Honoré Victorin Daumier

Honoré Victorin Daumier (1808-1879) was a French lithographer, painter, and sculptor. A romantic realist in style, he produced caricatures that are abiding commentaries on politics and social manners.

In some 40 years of political and social commentary Honoré Daumier created an enormously rich and varied record of Parisian middle-class life in the form of nearly 4,000 lithographs, about 1,000 wood engravings, and several hundred drawings and paintings. In them the comic spirit of Molière comes to life once again. After having been the scourge of Louis Philippe and the July Monarchy (1830-1848), Daumier continued as a satirist of Louis Napoleon and the Second Empire (1851-1870). Poor himself, the artist sympathized with the struggling bourgeois and proletarian citizens of Paris. As a man of the left, he battled for the establishment of a republic, which finally came in 1870. Liberals have always applauded Daumier; some conservatives, however, have been inclined to consider him woolly-minded.

Honoré Daumier, born on Feb. 26, 1808, in Marseilles, was the son of a glazier. When Honoré was 6, the family moved to Paris, where the elder Daumier hoped to win success as a poet. Honoré grew up in a home in which humanistic concerns had some importance. A born draftsman and designer who was largely self-taught, he received some formal instruction from Alexandre Lenoir, one of Jacques Louis David's students. An obscure artist named Ramelet taught Daumier the elements of the new, inexpensive, and popular technique of lithography. Daumier's style is so much his own that it is not easy to disentangle influences from other artists. Rembrandt and Francisco Goya are usually mentioned, along with Peter Paul Rubens, the Venetian school, and photography.


Early Works

Under the sponsorship of Charles Philipon, publisher of Caricature and Charivari, Daumier drew political cartoons in the early 1830s until press censorship in 1835 forced him to do satiric pictures of bourgeois manners. Among his best-known early lithographs are Lafayette Buried, portraying the fat king as a hypocritical mourner, although the dark black shape of Louis Philippe is esthetically attractive; the Legislative Belly, depicting a group of potbellied legislators and organized in a broad light and shade pattern; and Rue Transnonain, concerned with police brutality and showing a family murdered in a bedroom, which is dramatically effective in its restraint.

In order to give a forceful character to his images of legislators, Daumier modeled busts of his targets in clay before executing his drawings. He was on friendly terms with several sculptors and periodically returned to the use of sculptured forms; some of them were later carried out in terra-cotta or cast in bronze.

Between 1836 and 1838 Daumier did a notable series of 100 lithographs about an imaginary swindler named Robert Macaire, who symbolized the get-rich-quick philosophy of the times. His character is tellingly suggested in a famous print entitled The Public Is Stupid.

In the early 1830s Daumier published a series of 50 devastatingly anticlassical lithographs entitled Ancient History. Delightfully comic in effect, they also effectively exploit the rich blacks possible in the lithographic technique. The Abduction of Helen of Troy and Narcissus are good examples: Paris, gleefully smoking a cigar, is riding in triumph on the shoulders of Helen; Narcissus, admiring his reflection, is hideously scrawny.


Later Work

The Revolution of 1848 gave Daumier another opportunity to do political cartoons, among them The Last Meeting of the Council and Victor Hugo and émile Girardin (as supporters of Louis Napoleon). At this time he also began his serious work as a painter with a competition picture, heroic in conception, The Republic; an unfinished We Want Barabbas; and a revolutionary street scene, The Uprising, whose authenticity some scholars question.

In 1850, as Louis Napoleon seemed to be an increasing threat to the republic, Daumier fashioned a sculptured caricature, Ratapoil ("Ratskin"), which symbolized the whole class of Bonapartist followers and Napoleon himself. It is a strikingly novel pictorial conception of sculpture and seems almost to have been "painted" with some fluid material.

A decade later The Laundress (ca. 1863; two versions) reflects Daumier's deep interest in ordinary people and, in subject at least, belongs to the mid-century development of realism. The Drama (ca. 1860) is one of the few paintings directly related to a lithograph. A rather ambitious work for Daumier, it has a twofold psychological character: the amused detachment of the artist observing a melodrama and the excited absorption of the audience.

In the early 1860s, when Daumier had no regular employment, he did many small canvases, watercolors, and drawings. His persistent interest in the arts comes out delightfully in a little watercolor picture, The Connoisseurs, in which his skill in expressing human responses by silhouettes and physical attitudes is perfectly realized.

In the late 1860s Daumier gave a great deal of attention to the European scene, especially to the development of Prussia as a military threat. The menace of militarism is summed up in European Equilibrium (1867) and the devastation of the Franco-Prussian War in Peace—an Idyl (1871). The late lithographs are conceived in a new, open, and sketchily linear style.

Although Daumier, like Gustave Courbet, maintained that it was necessary to be of one's own time, he sometimes turned to literary sources, as in the long series of interpretations of Don Quixote, painted at the end of his career. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with its balancing of two eternal human types, reflects the balance in his own temperament of opposed romantic and realistic impulses.

During his own time Daumier was not widely recognized as a painter, and his only one-man show of paintings was held in 1878. He died the following year on February 11 in Valmondois.


Daumier's Influence

Caricaturists and social critics have been keenly aware of Daumier's contribution for well over a century. In the field of painting his mark has been less considerable. Daumier was a draftsman and an almost monochromatic tonalist. Later artists put less emphasis on drawing and created their pictures primarily with touches of color. If Daumier's effective use of flat "stains" and abstract shapes in wash drawings and lithographs remind us of édouard Manet, we cannot be sure that the parallelism is more than fortuitous. On the other hand, realistic café scenes such as Absinthe (1863) were followed by a whole line of similar works by Manet, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Further Reading on Honoré Victorin Daumier

Bernard Lemann, Honoré Daumier (1946), is a carefully chosen selection of 240 lithographs, well reproduced, with a good introduction and notes. K. E. Maison, Honoré Daumier (1968), is a two-volume catalogue raisonné of the paintings, watercolors, and drawings; it is the most up-to-date study, with the main emphasis on authenticity and dating rather than on the interpretation of Daumier's work. Maison's Daumier Drawings (1960) is also a useful book in spite of its rather gray plates. Jacques Lassaigne's general survey, Daumier (1938; trans. 1939), remains a good introduction. Oliver W. Larkin, Daumier: Man of His Time (1966), is a solid and well-illustrated study. Howard P. Vincent, Daumier and His World (1968), is well written. Jeanne L. Wasserman's catalog of Daumier's sculptural works, Daumier Sculpture (1969), is very thorough.