- Artist: Constantin-Emile Meunier
- Dedicated: 1914 (sculpted 1884, first exhibited 1886)
- Medium and size: Bronze (6.6 feet), on a granite pedestal (3.25 feet) by McKim, Mead and White
- Location: Columbia University, at the entrance to the Engineering Building (northeast corner of the campus, near Amsterdam Avenue and 120th Street). Subway: 1 to 116th Street
About the statue
The Marteleur – an anonymous man of average size – heralds a new trend in sculpture. Over the hundred years that followed his creation, sculptures shrank from over-life-size to barely life-size. Subjects shifted from captains of industry to workers, from military leaders to foot soldiers, from the famous to the anonymous. In a moment, we’ll consider why this happens. First, let’s look at the Marteleur in detail.
The man represented here is young – his face is unlined. He has wiry strength, although not the physique of a body-builder. Judging from his outfit, he works with hot metal: the leather apron, shoe covers and hat all protect him from sparks, while the loose, open-necked shirt helps him stay cool in brutal heat. Although he stands at ease, the large tool in his right hand shows that he has been performing strenuous physical labor. The slight droop of his shoulders suggests fatigue, but the left arm held akimbo, the lifted chin and the gaze fixed in the distance imply that he still has some energy to spare.
When Meunier’s works were first exhibited in New York, they were hailed as “the epic of modern industrialism” (New York Times 1/17/1914). Is the Marteleur meant to represent a new type of epic hero, or to remind us of the plight of the downtrodden, exploited worker? What aspect of this laborer was most important to Meunier? What does Meunier emphasize and what is his attitude toward it?
The Marteleur shows a man who has been performing strenuous, fatiguing manual labor. Although Meunier’s figures all work, they never display any sense of energy, accomplishment or joy: see the galleries of images on French and English Wikipedia. They are somber figures, like those in Millet’s paintings of the 1850s. A New York Times critic captured the mood:
[T]he expression on the faces is solemn and determined, with the sullenness of those who have put their shoulder to the wheel and know that they must keep it indefinitely rolling on without hope of respite or release. (8/17/1913)
The other significant feature of this sculpture is the worker’s job. He’s an anonymous cog in a manufacturing process, one of many low-level workers needed to mass-produce iron or steel. Meunier’s title, Marteleur, means simply “The Hammerer.” Only a specialist could determine his role in the process.
Had Meunier been intent on glorifying modern industry, he could have shown a metalworker who had benefited from technology and was proud of what he could accomplish. Instead Meunier represented a lowly worker, fatigued by difficult work in dangerous, sweltering conditions.
Meunier and Donatello
A subtle point about this sculpture reveals more about Meunier’s attitude toward industry.
In literature or film or everyday conversation, a few words can call to mind a character, an incident, a whole situation. Narrow your eyes and drawl, “Go ahead, make my day,” and you summon the image of Dirty Harry, a cop who broke all the rules but always put the crooks out of action. Compare a colleague to Howard Roark and you evoke the intransigent independence and far-sighted determination of the Fountainhead’s hero.
Visual artists achieve the same result by “quoting” the pose or expression of famous works of art. In the Marteleur Meunier, who had three years of art education in the mid-nineteenth century (when learning art history was as important as learning the latest in technique), has “quoted” a well-known figure by one of the Renaissance’s leading sculptors, Donatello.
Donatello’s bronze David holds a sword with his right hand. The Marteleur holds a long, narrow metalworker’s tool. David’s left arm is akimbo, giving him an air of energy. So is the Marteleur’s. Donatello’s David is young: absurdly so, if one is accustomed to Michelangelo’s David; less so, if one reads the Biblical account. The Marteleur is a few years older but still youthful. Donatello’s David wears a remarkable hat. The Marteleur also wears notable headgear.
What does Meunier gain by “quoting” the David? He associates all the characteristics of the Biblical David with his Marteleur. He makes his anonymous worker a hero. He portrays him as weak but righteous. He pits him against a giant who relies on brute force, thus turning modern industrialists into villains. Because of his resemblance to Donatello’s David, the Marteleur is not a nameless, exhausted cog in a factory, but an underdog who will eventually emerge victorious against a might but immoral enemy. With the bend of an arm and the slant of a tool, Meunier has turned a sculpture into political propaganda.
About the subject
Ironically but not coincidentally, it is the Marteleur rather than Alexander Lyman Holley who stands on the campus of Columbia University – and not only on the campus, but directly outside the Engineering Building. What does he represent? Why is he there? Who paid for him?
Let’s go back a bit.
The author of an early exhibition catalogue of Meunier’s work laments,
The whole face of the land has been seared and the sky blackened by fumes from countless belching stacks and blast furnaces. Man, in place of remaining bucolic and pastoral, has become a dusky, subterranean creature. His back is bowed and the song upon his lips has turned to a bitter cry for easier hours and better pay. (Brinton p. 34).
As Hazlitt points out in Economics in One Lesson (excerpt below), machines are not the cause of “constantly mounting unemployment and misery.” In the long run, the Bessemer process and other technological achievements improved life immeasurably for men such as this metalworker. He was able to produce quantities of goods and earn wages that would have been inconceivable to his father or grandfather working on a farm.
But by the late nineteenth century, even as the Industrial Revolution flourished, a philosophical reaction against it was under way. Intellectuals disparaged the Machine Age and the “exploiters” who ran factories. Absorbing this idea from the intellectuals, painters such as Courbet and Millet glorified peasants whose primitive tools might have come from the Middle Ages. Industrialists and businessmen became unpopular as subjects. The day of the common, anonymous worker had arrived.
Whatever one thinks of the decision of William Earl Dodge to focus on giving wealth away rather than producing it (see Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan, Chapter 24), his statue was erected by colleagues who admired him and thought him worthy of emulation. But this anonymous figure of a manual laborer is not meant to inspire imitation by the highly educated students of the major university on whose campus it stands. It is meant to evoke pity for the worker and disgust for those who employ him.
In the late nineteenth century, the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution paid for the education of thousands of American students in European universities. They returned home imbued with a distaste or outright hatred for the Industrial Revolution and the capitalism and individualism upon which the Revolution was based. The Marteleur, donated in 1914 to Columbia University by the Class of 1889, is a conspicuous example of European influence on American culture.
A side note: when I first saw the Marteleur I liked his jauntiness, his youth, and the fact that he works for a living. I still like those aspects of the figure, but now that I’ve learned more about his historical context, I factor that into my opinion of the statue, and respond to him less positively.
Henry Hazlitt on technophiles and technophobes
If it were indeed true that the introduction of labor-saving machinery is a cause of constantly mounting unemployment and misery, the logical conclusions to be drawn would be revolutionary, not only in the technical field but for our whole concept of civilization. Not only should we have to regard all further technical progress as a calamity; we should have to regard all past technical progress with equal horror. Every day each of us in his own activity is engaged in trying to reduce the effort it requires to accomplish a given result. Each of us is trying to save his own labor, to economize the means required to achieve his ends. Every employer, small as well as large, seeks constantly to gain his results more economically and efficiently – that is, by saving labor. Every intelligent workman tries to cut down the effort necessary to accomplish his assigned job. The most ambitious of us try tirelessly to increase the results we can achieve in a given number of hours. The technophobes, if they were logical and consistent, would have to dismiss all this progress and ingenuity as not only useless but vicious. Why should freight be carried from Chicago to New York by railroad when we could employ enormously more men, for example, to carry it all on their backs? —Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson (New York, 1979), p. 54
Bibliography and further reading
- Gayle & Cohen, The Art Commission and the Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture (New York: Prentice Hall, 1988), p. 302.
- SIRIS control #IAS 87870202.
- For an early discussion of Meunier’s work, see Christian Brinton, “Official Exhibition Catalogue: Constantin Meunier,” produced for the exhibition at Columbia University, Avery Library, 1/27-2/15/1914 (New York, 1914). Substantial articles on Meunier appeared in the New York Times 8/17/1913, 11/9/1913 and 2/1/1914.
- On the changing intellectual and philosophical trends in late 19th-century Europe and their effects on the education of American youth, see Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels, especially Chapters 6 and 14, and Eric Daniels, “The History of American Moral Thinking” (no longer available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore, but other works by Daniels are here).