Léon Lhermitte was chosen in 1889 to create a monumental painting for Paris City Hall. The painter’s choice of a contemporary subject, the delivery of goods to Les Halles, broke with the tradition of an allegorical theme.

Originally from Picardy, Lhermitte was a master of Realism, an artistic movement which developed in France at the end of the 19th century, following on from Courbet and influenced by the novels by Zola. The painter’s aim was to testify to life at the time, and he drew scenes of everyday life on the spot, which he then used to paint large compositions.

In 1882 he painted Paying the harvesters (Musée d’Orsay), which was his first major success. At the time he was one of the well-known figures in the artistic world who defended independent art in the face of the inertia of academic institutions.

Le Carreau, where the scene painted by the artist takes place, is an adjoining open-air market square. It was used for the sale of fruit and vegetables delivered during the night by farmers and market gardeners from areas around Paris. The market was open to customers from 4 am to 10 am. Amongst the crowd “forts” (strong men) can be identified, wearing smocks made of coarse blue canvas and yellow leather hats with a wide brim. These men used to unload barrows onto the stalls and control the flow of goods. The porters, who had a lower status, transported the goods bought by the customers. Their uniform can be identified by the smock, tall cap and two badges given by the police prefecture which managed their work. The soup and coffee sellers provided hot food and drink for those who had arrived during the night.

The painting was a success at the 1895 Salon and the World Exhibition in 1900. In 1904, it was moved to the Petit Palais which had just been opened, and was exhibited in the large art gallery situated at garden level. The work was rolled up and kept in a storeroom during the 20th century, remaining out of sight for more than 80 years. Its restoration, thanks to sponsorship by Rungis International Market, took four months.

Having received a new lease of life, this work illustrates the hustle and bustle of life in Paris during the Belle Epoque. The district of les Halles is currently being fully renovated, and this painting by Léon Lhermitte allows us today, in the early 21st century, to rediscover the industrial and working class activity in Paris at the time of Zola.

I. C.

To find out more about the work:

City of Paris municipal collection's website

City of Paris municipal collection's website

The online catalogue of the Petit Palais collections includes around 35,000 notes and is added to regularly. Some notes have minimal information; others are more detailed. They are illustrated or they will be shortly.

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