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'Interior of a Foundry', by Léonard Defrance

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About the artwork

This dramatically lit scene shows a stylishly dressed young couple being shown around a blast furnace. The man is perhaps unusually holding a lapdog tucked under his arm. The furnace is in one of the many iron foundries for which the region around Liège (now in Belgium) was well known. In the centre men are shown hauling the cooling slag and other impurities away from the white-hot metal in the cauldron. To the right others are pouring the molten iron from a ladle into a mould in the foundry's earthen floor. This forms the artist’s surname, birthplace and the painting’s date in Roman numerals. The couple seem to be guided by a man whose face is hidden by the extraordinarily bouffant and extremely fashionable woman’s hat, called a mobcap. He is probably the iron master or foundry proprietor. The group is being watched attentively by an aproned foundry overseer and a toddler child. In 1789 it was not unusual for members of the middle-class intelligentsia and the wealthy to visit industrial sites, whilst manufacturing was in progress, to witness the latest in technological marvels. Nor was it uncommon (at least in France) for young children to be employed to help skim the slag from the ladles.

In the 1770s and 1780s Defrance specialised in painting industrial scenes, such as the interiors of workshops, factories, mines and printing works. He found a ready market for these in the Netherlands and Paris. Some of his best works are those such as his foundry and forge scenes that celebrate technological progress and show men and machinery at work. Several of these can now be found in Belgian and French public collections but the Walker’s ‘Interior of a Foundry’ is the only painting by Defrance in a British public gallery. In this speciality he joined a small group of innovative artists in other European countries including Sweden and Britain. In Britain Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97) painted a series of blacksmith shops and iron forges between 1771-1773. This is often credited with pioneering such scenes in Europe. Engraved prints of some of Wright’s industrial scenes were certainly available in many Continental countries. However, although Wright’s images of smithies and forges sometimes depicted relatively modern industrial technology, such as water-powered tilt-hammers pounding down on anvils, the workers are often heroically posed, aware of their audience and theatrically if not melodramatically lit. Compared to Wright’s paintings Defrance provided low-key imagery in which the workers carry on with their heavy and hot manual labour seemingly totally oblivious to the visitors, intent only on the routine ritual of their task. If Defrance had a visual source or inspiration for his seemingly more realistic industrial scenes it is more likely to have been works such as the ‘Interior of a Foundry’ painted in 1771 by his Liège contemporary Louis-Bernard Coclers, (1741-1817). Louis-Bernard was the son of Jan-Baptiste Coclers (1696-1772) to whom Defrance had been apprenticed at the age of 10 in 1745.

The Walker’s picture is one of the few foundry-visiting scenes painted by Defrance to be dated. The date also happens to have a political and personal significance to Defrance. The outbreak of the French Revolution in Paris in July 1789, which spread to Liège in August, had a momentous effect on Defrance’s life, career, and reputation. He had been in exile in Paris during the outbreak of the Revolution. However, he went on to play a prominent role in Liège’s own revolutionary movement. From the 1790s through to the 1970s he and his work attracted great controversy, passion and criticism amongst Belgian historians. According to some he was a “vandal” (1797); an “infamous, rationalist destroyer” (1883); “the most cynical, low despoiler” (1903); an “iconoclast” (1905); and even “a decadent artist” (1930). He attracted such vilification because some of his political paintings (‘The Abolition of Servitude in the Domains of the King of France’, after1779) and radical writings (‘The Cry of the Liégois People’, 1786) had ridiculed the clergy and its political and moral despotism. But above all he was attacked because of his anti-clerical behaviour in the 1790s. As an official of the French revolutionary state he played a role between 1795 and 1797 both in the destruction of the city’s ancient St Lambert’s cathedral and in sending works of art to Paris to satisfy France’s artistic centralisation policy that resulted in the establishment of the Louvre Museum. Once he became involved in the turbulent politics of Liège in the 1790s painting ceased to become Defrance’s major concern.

The combination of his radical personal politics and the industrial subject matter of his paintings led in the 1950s and 1960s to an explicitly Marxist critique of his paintings. They were seen as precursors of 20th century socialist realism. Those who saw Defrance’s work as being explicitly critical of an aristocracy uncaringly exploiting the hard work of the labouring class pointed to his participation in 1785 in the Société Patriotique. This aimed to help widows, orphans and the weak by distributing pamphlets against the government. However, they may well have been mistaken. It has been suggested that in another foundry scene by Defrance (Musée de l’Art Wallon, Liège,) the male guide may be identified as Pierre-Paul Maibe an iron-master and proprietor of many furnaces and iron-works. He appears to be showing round a visitor fascinated by this modern scene of industrious endeavour, perhaps even a prospective investor. On his death in 1823 Maibe’s obituary eulogised him for his support of the labouring classes claiming that:

‘he was a friend and supporter of the poor, who believed with reason that it was better to help them by providing work that ennobled them than by giving them alms that would [instead] degrade them, and bring them to idleness making them a scourge of society.’

Defrance’s scenes of industrial work may well have supported this attitude - intended less to exalt the virtues of the workers than the industrialist’s enterprising spirit.