Features April 2000
“Strange seriousness”: discovering Daumier
On the artist upon viewing Daumier, 1808-1879 at the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
He was naked, and he saw man naked, and from the centre of his own crystal… . He approached everything with a mind unclouded by current opinions. There was nothing of the superior person about him. This makes him terrifying.
—T. S. Eliot on William Blake
Celui dont nous t’offrons l’image,
Et dont l’art, subtil entre tous
Nous enseigne à rire de nous,
Celui-là, lecteur, est un sage.
C’est un satirique, un moqueur;
Mais l’énergie avec laquelle
Il peint le Mal et sa séquelle
Prouve la beauté de son coeur.
—Baudelaire on Honoré Daumier
There is surely no great point in this; the only point is life, the glimpse of the little snatch of poetry in prose.
—Henry James on Honoré Daumier
Familiarity is soul fat: it insulates and cushions, dockets the uncanny, translates every tomorrow into a rerun of yesterday. Do not scorn such anodynes. Be grateful for them. They help us negotiate a world that, when not actively hostile, is often the next worst thing: unexpected. Humankind, T. S. Eliot observed, cannot bear very much reality. Familiarity populates the unknown with hints of habitation. It reassures us with bulletins about the déjà vu, the déjà vécu. How beguiling of Plato to suggest that all knowledge is really an anamnesis, a recollection, a recalling to mind something that, deep down, we already possess. It would be pretty to think so.
We could not manage without familiarity. But our humanity cannot manage without continually defeating it. Art, like love, is a prime resource for perpetuating that antiphony. Art, like love, resists novelty with the gorgeous artifice of tradition: a bible of patterns and conventions that predate and outlive us, guiding practice with the gift of shared form. At the same time, art, like love, invests every pattern with a disarming, absolute “yes” to experience. That is part of its lure, its power, its majesty.
There are few artists whose raids on the familiar are more cunningly executed than those of Honoré Daumier. Each of us, probably, has a dozen or so caricatures by Daumier in his head: send-ups of kings, emperors, politicians, lawyers, doctors, blue stockings, art collectors, mythological personages, and the good, self-satisfied bourgeois citizens of nineteenth-century Paris: which are your favorites? Most of Daumier’s caricatures are funny: they are also by turns sad, poignant, unflinching, and above all memorable.
The famous Rue Transnonian (1834) commemorates senseless slaughter as chillingly as Goya but without Goya’s bombast or obscenity. The lithograph portrays a poor, working-class family mistakenly shot in its stark, disshelved flat by jittery troops from King Louis-Philippe’s army. The image of the dead father lying spread-eagled on his back, half-naked, crushing the corpse of his infant into the floor boards, is a howling indictment of royal injustice. No wonder the king attempted to have all copies of the print confiscated and destroyed. (Daumier’s employer, Charles Philipon, said of the print that it was “not a caricature … [but] a page of our modern history bespattered with blood.”)
Daumier met brutality with exposure, folly with laughter, pomposity with a twinkling prod. His astonishing lack of sentimentality made him accurate; his unfathomable humanity preserved him from savagery. One critic called him “Molière with a crayon.” Daumier could be amused, sorrowful, indignant, sharp: he was never vicious. Noting that the primary impulse behind caricature is “doubt or despair concerning man as such, a denial of the goodness or beauty of human nature,” the German art historian Hans Sedlmayr nonetheless went on to observe that in Daumier the “lack of confidence in man is outweighed by a recognition of his greatness. Daumier saw the grandeur of man as did scarcely any other artist of the nineteenth century. Grandeur and absurdity are merged in him and so beget the tragicomic.”
Many will be surprised by the extravagance of Sedlmayr’s praise. What, after all, has a caricaturist—a satirist in ink—to do with “greatness” or “grandeur”? Caricature, as Henry James said in his essay on Daumier, is a kind of “journalism made doubly vivid.” If Daumier makes us see the ways in which journalism “touches the fine arts, touches manners, touches morals,” still “journalism is the criticism of the moment at the moment”—that is to say, occasional and hence generally ephemeral. Most of us will recall the several prints by Daumier we have encountered in histories of art or as illustrations for miscellaneous books (how often we see Daumier thus, “in service” as a prop to narrative) and wonder whether Sedlmayr’s words are themselves a kind of caricature, exaggeration in the service of irony. Daumier’s work is entertaining, yes; memorable, certainly; but most of it is so familiar, so accessible, so tied to particular occasions: how can we reconcile our deflationary if affectionate recollections with Sedlmayr’s superlatives?
In fact, the more deeply we look into Daumier, the more apposite Sedlmayr’s judgment appears. The most complete antidote to diminishing presumption is the monumental retrospective of Daumier’s work now on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. In this case, familiarity breeds consequence. Daumier the commentator and Daumier the comic quickly recede before Daumier the artist. It takes only a short while in this exhibition before we begin to understand why Daumier’s friend Delacroix should have written to him to say “There is not a man I value and admire more than you.” Or why Balzac (who met Daumier in the early 1830s) exclaimed, “This chap has Michelangelo in his system.” As it happens, Michelangelo, an important model for Daumier, is also a frequent touchstone for those who seek to understand Daumier’s work. In 1867, discussing The Legislative Belly (1834), one critic wrote that the celebrated lithograph was “a masterpiece of the same order as the Sistine Chapel.” Like caricature itself, perhaps, this was an exaggeration that makes a point, a point reinforced by Daumier’s friend Charles Daubigny when first he visited the Sistine Chapel: “Why, this is Daumier!”
Just about every aspect of Daumier’s art elicited superlatives. In 1878, a year before Daumier’s death, Degas declared him the equal of Delacroix, remarking that to draw a leg as Daumier did required forty years of study. The young Rodin, when he saw Daumier’s statuette Ratapoil (1850)—a caricature of Louis Napoleon—contented himself with an admiring, “What a Sculptor!” Writing about Daumier in 1922, Duncan Phillips—an avid early collector of Daumier’s work—ranked him with “the greatest of the great.” He acknowledged the many ways in which Daumier resembles both Goya and Hogarth, and then astutely pointed out that “Goya’s satire was a matter of satanic hate and morbid revery and Hogarth’s of didactic discourse on the frailties of human nature, whereas Daumier, like Balzac, was conscious always of having to do with the epic of facts and with the beauty of truth.” Phillips dilated on Daumier’s mastery of tonal harmony, above all his exquisite deployment of “velvety” black—“the queen,” as Renoir put it, “of colors.” (Sooner or later, almost everyone who writes about Daumier has recourse to the adjective “velvety” to describe his blacks; of particular note, however, is the way that Daumier’s sumptuous blacks often stand in ironical contrast to his pedestrian or woebegone subject matter.) Even Velázquez, Phillips wrote, “never surpassed Daumier in revealing the sensuous colorfulness of blacks and ivory whites, nor are the shadows of Rembrandt more mysterious or marvelous as envelopment for figures.”
High praise, this. Daumier’s friend Baudelaire concurred. In his 1857 essay “Some French Caricaturists,” Baudelaire expatiated on Daumier’s “wonderful understanding of portraiture”:
While exaggerating and burlesquing the original features, he remained so soundly rooted in nature that these specimens might serve as models for all portraitists. Every little meanness of spirit, every absurdity, every quirk of intellect, every vice of the heart can be seen and read in these animalized faces, and at the same time everything is broadly and emphatically drawn. Daumier combined the freedom of an artist with the accuracy of a Lavater.
Baudelaire concluded that Daumier was “one of the most important men … in the whole of modern art”:
What completes Daumier’s remarkable quality and renders him an exceptional artist who belongs to the illustrious family of the masters, is that his drawing is naturally colorful. His lithographs and his wood-engravings awake ideas of color. He evokes color, as he does thought.
It wasn’t only Daumier’s lithographs and woodcuts that sparked such enthusiasm. His paintings—which even today are much less well known—elicited similar encomia. For the great German critic Julius Meier-Graefe, Daumier was “a painter so mighty, that no terms can exaggerate the greatness of his importance.” In The Development of Modern Art (1908), Meier-Graefe noted that although Daumier’s palette tended to be subdued, he
could be a great colorist upon occasion. He substituted a fluid strawberry red for his usual brown, painted blue atmosphere like Velázquez, pale golden backgrounds like the most refined of the Dutchmen, and invented contrasts of pink and orange which recall the Venetians.
Meier-Graefe also put his finger on an element that made Daumier so important for the artists who were his peers or followers, a roster that includes Manet, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Degas, Rouault, Giacometti, and Picasso. (How much of Daumier there is in Picasso’s bittersweet clowns!) “A new art-language arose from Daumier’s sketchiness,” Meier-Graefe wrote, “at the syntax of which we are still working.” Just as Daumier’s caricatures laid bare with a few deft strokes the personalities and pretensions of their subjects, so his paintings conjugated a mood, an emotional reality with subtly modulated lozenges and triangles of color. The sketchy, “unfinished” quality that typifies Daumier’s painting is not the sketchiness that aspires to but fails to achieve photographic exactitude but rather that articulate aesthetic precision that subsists on the far side of a merely tabulating delineation.
Daumier’s measure is hard to take. This is partly because his work simultaneously caters to and exceeds our expectations. One of Daumier’s lightest, most amusing series is Ancient History, which appeared in Philipon’s satirical sheet Le Charivari in the early 1840s. (Le Charivari proved to be Daumier’s chief outlet: he provided the magazine with some eight lithographs a month from its inception, in 1832, until 1860, and then again, after a three-year hiatus, until 1872.) A pompous, pot-bellied Menelaus leading a plump, shrewish Helen away from the smoldering ruins of Troy; a scrawny Narcissus leering goatlike at his reflection in a pool; a moronic Pygmalion, rapt that his new statue should bend down to share his snuff—the series presented the modern repetition of classical mythology, not (to paraphrase Marx) as tragedy but as farce. As Baudelaire noted, Ancient History was Daumier’s answer to the great question posed by the vogue for neo-classicism: Qui nous délivera des Grecs et des Romains?—Who will deliver us from the Greeks and Romans? Daumier, Baudelaire wrote,
came down brutally on antiquity—on false antiquity, that is, for no one has a better feeling than he for the grandeurs of antiquity. He snapped his fingers at it. The hot-headed Achilles, the cunning Ulysses, the wise Penelope, Telemachus, that great booby, and the fair Helen, who ruined Troy—they all of them, in fact, appear before our eyes in a farcical ugliness which is reminiscent of those decrepit old tragic actors whom one sometimes sees taking a pinch of snuff in the wings.
Daumier parodies, punctures, and delights with Ancient History. But the art historian Howard Vincent is surely correct that we return to those prints not primarily because of their satirical point but because of their aesthetic excellence. “The essential reason,” Vincent wrote in his excellent study Daumier and His World (1968), “that these cartoons endure repeated study, yield increasing pleasure, lies not in their parodic gaiety but rather in the high quality of their draughtsmanship.”
Daumier is enigmatic because he delivers so much more than he promises. He is enigmatic also because he is largely unknowable. He wrote essentially nothing except letters, precious few of which survive; the testimony of friends and associates is vague and often inconsistent; and Daumier’s quiet temperament—he was, Vincent says, essentially “a spectator, not a participant”—does little to aid the biographer. About Daumier the man we have some scraps of fact, a number of charming but only intermittently reliable anecdotes, and a large province of conjecture.
As to the facts: Daumier was born on February 26, 1808 in Marseilles, the third child and first son of Cécile-Catherine and Jean-Baptiste Daumier, a glazier. Daumier père had unfulfilled literary ambitions. He wrote verse, managed to get some of it published, but was grieved that his genius was insufficiently recognized. He died insane in 1851. Some writers have conjectured that his father’s literary aspirations helped young Honoré to set his sights beyond Marseilles and the glazier’s trade. Perhaps so. In any event, the boy arrived in Paris with his family at the age of eight and at twelve was engaged as a notary’s errand boy, a saute-ruisseau, which gave him a first taste of law courts and the “men of justice” he would later caricature to such profound effect. (The black gowns and hats of the French lawyers, punctuated by white cravats, must have been as irresistible to Daumier’s eye as the proverbial lawyerly self-importance was to his sense of humor.) Daumier had little formal education. “The streets of Paris,” Howard Vincent wrote, “were his school and college, his occupation and pastime. They were his career. They formed him, made him aware, and out of this awareness he himself shaped Paris and her people into the thousand forms of his prints and painting, a devoted record of his city.” In 1821, Daumier took a job as a clerk at a bookstore in the Palais-Royale, near two important printsellers and the Louvre, where he undoubtedly busied himself making copies. His artistic ambition began to flower, and in 1822 he became a pupil of his father’s friend, Alexandre Lenoir, a painter, archaeologist, and art collector.
We know little about Daumier’s subsequent studies. He soon grew dissatisfied with Lenoir’s training, which emphasized color and drew heavily on the examples of Rubens and Titian, and enrolled at the Académie Suisse and the Académie Boudin. By the age of fourteen, Daumier had begun experimenting with the new process of lithography, an inexpensive printing technique discovered by a German actor and playwright named Aloys Senefelder in 1798 and only lately come to Paris. In 1825, Daumier apprenticed with one Zéphirin Belliard, who specialized in lithographic portraits. He later worked with other artists. But it was not until about 1829, when he encountered Charles Philipon, that Daumier began to come into his own.
Philipon (1800–62)—described by one admirer as “le journalisme fait homme”— was an extraordinary figure. Together with his brother-in-law, he operated the Véro-Dodat Gallery, which specialized in satirical caricatures. But that was only a small part of his enterprise. The indefatigable entrepreneur, artist, journalist, and wit founded two of the leading satirical magazines of the nineteenth century, La Caricature, a weekly, and Le Charivari, a daily. In 1832, he started “L’Association mensuelle lithographique,” a print-of-the-month club whose proceeds helped pay for the fines exacted by the censor for material that appeared in his other magazines. Some of Daumier’s finest prints appeared in “L’Association mensuelle.” It was Philipon who first fully exploited the potential of lithography for the popular press. It was he who devised the “Pear”: the image of King Louis-Philippe that, in the hands of Daumier and his other artists (including Grandville, Gavarni, Descamps, and Monnier), came to epitomize the sovereign and his regime for the entire country. And it was he who wrote almost all of the captions for Daumier’s early lithographs. Philipon collaborated with Daumier; he directed, incited, instructed, and—last but not least— paid him (though modestly). “If it had not been for Philipon,” Daumier later acknowledged, “who goaded me like a driver his oxen, I would have done nothing.”
Daumier was the perfect lieutenant for Philipon’s assaults. Graced with an extraordinary visual memory, he never bothered with models. Graced with abundant technical fluency, he rarely bothered with preliminary studies: his touch was rapid, sure, and deadly. Philipon’s implacable opposition to political injustice earned him the enmity of the censor, whoever happened to be in power. Louis-Philippe or Louis-Napoleon: it didn’t matter—Philipon’s magazines were regularly raided by the police. He and his artists were repeatedly fined and even, on occasion, imprisoned. Daumier had some share in this glory. At the end of 1831, he created his famous lithograph Gargantua. It portrays a bloated, pear-headed Louis-Philippe perched on a commode. The starving citizens of France struggle up a plank to deposit the country’s treasure in his gaping maw. Down below, ministers and favorites scurry about eagerly with the sundry writs, honors, and ribbons that the king obligingly excretes. This ferocious sally in Philipon’s philippic against Louis-Philippe was instantly proscribed. A six-month sentence against Daumier and others was initially suspended, but further outrages in Le Caricature led to the reimposition of the sentence a few months later. In August, 1832, Daumier was arrested and incarcerated in Sainte-Pélagie prison: “a charming resort,” he wrote to a friend, “where not everyone enjoys himself.”
Largely because of Gargantua, Daumier is often compared to Rabelais. But, notwithstanding the scatological motif in that lithograph, Daumier’s humor—indeed, his entire sensibility—is distinctly un-Rabelaisian. As Duncan Phillips observed, “of his four thousand cartoons, there is not one that is unclean, an amazing record for a French humorist.” Daumier’s work was often pointed; some of it was instinct with wounded righteousness; but throughout it all there is a current of affirmation and, ultimately, of serenity. By all accounts Daumier himself was a quiet, self-effacing man. His abiding sadness was a coefficient of his talent; excelling at caricature, he became its slave: first at Charivari, then at other satirical magazines. Time and again he attempted to get his work as a painter taken seriously. The Salon was frosty, the public uninterested. Caricature paid the bills, though barely. Still, cheerfulness kept breaking through. When a friend expressed concern about his parlous financial situation, Daumier replied, “What more do I need? Two fried eggs in the morning, and in the evening a herring or a cutlet. To that add a glass of Beaujolais, some tobacco for my pipe, and anything more would be superfluous.” In 1870, the last year of the Second Empire, Daumier was offered the Legion of Honor, which he refused. He was not about to accept honors from a government he detested. But unlike Courbet, who was offered the same award, Daumier did not make a public drama out of his refusal. When Courbet asked him why he did not use the occasion to generate publicity, Daumier replied: “I did what I thought I ought to do. I am content, and it is no concern of the public.”
It is peculiar how indistinct an image we have of Daumier. He had many friends, was reasonably social, but somehow his personality remains inaccessible. In 1846, Daumier married Marie-Alexandrine d’ Assy, a dressmaker fourteen years his junior. The marriage was childless but was said to be happy—though in fact, as Vincent remarks, “about Daumier’s family life virtually nothing is known.” From 1863, Daumier and his wife rented a house in the summer in Valmondois, a village twenty miles north of Paris. One of the most charming anecdotes about Daumier is that his friend Corot eventually bought the house for him—a story that unfortunately turns out to be false. By 1872, when he retired from Charivari for good, Daumier’s eyesight was failing from cataracts; by 1877, he was nearly blind. Two years later he was dead.
Daumier’s output was prodigious: four thousand lithographs, one thousand woodcuts, almost three hundred paintings, nearly a thousand drawings, dozens of sculptures. In 1878, several friends organized a large retrospective of Daumier’s work at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris. Victor Hugo served as honorary chairman. It was a great moment for Daumier. Having just suffered through an unsuccessful operation on his eyes, he was unable to attend the exhibition. But at last he was beginning to receive notice not just for his clever caricatures but also for his paintings. Indeed, the exhibition—carefully designed to highlight Daumier’s achievements as a serious painter—came as a revelation. Daumier the caricaturist the world knew or remembered. Daumier the artist was something else. One critic, after praising the exhibition, referred to Daumier as “This Titan who used all his strength against the pygmies.” The show was a rousing critical success; financially, it was a disaster. The masses whom Daumier had pleased, goaded, and amused for decades stayed away en masse. According to one account, the exhibition recorded receipts of some 3,000 francs and expenses of nearly 13,000.
The present exhibition does not suffer that ignominy. It is a hit, and rightly so. Including some 250 works, it amply displays every facet of Daumier’s oeuvre. There is only one thing to be lamented. In 1831, Philipon asked Daumier to make clay busts of the “celebrities of the juste milieu,” the thirty-odd ministers and propagandists for Louis-Philippe’s “middle course, as far,” the newly crowned king promised, “from the excesses of the power of the masses as from the abuses of royal power.” The painted busts were then made available as “clay snapshots” for the artists of La Caricature. Fashioned of unfired clay, the sculptures (now at the Musée d’Orsay) were too fragile to make the trip across the Atlantic. Instead, bronzes of the figures Daumier made are on view at the Phillips. They are no substitute for the clay originals. Still, assembled in a large vitrine, they make an impressive rogues’ gallery, a phrenologist’s delight, a psychologist’s wonder.
Making one’s way through the exhibition, one is struck again and again by Daumier’s sheer deftness. With what remarkable economy he conjured up character! All of Daumier’s most famous caricatures are here: the early Masks of 1831, a selection from the Robert Macaire series on which Philipon collaborated with Daumier, The Physiology of the Bourgeoisie, The Men of Justice, Parisian Sketches, Theatrical Sketches, Ancient History, Ratapoil, and others. Particularly amusing are two plates from 1862: Nadar Elevating Photography to the Height of Art—which portrays the famous photographer ascending over Paris, camera in hand, in his balloon—and In the Studios, which shows a group of critics or art lovers assembled in front of a painting: “Wow! … Amazing! … Gosh! … Superb! … it speaks!”
There is plenty to admire in Daumier’s caricatures. But as at the 1878 retrospective, the real revelation here is Daumier’s painting. Caricature is fundamentally an illustrational art. It exaggerates a physical quality in order to reveal an underlying moral or emotional reality. In the best caricatures, exaggeration evaporates in the light of a higher realism. Daumier was a master of this process. But his paintings, far from being caricatures in another medium, exist in an entirely different spiritual and aesthetic register. Discussing Daumier’s painting, Duncan Phillips observed that although Daumier was celebrated as a caricaturist, “he was just as much a mystic.” What Phillips meant, I think, is that Daumier’s paintings inhabit a realm of feeling far removed from the hurly-burly of social and political satire. This is not to say that Daumier was a religious painter. He made a few paintings with religious themes—a Magdalene, a Saint Sebastian. But his best paintings—some family scenes, Third-Class Carriage (1862–64), The Uprising (1852–58), The Fugitives (1865–70), and several paintings of Don Quixote—are secular. Nevertheless, they possess rare depths of solitude and melancholy tenderness. This is true even of The Fugitives, which portrays the deportation of Republicans in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution, and The Uprising, a haunting, mysterious painting whose exact subject remains indeterminate.
Technically, Daumier’s paintings were ahead of their time. The compression of pictorial space and simplifying expressiveness of his modelling look forward to Cézanne, the elongation of Don Quixote looks forward to Giacometti. Daumier’s technique—his unwillingness to sacrifice aesthetic weight for superficial “finish”—is part of what makes his paintings seem so modern. I am not sure exactly what it is that makes them linger hauntingly in one’s memory. Daumier’s paintings are curiously beguiling. They exert a large immediate appeal, but their full force becomes evident only in retrospect. Only then do their margins of articulate silence become fully present.
Daumier presents us with innumerable aesthetic delights. He also presents us with a curious conundrum. There is a delicate but ineradicable sadness infusing many of his paintings. There is also, seemingly inseparable from that sadness, an inveterate joy. This paradoxical combination is perhaps most evident in his paintings about Don Quixote, the deluded apostle of chivalry. Daumier’s great achievement is to make us see past the delusion to the human grandeur that inspires it. Noting that caricature explored “the innumerable different ways in which the human subject may not be taken seriously,” Henry James went on to puzzle over the “strange seriousness” that characterizes Daumier’s work. It is significant how many critics have paused to underscore that seriousness. Meier-Graefe did, as did Baudelaire. Ultimately, perhaps, it is Daumier’s seriousness that so moves us and that led one admirer to remark that Daumier had Don Quixote’s soul in Sancho’s body.
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I. Daumier, 1808–1879 opened at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., on February 19, 2000 and will be on view until May 14. The exhibition was previously seen at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (June 11–September 6, 1999) and the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris (October 5, 1999–January 3, 2000). A catalogue for the exhibition has been published by the National Gallery of Canada (599 pages, $75). Go back to the text.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 8, on page 20
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