"Like Millet [Raffalli] is the poet of the humble. What the great master did for the fields, Raffalli begins to do for the modest people of Paris. He shows them as they are, more often then not stupefied by life's hardships." These were the words of the art critic, Albert Wolfe in a reveiw in Le Figaro on April 10, 1881. In the late l870s and early 1880s, Raffalli's subjects were primarily the workers and beggars of the Paris suburbs. He left Paris in 1878, and settled in Asnires, an industrial suburb, where he could observe his subjects firsthand. Raffalli always focused on the character of the individual. "Character", he wrote, "is the physiological and psychological constitution of man...Character is man's distinctive trait" (J.F. Raffalli, "Etude des mouvements de l'art moderne et du beau caractriste", Catalogue illustr des oeuvres de J.F. Raffalli exposs 28 bis, Avenue de l'Opra, Paris, 1884, pp. 66-67). To illustrate this concept, Raffalli chose to depict his figures - ragpickers, chimney sweepers, beggars or ragpickers, among others - in passive, almost reflective moments rather than involved in the activity of their labors.
Two Workmen is a typical example of Raffalli's best work from this period. He depicts two laborers, posed like giants, against an industrial landscape. The tool of their trade, a shovel, is prominently placed by their side. As in most of Raffalli's figure paintings, there is no action, all activity has ceased while his subjects pause for a moment of contemplation. One with his hands in his pockets, the other with his hands crossed, these two workers loom above the horizon in spite of their humble status. The monochromatic palette of the background, with its smokestacks and factory buildings, further sets off the strong silhouettes of the two figures. This type of scene represented the new "countryside" of the Paris suburbs, the true, new landscape of the industrial revolution, which was the impetus for so much of Raffalli's creativity.