Belgian workers seen by Léon Frédéric

Belgian workers seen by Léon Frédéric

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Title: The ages of the worker.

Author : FREDERIC Léon (1856 - 1940)

School : Symbolism

Creation date : 1895

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 163 - Width 376

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet / J. Schormans website

Picture reference: 80EE822 / RF 1152

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Schormans

Publication date: September 2005


Belgian workers as seen by Léon Frédéric


Historical context

An independent state from 1830, Belgium is one of the countries in Western Europe where industrialization has been the most vigorous. The workers 'world is organized in the Belgian workers' party which brings together, from 1885, trade unionists, cooperative members, mutualists and political activists.

Image Analysis

Born in 1856, Léon Frédéric is one of the major painters of Belgian symbolism. In line with realism, from the 1890s he staged working-class circles in vast symbolic compositions that reveal his social and religious orientations. The polyptych entitled The Ages of the Worker was developed over three years.

The first part, the one on the left, was painted in 1895: the women who appear in it recall the theme of the "Virgin and Child". The right pane dates from 1897: the diggers evoke an “Elevation of the cross”. The central shutter, made in 1896, with figures slightly smaller than those of the side shutters, completes the parallelism with the triptychs of Flemish religious art from the end of the 15th century or the beginning of the 16th century. Everything aims to strengthen the interpenetration of the social and the sacred. The overall design mixes into an ambiguous whole, not always easily decodable today, realistic details and a symbolic project.

Rodolphe Rapetti's study allows us to decipher the work. Here are a few examples. In the foreground of the central panel, young boys playing cards underline the perversion to which gambling can lead from an early age. However, one of the children, the one with the face three quarters to the right, lets the cards fall from his hand, and his gaze abandons the world of the game. This revelation which announces his redemption - Frédéric's religious feelings are known - is underlined by a realistic detail: the handle of a wicker basket located just above him, which halos his face. In parallel to this young boy who finds his way, the little girl in a red dress, facing the spectator, symbolizes the faith in the future expressed by the crowd which turns its back to the hearse surrounded by red flags in which the victims are transported. of the repression of the demonstrations of 1893 in favor of universal suffrage.

At the back of the figures, the urban landscapes reinforce the symbolic side of the composition. The right panel makes it possible to recognize the courthouse of Brussels, which dominates the popular district of Marolles. In the center, the upper street of Brussels, which crosses the poor neighborhoods, is represented with fidelity, but in a synthetic recomposition that makes it possible to distinguish the Saint-Pierre hospital and the tower of the Town Hall. Behind the left pane is the central prison of Saint-Gilles. This decor, which retains a great appearance of veracity, recalls the primitives of the northern schools. For contemporaries, it stages what the artist calls the "three great worker resorts": the hospital, the courthouse and the prison. Will the precariousness of the working-class condition (high birth rate, risk of crime, threatened health, etc.) finally fade?


This polyptych describes in a mixture of realism and symbolism the situation of the Belgian working class at a time when poverty has not disappeared, but where its emancipation, in the context of the rapprochement between progressives and certain Catholics, appears to be a need ; All the more so since after the adoption of a form of universal suffrage following the riots which bloodied Liège and Wallonia in 1891-1893, the Socialists entered the Chamber. Léon Frédéric, who had produced a triptych a few years earlier entitled The people will one day see the sun rise, testify with The Ages of the Worker of that hope.

  • Belgium
  • childhood
  • Game
  • workers
  • socialism
  • Universal suffrage
  • symbolism
  • town planning
  • working class


Jean-Pierre BARDET, Jacques DUPAQUIER (dir.), History of the populations of Europe , volume 2, "The demographic revolution, 1750-1914", Paris, Fayard, 1998. Jacques DROZ (ed.), General history of socialism, volume 1, Paris, PUF, 1972.Rodolphe RAPETTI "Léon Frédéric and the ages of the worker, symbolism and social messianism in the Belgium of Leopold II" Paris, Louvre review , 2-1990, p. 136-145.

To cite this article

Jean-Luc PINOL, “Belgian workers as seen by Léon Frédéric”

Video: King Leopold II u0026 the Congo Free State 1885-1908


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