Juan Planella y Rodríguez (Spanish painter) 1849 - 1910
La Niña Obrera (The Working Girl), ca. 1882
oil on canvas
In 1824, Gabriel Planella painted La tienda de indianas (The calico print shop – now housed at the Barcelona City History Museum), which was probably used as an advertisement in the entrance of a retail establishment. More than fifty years later, a member of the same family, who was also a painter, Juan Planella y Rodríguez (Barcelona, 2-2-1849 – 21-6-1910) painted La niña obrera (The working girl), a masterpiece of pictorial realism and one of the most powerful depictions of the harsh working conditions in the Catalan textile industry. At the start of the nineteenth century, Gabriel had taught drawing at the Llotja school and had designed models for printing on fabrics. His painting, La tienda de indianas, was the result of this experience, and he used it to show off the beauty of these motifs. Juan, on the other hand, preferred to look behind the scenes; his work portrays the darker side of the textile industry. In the period between the two paintings, Gabriel made an interesting drawing of the inside of a workshop where a man is working with a bergadana spinning frame, which is in a way a forerunner of the painting that Juan Planella would paint later . In fact this illustration acts as the link between these two members of a dynasty of artists, and draws together the two sides of the textile industry in nineteenthcentury Catalonia. Towards the end of the nineteenth century industrial themes were making a belated appearance in Catalan painting. Traditionally there was always a time gap between the emergence of artistic trends in Europe and their arrival in Spain, but the Industrial Revolution was also slow to take off in a country
which remained predominantly rural. In 1882 , then, La niña obrera was a effect. The only entirely negative criticism came from Federico Cajal in La Ilustració who complained of the lack of light, air and space which a factory (in theory at least) was supposed to have, although of course in practice these three elements tended to be conspicuous by their absence. The painter wanted to depict this reality as it was – a dirty, hungry girl, dressed in rags, working practically in the dark – and used a dramatic chiaroscuro to situate the foreman
in the background, supervising her work. Resigned and in a world of her own, the young subject works like an automaton weaving on a flying shuttle (a task entrusted to children) in front of an automatic loom. He takes a little artistic licence – for example, the reproduction of the working parts of the machines is not entirely faithful and the girl would have had her hair tied up in a scarf.
He is also careful to make the loom an important element of the composition – in fact, it occupies more space than the human subject – a monstrous though beautiful prolongation of the girl, creating the fine fabric which will later go on sale. It is this combination of beauty and horror, the human and the machine, that arouses the observer’s fascination and sympathy.
The only addition that Planella makes is the quotation from the Bible that appears on the original frame: “Y dijo Díos: ‘Ganarás el pan con el sudor de tu rostro’ (And God said: “you will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow”).
This quotation seems to reveal the depth of the painter’s religious feeling. Considering work as a calling from God and a way to redemption, the theme of the painting may be the cultivation of Christian piety. Some painters used a realistic style indebted to the Baroque, presenting workers as the saints of the new times. In Planella, these references are limited to the treatment of the girl, whose figure seems to illuminate her vile surroundings. His position seems to be paternalist and protective; in fact he often painted children at work, as in
La vendimia (The Harvest, 1881) and in Incidente de una huelga (Incident in a strike, 1889), again in a textile context, though without achieving the sobriety and intensity that he attained here.
The depiction we find in La niña obrera is exceptional; although the textile industry was a major element of society in late nineteenth-century Catalonia and elsewhere, it was not a theme that appeared often in paintings. Once again, the reason is to be found in the reality of the times, and even France remained a principally agricultural country. Painters of the Realist school represented washerwomen and seamstresses, that is, female workers involved peripherally in the textile world, but did not include the mechanized element we see in La
niña obrera pioneering work; Planella, a resident of Barcelona, was aware of the fact that he was living in the most industrialized city in the Iberian Peninsula, with a large concentration of textile manufactures, especially in the cotton sector.
Among the many factories in Barcelona were the Batlló and the Vapor Vell or the Vapor Nou (also known as La España Industrial). Of these last two (both located in Sants) the first belonged to the Güell family and the second to the Muntadas i Campeny brothers. Planella might have chosen any of these scenarios for his painting, or one of the factories owned by his patron Fernando Puig i Gibert or by the latter’s son-in-law, Camilo Fabra, a collector of Planella’s work and the owner of three factories, two of them in Barcelona. Or perhaps it
was a fictitious reconstruction based on the factories that Planella knew. This remains a mystery today, as we know nothing about how Planella worked – that is, whether he painted his work in situ or on the basis of previous research.
But what was it that aroused Planella’s interest in factories? Like Santiago Rusiñol, Ramon Casas, Joan and Josep Llimona, Josep Maria Tamburini, Josep Lluís Sert and Joaquim Mir, Planella was able to dedicate himself to art thanks to a source of income that was firmly rooted in the textile trade. While in the other cases this economic support came from the artists’ families, our painter received funds from the industrialist Fernando Puig. However, mostof the artists preferred to keep their income quiet – in fact only From his beginnings, Planella showed an interest in expressing the reality he saw around him, in scenes like the Siesta del obrero (The workman’s siesta, 1872) and Incidente de una huelga (Incident in a strike, 1889). The choice of theme suggests that he was an artist concerned with the tribulations of the proletariat. We do not know for sure what drew him to paint these scenes
– whether it was merely a wish to depict everyday life, or rather a desire to draw attention to the social problems of the time. Nonetheless, to judge from the circles he moved in, he must have had republican and federalist ideas; so we can imagine that he was an artist of progressive beliefs and a social conscience. Child labour had become a particularly pressing matter in need of urgent reform. In Spain, the Ley Benot (Benot Act) regulating child labour in workshops and the provision of schooling for working-class children was passed in 1873, but it had so little effect that in 1884 stricter legislation in the form of a royal order was introduced to oversee its observance. So the theme that Planella chose was a very topical one; in fact, he presented his painting in the same year as the royal order. He might be accused of opportunism, but the image he created was not at all sensationalist. Unlike other contemporary representations of working children, his work stood out for its sobriety and lack of sentimentality: instead of the typical frontal view, the girl is placed perpendicular to the observer, avoiding eye contact and arousing sympathy. The critics noted the strength of the picture, though some lamented the lack of colour (something he may have decided to correct in the replica, with its stronger shades), and even called it “dirty”: but his aim may well have been to paint the young weaver without the strident colours characteristic of the painting of the time in order to achieve a more realistic
by Juan C. Bejarano Veiga