Jean-François Raffaëlli is known not only for his depictions of the grand boulevards of Paris, but also for his gritty and sympathetic depictions of those who worked on the fringes of the city. These included "chiffoniers" (rag-and-bone men), vagabonds and all manner of the working poor, rendered with a matter-of-factness and quiet nobility which placed Raffaëlli at the forefront of realist artists, and evinced the artist's affinity for his subjects. Some of these posed for the artist regularly; others were the results of observations he made on his long walks along the roads near his home at Asnières, in the outer suburbs of Paris. As Arsène Alexandre wrote: "He understood that the most unattractive appearances, the most disinherited by nature, merited precious treatment and, when transcribed by an elevated and sincere spirit, could produce a work of art as rare as that derived from most cheerful and magnificent of subjects. The squalid terrain of the fortifications [a no-man's land on the edge of Paris, made up of the ruins of the old city walls, where Raffaëlli often painted], the feral physiognomies and sordid rags of the chiffioniers could take their place in museums or rich collections, next to flower-filled landscapes or flattered sitters." (A. Alexandre, Jean-Francois Raffaëlli, Paris, 1909, pp. 67-68).
In the present lot, Raffaëlli describes a labourer working on a road construction site. He is only summarily described, with a grey beard and heavy coat, slouching slightly and carrying a broom in a grey, relatively featureless landscape that is set under a leaden winter sky. Within this profoundly naturalistic landscape, there is a slight sense of pathos, softened by the presence of the dog, which all combine, despite the apparently barren subject matter, to produce a painting which breathes a sense of quiet humanity.