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Daumier’s last resting place is at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. His remains had been transferred there in 1881 from Valmondois near Auvers where he spent his last seven years. On it was written these simple words: “Here lies Daumier, a good man, great artist, great citizen.” Daumier is mostly remembered as a satirical caricaturist but the major aim of this Royal Academy exhibition is to present him as a great artist in his own right, one moreover who was well aware of the burgeoning commodification of the art world as the influence of critics and collectors began to dominate the market. Daumier, though recognised by his own contemporaries and even ranked by Baudelaire as one of the most important of artists ‘in the whole of modern art’ has rarely, it is suggested, been given the recognition he deserved. This is partly due to the fact that we tend to concentrate on the Paris of the Impressionists and therefore pass over the period leading up to this shift in pictorial seeing when, according to Baudelaire, ‘the great tradition had been lost and ...the new one not yet established.’ It is also because Daumier does not fit tidily into our art historical categories. What Daumier gives us is a profound and humanitarian insight into the social and political life of Paris during a period of transition that was marked by two revolutions and finally, after the ignominy of defeat by the Prussians, by the emergence of the Third Republic. Daumier’s politics throughout his life were anti- Bonapartist and staunchly but not radically Republican; at certain points in his life he paid for this.


Honore Victorin Daumier was born in Marseilles on the 26th February 1808. His grandfather was a tinsmith, his father a glazier who, convinced that he was a writer and poet of genius, left his family behind and travelled to Paris to make his literary fortune, which to a limited extent he did. A year later, in 1816, his wife and three children joined him. Honore Daumier had no formal art education but his formative years spent in Paris were to provide a ready backdrop for his future prints and paintings. He started out as an errand boy for a notary, which may explain his dubious opinion of the legal fraternity. He then moved on to a work in a bookstore, and during this time came to the decision to become a painter. His first teacher was Lenoir, a family friend whom his parents had consulted and who encouraged them to further their son’s ambitions. From Lenoir he derived a traditional academic training copying from classical busts etc. It was here that he mastered the recently invented art of lithography, which became a godsend for the production of a cheap and radical popular press, and met Charles Philipon who was to have a major impact on his career.


Daumier’s career was to a large degree defined by the tides of revolution that swept across nineteenth century France. A child when Napoleon claimed power, he had seen his defeat followed by the Restoration. Later he would observe the 1848 revolution, Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état and his overthrow in the Franco-Prussian war. But the beginning of Daumier’s career as a cartoonist coincided with the Glorious Revolution of 1830, which had as its main catalyst protest against the strict censorship laws governing the press. Refusing to compromise the Bourbon king was forced to flee when rebel leaders moved into revolutionary gear. The liberals offered the vacant throne to Louis-Philippe who accepted it and was reluctantly accepted by Lafayette and the Republicans as King of the French People. The liberals expected universal male suffrage, lower taxes and a government interested in reform. What they got was bankers and politicians jockeying for power and for money in a period of unregulated industrial expansion.  Louis-Philippe was merely a figurehead for a nation that, far from changing its course, rationalised the status quo in the guise of a policy of the Juste Milieu, the so called happy medium, i.e. collaboration, collusion and compromise. Meanwhile Daumier’s friend Philipon, believing that images were stronger than words, launched the periodical Caricature, an adult comic journal that was later paired with Charivari. Once disillusionment with the new regime set in, Caricature became a vehicle for political satire and attacked the king relentlessly. It was Philipon who invented the pear as the symbol of Louis Philippe that Daumier develops in his cartoon Gargantua, which he paid for with six months imprisonment. It is easy to see why. In it the King is depicted as an enormous enthroned idol being fed baskets of gold that reach his open mouth via a ramp. What makes the image even harder hitting are its scatological details. The throne is in fact a commode and a group of little men are shown scrambling beneath it in an effort to grab the excreted honours, while on the extreme right he pictures an impoverished nursing mother. It was with this cartoon that his career began

Daumier: Visions of Paris at the Royal Academy

By Anna Leung



Daumier was arrested on August the 27th 1832 and placed in Sainte-Pelagie prison. During this period the journal Charivari, meaning hubbub or uproar, was founded and for four years it hounded the king and his parliamentary deputies. Daumier’s caricature of Guizot whom Victor Hugo described as ‘an honest man running a brothel’ is a good example. Inevitably the repressive character of the regime came to a head. The workers’ freedom to associate or to form clubs or trade unions was rendered illegal. Once again the freedom of the press was at the forefront of protest and rebellion. In Paris and other industrial cities such as Lyons, small scale riots were organised resulting in massacres such as the one depicted in Rue Transonain 1834 which provided Daumier with one of his most forceful lithographs. Philipon described it as ‘a page of our modern history bespattered with blood, a page drawn with a powerful hand and dictated by noble anger’ and had it exhibited in a shop window.  Recognising just how dangerous this image was once it had entered the public sphere and the violence it could unleash, government agents destroyed the lithographic stone and confiscated and destroyed all available prints. I think it is apparent that the power that this image exerts on the viewer is aesthetic as much as it is political and that the two reinforce each other. Its tragic resonance looks back to Goya’s Disasters of War and forward to Picasso’s Guernica.


Surprisingly, the satirical bent of Daumier’s vision tends to get expressed even more forcibly in the clay maquettes that served as models for his eventual lithographic portraits even though he obviously did not take them seriously as works of art since they were not fired properly. And this despite the fact that the group of clay maquettes of the parliamentary deputies in the exhibition are often less caricatural than the lithographic sketches for which they served as models. But there is no doubt that one of the highlights of this exhibition is the inclusion of Daumier’s sculptural work, the most arresting being Ratapoil (Ratskin), the fictional character who represents the rabble rouser for Louis Napoleon’s propaganda campaign. It was subsequently cast as a bronze that earned even Rodin’s admiration. The plaster reliefs of Fugitives, sculpted from memory rather than models, again indicate Daumier’s sculptural talents. Daumier must have had a prodigious visual memory for he did not rely on sketches. Sketching from life was said to confuse him. This series of drawings, paintings and reliefs reveal the humanitarian concealed behind his cartoonist’s persona. What sort of fugitives they are, whether they are fleeing from political danger, which would have been linked to Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851, or from a natural disaster such as the cholera epidemic that swept through Marseilles around this time, is not known. Whatever its source, despite the restricted space of the bas-relief, the file of fleeing figures has grandeur and dignity. They are part of a body of work that includes a series of paintings in which the line of fugitives, despite being simplified, acquire an even greater depth of pathos that some see as Rembrandtian.


But probably the best known of Daumier’s paintings are those that belong to the Laundress series ,which exemplify his capacity to empathise with the people of Paris. Daumier had a flat at the Quai d’Anjou, then a working class area on the Ile Saint Louis. From there he was able to observe the comings and goings of the women climbing up the steep steps from the Seine carrying their burden of washing under one arm and helping a small child with the other. The figure of the Laundress is painted with the same rich reddish brown colours as the Fugitives, her silhouettes offset by the white background of buildings on the other bank of the river. She is often said to be the counterpart of Millet’s peasant women, minus their religiosity. But even more important, Daumier almost completely avoids the sentimentality of much socially inclined Victorian painting. The Laundress was one of the few of Daumier’s paintings that was accepted by the 1862 Salon but was placed so high on the wall it was virtually impossible to see and remained unsold. Notwithstanding, by 1863 Daumier was beginning to sell his paintings and was able to move to Montmartre, and by 1865 to rent a house in Valmondois from his close friend the painter Corot which he eventually bought and where until his retirement from Charivari he spent his summers.


Louis Napoleon had assured the French people that ‘the Empire means peace.’ For Daumier the resumption of censorship meant that he was forced to turn his talents to social rather than political satire but it also gave him time to paint. He began painting during the day and working on his money-making Charivari cartoons in the evenings. The butt of his social satire was as ever the foibles of the bourgeoisie but increasingly he targeted the Woman Question, e.g. Les Divorceuses 1848, notably blue stockings, and the art world - and it is this last theme that has been chosen as the sub-text of this exhibition. Daumier focused on many aspects; art’s critical reception, the tribulation of the artist faced with the uncertainties of the juried salon system, the growing importance of the critic and collector and the generally philistine attack on art as well as the advent of photography, e.g. Nadar Raising Photography to the Height of Art 1862. He was particularly perceptive about the plight of sculpture, depicted it as an indignant nude hemmed in by the public ogling at the paintings behind her and totally ignoring her. The theatre too became an important subject, especially the plays of Molière with whom he felt a special affinity. This comes out in his series of Saltimbanques whom he often depicted as barkers, clowns who advertised a theatrical performance or spectacle in an attempt to draw in a crowd.  It is likely that Daumier identified with the clown because his own job, especially when he was expected to produce eight cartoons a month, seemed to be a form of clowning. But on another level, the clown presented him with a mirror of his age; the clown is the outsider and scapegoat who takes on the menacing aspects of our lives and renders them tragi-comic. Daumier’s seismographic touch, especially in his water colours and drawings, is able to capture a melancholic sadness that is tinged with nostalgia. And it may be no accident that the finest clown pictures are not his oils but his water colours and drawings which retain a febrile delicacy and yet convey an underlying sense of melancholy and pity. The Saltimbanques became one of his major themes and Henry James commented that Daumier’s Saltimbanques were ‘symbolic and full of grimness, imagination and pity.’ a combination which was to become the source of inspiration for Picasso and Rouault a half century later.


From the clowns it is but a short step to Daumier’s fixation – together with many other nineteenth century artists and writers – on the character of Don Quixote. Like his hero Daumier had spent a lifetime attacking the foibles and follies of his day, the windmills of the Legislative Assembly and dead donkeys of Louis Philippe’s ‘Juste Milieu.’ But his paintings are not mere illustrations of the Spanish masterpiece. They liberate the characters, the ever-idealistic Don Quixote and his down to earth servant Sancho Panza, from the printed page and give them a new independence. Like many of his paintings they are basically monochromatic and drawn with a brush loaded with mostly black or dark brown liquid paint that heightens their linear expressivity.


Daumier only lived seven years beyond his retirement, and his series of Don Quixote served as a kind of testament to his aims and ideals. He was a revolutionary but not of an active kind except through his pencil, brush and pen. He had supported the Communards, but unlike Courbet drew the line when it came to toppling the Vendome column as a symbol of Napoleonism, for which Courbet was later made to pay expenses. Thiers, a politician who had often been the butt of Daumier’s satirical images, was made president of the Third Republic and old animosities forgotten. Daumier drew his last lithograph in 1872. By this time his eyesight was failing him and he retired to the cottage originally belonging to Corot.  Despite rumours that he was poverty stricken Daumier did not die an indigent artist dependent on the good will of his many artist friends. He received a pension from the state and welcomed to his home many admirers, including Victor Hugo who in 1878 organised a Paris exhibition of his work at the Durand-Ruel Gallery.  The show displayed his lithos and drawings but also his canvases, which came as a revelation to many critics; Degas who praised the artist as an equal to Delacroix was by the end of his life the owner of more than 750 of his prints.


It is not known whether Man with a Rope was among the paintings displayed at this retrospective since it looks as if much of the paint work has been scraped away but more than a century later, as well as a symbol of the precariousness of life as a member of the working classes, the figure of a man dangling in space speaks to our twenty first existential sensitivity. And despite the fact that not all of us are that well acquainted with the history of nineteenth century France – and the curators have spent more time talking about art than about politics - Daumier’s satirical cartoons that target the stratagems and duplicity of domestic and foreign politics and the corruption and the parodies of democracy can sadly still provoke a smile of recognition.


Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris

26 October 2013—26 January 2014

Royal Academy of Arts, London



© Anna Leung November 2013






Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.


Honore Daumier Lunch in the Country, c. 1867-1868 Oil on panel 26 x 34 cm National Museum of Wales, Cardiff Photo (c) National Museum of Wales


Honore Daumier
The Print Collector, c. 1857-63
Oil on cradled panel
42.3 x 33 cm
The Art Institute, Chicago


Honore Daumier
The Defence, c. 1865
Pen and ink and watercolour
22.5 x 30 cm
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Photo The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

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