It is the working man who is the happy man.

(Benjamin Franklin)

I grew up on a street with a strange, archaic name: it seemed to indicate a profession, or a job at the feudal court. I imagined this man as wearing many layers of sumptuous clothes and carrying lots of keys. I asked a teacher, but he was not sure of the exact role, no more precise than referring to a position at court, held by a minor aristocrat, sometime before the 18th century. There were no pictures to show me what these officials wore, or the tools of their trade.

I wondered why painters didn’t paint this official, in his normal attire, in his working environment, to satisfy our curiosity.

Looking through the work of artists of that time, one wonders if there was more to painting than landscapes and self-portraits. Painters prefer self-portraits, because the model is easily available and cheap – and possibly because a shade of narcissism is not unusual in an artist. Van Gogh painted over 30 self-portraits in three years; before the invention of photography, most painters took care to provide posterity with a record of their features.

The painter at work in his studio is a familiar enough theme. I was curious to see them paint other people in their work environment. Here are some examples.

The Labourers

Offering the great advantage of availability, landscapes have always been the favourite subject of many painters, as well as that of art collectors and occasional buyers. Placing figures in the field – working peasants – became the next step for the Realist painters. Jean-Francois Millet painted gleaners, potatoes planters and harvesters, winnowers, shepherds and milkmaids, men and women going about their farming chores. Like Courbet, Millet attempted a political statement through his paintings of peasant life. Painted in 1848, the year of the Revolution, The Winnower is dressed in blue, white and red and he is vigorously separating the chaff from the grain. The barn is a sombre interior, but the light falls onto the golden chaff, thrown into the air, and onto the strong hand of the winnower.

A few years later in England Ford Maddox Brown was painting his most important work Work (1863), which depicts the digging up of a road, possibly in order to build a tunnel. At the centre of the composition are the workers, led by the hero, the strong manual labourer. At the periphery are the lesser contributors to society – the seller of herbs, looking shifty, the philosopher and the theologian looking on.

The Entertainers

Egyptians, Phoenicians, Hebrews and Greeks have illustrated dance – probably the oldest form of art, in its early practice linked to religious ritual. The impressionists were also fascinated by dancers and many beautiful paintings (by Manet, Toulouse Lautrec, Renoir) have been inspired by this human way of expressing joy. Over half of Degas’ work feature dancers; more than other painter, he captured the working aspect of dancing: the rehearsal, the performance, the informal moments Backstage. Circus performers and cabaret entertainers as subjects offered richness of colours and movement that Impressionists and Pointillists loved to capture on canvas, while alluding to the tumultuous or unhappy life of the characters portrayed.

The Scientist

Science was “show business” in the 17th and 18th centuries. On market squares and at gatherings in homes, showmen would exhibit new products based on scientific discoveries, to the amazement of their audience. In one such scene, An experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1768, a man with wild white hair and intense gaze is demonstrating the workings of an air pump – the precursor of the vacuum cleaner. From the centre of the picture, a single candle illuminates the faces of the children, the parent and the two lovers gathered around the table for the experiment. Apart from the pale moonlight coming through a high window on the left, the interior is mostly in darkness, lending the scene a nearly religious character.

The composition recalls that of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632). Surrounded by members of Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, Tulp, the official City Anatomist gives his annual autopsy demonstration. As well as twice-weekly theory lectures, the surgeons had to attend a practical autopsy – a form of continuous professional development, and every few years a group portrait was commissioned to commemorate the occasion. The autopsy was performed on the body of a convicted criminal, in this instance that of Adriaen het Kint. In this classic triangular composition, the grey corpse is in the centre foreground appears to share its luminosity with the surgeons faces bent over it. There are no cutting instruments in the picture, someone else has dealt with the bloody business of dissection and preparation. This skilfully staged composition, with its strong chiaroscuro and theatrical impact ensured the success of the 26-year-old painter.

The Tailor

Giambattista Moroni is one of the best known portraitist of the Seicento. In an era when painters were mainly commissioned to produce portraits of the aristocracy and rich merchants, the painting featuring a young tailor – no name, just The Tailor (Il Tagliapanne) is unusual. The handsome worker wears a cream and red costume that displays Moroni’s excellent skills as a colourist. Scissors in hand, he is posed ready to cut a piece of contrasting black fabric. An ordinary pre-industrial artisan, he may have been the owner of his atelier and maybe he made a good living. The tailor looks out towards the viewer, his gaze steady as if he is appraising a client; a confident and dignified look, sure of his metier and his place in the world.

The Postman

“I am now at work with another model, a postman in blue uniform, trimmed with gold, a big bearded face, very like Socrates.” wrote Van Gogh to his brother. With his distinctive long curly beard and blonde moustache, Joseph Roulin poses for Van Gogh in his blue uniform, the word “Postes” clearly visible on his postman cap; he worked at the rail station, sorting mail. Roulin was a true and dependable friend to Van Gogh during his difficult time in Arles (1988-9). A loyal friend, his portraits show him as a loyal public servant, a symbol of honest work and dignity. Always pictured in his uniform, he appears to be proud of wearing it, his pose and attitude radiating confidence and self-respect.

The Butcher, the Baker

A uniform doesn’t necessarily instil self-confidence in the worker, especially in a very young one. Chaim Soutine’s pastry cooks are yet to grow into their white uniform, the white that offered Soutine an opportunity of study in colour and transparency. The portrait is entitled Le Petit Patissier (The Little Pastry Cook) an acknowledgement of the vulnerability of his model. Like the bell boys, the adolescent cooks are nervous at being caught between childhood and the adult responsibility of their professional life – as indicated by the uniform. The sweet baby face contrasts with the assertive pose of the boy.

If the uniform maketh the man, what are we to make of Soutine’s The Butcher? His once white uniform is not just splashed with blood, it is soaked in blood, it is made of and surrounded by red flesh. He looks out of the painting with sad, troubled eyes. Behind him there is more red, he is immersed in a sea of blood. He has become flesh and bones; this is not just what he does, but also what he is.