'Interior of a Foundry with Visitors'

Léonard Defrance (Liège 1735-1805 Liège, Belgium)

There are several visitors with elegant dress on the left side of the painting. The iron foundry workers are working in the centre near the blast furnace where the main light comes.  

Artwork details

Medium and Support: Oil on panel
Dimensions: 41.9  x 59.1cm (unframed), 62 x 79cm (framed)
Date: 1789
Signed: Signed and dated in lower right corner: FRANCE / DE LIEGE / MDCCLXXXIX
Accession No: WAG 10824

When this painting was acquired it was mistakenly entitled 'Interior of a Forge'. It does not show a forge (with an anvil) but the blast furnace of one of the many iron foundries for which Liège was well known. The visitors are an elegant and very fashionably dressed couple with their dog, who are perhaps being shown around by an iron master, the foundry’s proprietor, whose face is hidden by the lady’s huge bouffant mobcap. A young child and an overseer wearing an apron watch them. In the centre two workmen are skimming the surface of the molten iron to remove slag and other impurities. An illustration in Diderot’s 'Encyclopaedia' (1765) shows a similar blast furnace with young children present and actively employed.1| The painting’s dramatic main light source is the blindingly white-hot molten metal with a softer secondary illumination provided from the glowing ladle or poche.

There are two other versions of this scene in Brussels, but the Walker’s painting is the only one signed in an unconventional and witty manner, as if in molten metal in a foundry mould, the ‘E’ of France just about to be poured into the sand.2| Another Defrance painting showing a different foundry is thought to depict Pierre-Paul Maibe, one of Liège’s major industrialists, showing a lady visitor around one of the many foundries and furnaces he owned.3|

In the Brussels’ painting some of the figures on the left wear different clothes and hats. They are also posed at slightly different angles to those in the Walker’s picture giving the effect that the Walker’s work is a ‘snapshot’ painted immediately before or after the Brussels panel. The features of the workers and visitors in the Brussels picture have also been painted with a greater clarity and there are differences in the number of implements and tie-bars shown against the walls. The Brussels picture is undated but is thought to have been painted between 1780 and 1786 owing to the style of the iron grill being cast and the costume of the visitors. The Walker’s scene was painted several years later in the year of the French Revolution, which reached Liège in August 1789. This had a dramatic impact on Defrance’s own life and career as he played an important role in the city’s revolutionary movement.4|

Defrance was the second child of a large artisan family. In 1745, aged 10, he was placed as an apprentice in the studio of the painter Jan-Baptiste Coclers (1696-1772). It wasn’t until the 1770s that he found his forte as a genre painter specialising in industrial interiors including tanneries, tobacco and nail factories, and printing works, as well as the furnace-lit iron foundries and forges. His earliest dated foundry scene of 1777 showed as visitors a woman with babe in arms, who appear to be inspired by similar figures in 'The Forge' (Ponce Art Museum, Puerto Rico) painted by the Dutch artist Jan Miense Molenaer (1610-1668).5| Defrance might have seen the Molenaer when visiting Holland in 1773 but the same Dutch painting has also been suggested as a source for figures in Joseph Wright of Derby’s 'An Iron Forge' of 1772. This was engraved in 1773 by Richard Earlom, whose prints after Wright were widely distributed around Europe, and could have been seen by Defrance.6| He may also have been inspired by an artist who worked closer to home, Louis-Bernard Coclers (1741-1817), the Dutch-born son of Defrance’s master Jan-Baptiste, who painted an 'Interior of a Foundry' in 1771.7| Coclers’ view not only included a stylishly dressed visiting group but also, like Defrance, focused on the routine ritual of the workers’ activity, unlike Wright’s figures who appear heroically posed and theatrically lit. Defrance’s visit to Holland, where he attended an auction of paintings by Wouwerman and Teniers and copied some of their works, must have shown him that a good living could be made from painting scenes of working life. He painted first for the Dutch market and later sold in Paris with the help of Fragonard (1732 - 1806), his friend from their student days in Rome in the 1750s.

Defrance’s artistic success in the 1770s and early 1780s was helped by the intellectually liberal atmosphere created by the ruler of Liège between 1772-84, the Prince-Bishop François-Charles de Velbruck. He not only supported publishing and the arts but also manufacturing using new technologies and sciences. According to a letter that Defrance wrote in March 1778 it was the Prince-Bishop who was commissioning from Defrance ‘night pictures such as foundries, nail and iron works’.8|

Also during this period Defrance was able to promote his views on artistic and general education by publishing pamphlets and establishing an art academy of which he became a director in 1778. Such freedom came to an end in 1784 with the selection of the next Prince-Bishop, César-Constantin François de Haensbroech, whose repressive regime pushed Defrance into active political radicalism and forced him into exile in Paris on several occasions. Having witnessed the outbreak of the French revolution in Paris in July 1789 he was still in the city in August when the revolution spread to Liège and forced Haensbroch from power. Defrance returned to his native town to help fortify its walls. The Walker’s picture could, therefore, have been painted in Paris and its date and signature, prominent and distinctive (unlike Defrance’s other versions), may have had a political and personal significance.

In the troubled years that followed Defrance did not devote much time to painting except when back in exile in Paris between 1791-93 after Haensbroch had bombarded and retaken Liège. Instead he took up a career as an elected politician and municipal official for Liège and its department, for which he was last re-elected in 1800. In his final years, during which he wrote his self-justificatory Mémoire (1804?), he was progressively weakened by illness until his death in 1805.

Later history

His prominent role in Liège’s revolution, where he oversaw the removal of local art collections to the Louvre and the demolition of St. Lambert’s cathedral, and the detailed and sharply observed industrial subject matter of his paintings have made Defrance’s life, works and character highly controversial from the 1790s through to the 1970s. In the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he was vilified for his anti-clerical beliefs and activities as a ‘vandal’, an ‘infamous rationalist destroyer’ and the ‘lowest most cynical plunderer’. By the 1950s and 1960s his work had been taken up by Marxist art historians and writers who, believing the visitors to be representatives of the idle aristocracy, saw the paintings as precursors of the social realism of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.9|


HE Parsons Esq., his posthumous sale, Christie’s 3 November 1944 lot 3 at Derby House, Stratford Place, Oxford St. as The Forge bt. Smith for £54.12s; Mrs. Shorthouse, Llandrindod Wells;10| sold Christie’s (South Ken.) 28 May 1985 lot 114 acquired by Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox; purchased by NMGM from Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox with the aid of a grant from The Art Fund| in July 1990.


Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, London, March 1990 as 'Interior of a Forge' and stated to have been signed a second time, L. Defrance de Liège.


F Dehousse, M Pacco, M Pauchen, 'Léonard Defrance L’oeuvre Peint 1735-1805', Liège, 1985, no.278 illus. as a 'Visit to a Foundry'.

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  1. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert ed., 'Planches pour L’Encyclopédie ou pour Le Dictionaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts Liberaux et des Arts Méchaniques avec leur Explication', 1765, pp.24-25 planche IX.
  2. Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels, inv.6116, 41 x 57.5cms, and a Belgian private collection, 42 x 59cms, illustrated in F Dehousse, M Pacco, M Pauchen, 'Léonard Defrance L’oeuvre Peint 1735-1805', Liège, 1985, nos. 276, 277. WAG10824 is illustrated as no.278 'Visit to a Foundry'. There are also two counterproof drawings (nos. 276a & b) in Liège, Musée de l’art Wallon print room, showing some of the visitors and the workers in the centre and to left. An example of a forge scene by Defrance is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York inv.71.93.
  3. 'Visite à la fonderie', Musée de l’art Wallon, Liège, inv.25, 36 x 56cms. Exhibited at 'Autour du Néo-Classicisme en Belgique, 1770-1830', Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels, 1985-86, cat. no. 321.
  4. For further biographical information see T Vissol’s entry on Defrance in exhibition catalogue 'Autour du Néo-Classicisme', pp.353-65, 396.
  5. 'Defrance' cat no.274, private collection, Belgium. Julius Held, 'Paintings of the European and American Schools', Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1965, pp.117-118, 263.
  6. Judy Egerton, 'Wright of Derby', Tate exhibition, 1990, p.98, cat. no. 49 and in the same catalogue Tim Clayton’s essay ‘The engraving and publication of prints of Joseph Wright’s paintings’, p.27. Benedict Nicolson, 'Joseph Wright of Derby', 1969, p.51.
  7. Musée des Beaux Arts, Agen, illustrated as fig.31 in Patrick Le Nouëne, ‘Á propos d’un tableau de Louis-Bernard Coclers, les sujets industriels dans la peinture liègeoise de la fin du XVIIIe siècle’ in 'La peinture liègeoise des XVIIe et XVéIIIe siècles, (Colloque)', University of Liège, 1986.
  8. 'Léonard Defrance L’oeuvre Peint', as above, cat. no.274 citing a letter to the Montpellier-based art dealer Fontanel dated 13 March 1778, which indicated that he was constrained to paint “des sujets de nuit tels que fonderie, clouterie et manufacture de fer pour notre prince”.
  9. 'Autour du Néo-Classicisme', pp.353-65, 396, quoting commentators and writers in 1797, 1883 and 1903 and also referring to authors published in 1953, 1957 and 1969.
  10. Two manuscript labels on reverse of painting read: Mrs. Shorthouse / Llandrindod and Mrs. Shorthouse / Rock Park Hotel / Llandrindod Wells. There is also a sticker with the numerals 3596 and a printed Hazlitt Gooden & Fox label. From the 1880s Rock Park Hotel was one of the grandest hotels in Llandrindod until its demolition in the mid 1990s and it has been suggested by the curator of Radnorshire Museum, Will Adams, that Mrs. Shorthouse may have been its proprietor after World War II.