Charcoal burners (Les charbonniers)

In this wonderful, almost exclusively tonal, drawing Rosa Bonheur has represented two charcoal burners in the clearing of a forest. One of them only faintly appears as a shadow silhouette beyond the smoke in the background. Both hold a long stick, probably a rake used for stirring the charcoal burning on the ground.

The sheet is an independent work that is not related to any of her finished paintings, and it remained in the artist's studio until her death. With an extraordinarily rich use of bold and soft applications of charcoal and white chalk, the artist has created a very powerful drawing concentrating on the rendition of the remarkable clouds of smoke from which the second charcoal burner figure emerges. Fundamentally important is also the removal of some of the medium in order to recreate the effects of smoke, and to this end, Bonheur seems to have purposely chosen a greenish paper to accentuate the contrast.

Charcoal burners would settle in the forest of Fontainebleau, near where Bonheur lived, during the Spring seasons. They would travel from the regions of Morvan, Picardie and Brie in order to produce charcoal, mainly from oak. When the process of burning charcoal was initiated, the fire could not be left unattended, and these workers would therefore live in the forest, in huts built with oak branches and covered with turf and leaves, working around the clock. They would prepare the kilns on the ground, stack up logs, control the combustion and bag up charcoal when ready. The topography of the Fontainebleau forest retains their former presence, one of its roads still bears today the name 'route des charbonniers' (the road of charcoal burners). Bonheur used to take long walks in the forest, often alone, sometimes in the company of fellow artists, among whom Auguste Allonge. She probably saw this scene during one of her promenades and was inspired by it.

Charcoal and white chalk, stumping and lifting on gray-green wove paper (1880-1890s)

by Rosa Bonheur (French, 1822-1899)

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