in modern French society. His main legacy, however, consists of his clay sketches brilliantly carried out with an exemplary economy of means. About 1905 - 1910, soon after his death in 1902, the sketches began to be cast in bronze in limited editions.

Impressionism: The Art of Life at The Lightbox

Our attempt at reuniting these preparatory figures sheds light on the attention to detail Dalou gave to his work and for the first time, brings together the sculptor’s original idea. This is a personal highlight of the exhibition as unlike the completed works of the oil paintings around them, we see an idea that will remain unfinished in perpetuity.

See Monument for the Working Class in Impressionism: The Art of Life until 13 January 2019. Entry with a £5 Day Pass or £7.50 Annual Pass.

Impressionism: The Art of Life