On this day: Artist Honoré Daumier was born, le 20 Février 1808
French artist Honoré Daumier was born on le 20 février 1808 in Marseille. Daumier was a prolific caricaturist, painter, and sculptor especially renowned for his cartoons and drawings satirizing XIX ème siecle French politics and society. His paintings, though hardly known during his lifetime, helped introduce techniques of Impressionism into modern art.
Traits of Daumier's ancestry - a generous and rather fanciful turn of mind, and an easily aroused capacity for pity - all form part of his character. His mother's family was from a village in which samples of unique ancient sculptured reliefs, fierce primitive human heads, had been found. His grandfather and father both worked in Marseille as “glaziers,” dealers in frames and decorative tableaux that they painted themselves. His godfather was a painter. When Daumier was seven, his father abandoned his business in order to go to Paris and, like so many Provençals, seek his fortune as a poet. He was presented to Louis XVIII; but his swift fall from favour (he was famous only for a fortnight) unbalanced him mentally. After being confined for many years, Daumier's father died in the Charenton asylum.
Daumier received a typical lower middle class education, but he wanted to draw, and his studies did not interest him. His family therefore placed him with an old and fairly well-known artist, Alexandre Lenoir. Lenoir, a student and friend of Jacques-Louis David, a leading classicist painter, was more an aesthetician than a painter. He had a pronounced taste for Rubens, one of whose works he kept in his collection. A connoisseur of sculpture, he had saved the most beautiful medieval and contemporary sculptures from the Revolutionaries, which inspired a lasting interest in Daumier.
His father's breakdown forced Daumier at the age of thirteen to seek paying work. He first became a messenger boy for a bailiff and, from this experience, acquired his familiarity with the world of the lawcourts. He worked next as a bookseller's clerk at le Palais-Royal. Le Palais-Royal, with its arcades surrounding the garden, was one of the busiest spots in Paris, and there Daumier saw, parading before his employer's window, all the characters of la Comédie humaine, about whom he would later talk with his friend Balzac: not only men and women of fashion, intellectuals, and artists but also “captains of industry,” or swindlers, as they were commonly called—all of whom lent themselves to caricature.
In about 1825, Daumier decided to give up everything to embark on the artistic career of which he had dreamed so long. He was a young man of about 18, from a family of painters, who had had an opportunity to admire Rubens, had learned to analyze sculpture, and had been able to observe the appearance and behaviour of different classes of society.
Daumier could not live from painting or from sculpture as he had set out to do so he accepted commissions for lithographs, portraits and cartoons of morals and manners, caricatures de moeurs. The first of these was completed in 1822, when he was fifteen years old and was just beginning to produce lithographs. Most of these early portraits were mediocre and modelled on another artist's style, but they constituted an excellent apprenticeship for someone interested in the human physiognomy.
Daumier's life, devoted entirely to his work, was to be divided into two parts: from 1830 to 1847 he was a lithographer, cartoonist, and sculptor; and, beginning in 1848 and lasting until 1871, he was an Impressionist painter whose art was reflected in the lithographs he continued to produce. Constant work was not a burden to him; while producing 4,000 lithographs and 4,000 illustrative drawings, he sang sentimental songs whose foolishness made him laugh, and, “unconcerned with his works, he was always out drinking cheap wine with barge captains.”
In 1830 Daumier began his satirical work: his busts lampooning certain contemporary types and his many lithographs. He enjoyed the company of grandiloquent men and mainly associated with men of republican and anti-monarchical views. It was at this time that Charles Philipon, a republican journalist who had founded the opposition journal La Caricature, invited him to become a contributor.
King Louis-Philippe generally tolerated jokes at his expense, but, when unduly provoked, rather than bring suit against a paper, he preferred to seize it, a procedure that meant ruin for its staff and financial backers. Only once during his reign did he deal severely with an offender—with Daumier in 1832, and then only after the second of the artist's most violent attacks. Sentenced to six months in prison, Daumier spent two of them in the state prison and four in a mental hospital, the king apparently wanting to show that one had to be mad to oppose and caricature him.
After his release in février 1833, Daumier was never again indicted, even though in his cartoons he continued to attack a regime and a concept of life that he scorned, while at the same time creating unforgettable characters. Daumier's types were universal: businessmen, lawyers, doctors, professors, and petits bourgeois. His treatment of his lithographs was sculptural, leading Balzac to say about him that he had a bit of Michelangelo under his skin.
The fifteen or so small busts that Daumier modelled in clay for the satirical journal for which he worked and that remained there some 30 years occupy an important place in the history of sculpture. Scarcely differing from official busts, but with the accentuation of a detail that made them caricatures, they constitute an unforgettable gallery of the politicians of the July monarchy. The complete series has not been preserved: it included a Louis-Philippe, which Daumier hid, and other pieces that were broken in moving. A few copies of the busts were cast in bronze in the XX ème siecle. Their originality is the more striking when they are compared with similar pieces of that period.
In 1848 Daumier believed the era of social justice for which he had militantly fought for 20 years had arrived, and he took part in the official competition for the representation of le republique that was to replace the portrait of the king in all the municipal buildings of France. His rough sketch was beautiful, and, had he agreed to complete the painting, he would have received the prize.
He did not do so, however, because he had become preoccupied with new technical studies. Earlier than others, he had discovered Impressionism. Daumier painted a great deal, and the more so as his studies in the new technique did not interest the satirical journals to which he now submitted drawings devoid of humorous meaning. He was supported by Charles Baudelaire and by that poet's friends. The two men had met in 1845 and saw each other more frequently after 1848. Baudelaire wrote in 1857 the only significant article on Daumier to appear in the painter's lifetime.
Daumier was indeed the first of the Impressionists. As early as 1848, his lithographs show contours effaced by light. Daumier's Impressionist lithographs had been rejected by journals in 1848 as being too bold, too modern. Because of this lack of demand, Daumier's Impressionist lithographs are not very numerous, but his painting shows that he was won over to Impressionism. Daumier seldom showed his works, and they went largely unnoticed, but he was in the vanguard of Impressionism. Manet and Monet both admired him greatly.
Daumier's paintings are highly original, both in their style and in the subjects they present. He created the painting of morals and manners, la peinture de moeurs, featuring in his work the everyday life on l'Île Saint-Louis and its quais, such as children playing in the water; horses leaving a water trough; washerwomen wearily returning up the stairs from the river or fighting against the wind, their bundles in their arms; drinkers in a pub; and masons on a scaffold. He was stirred by the theatre, then by railroads, which he used as a means of showing galleries of faces as powerful in their impact as those of the Ventre législatif (“Legislative Belly” or “Vile Body of the Legislature”). Earlier, le Palais de Justice had provided him with the opportunity of drawing his dramatically impressive lawyers. Then he went to Valmondois, on the outskirts of Paris, and depicted rustic scenes.
These subjects are found again in his lithographs, together with topical subjects, such as seaside resorts, hunting, and winter scenes, all of which, having been commissioned, seemed to inspire him less. Thus he transposed into his painting what had until then belonged to the domain of the caricatures of morals and manners.
The types that Daumier created did not always survive him. He created a Louis-Philippe, but above all Robert Macaire (the typical businessman of Louis-Philippe's reign). His “Bons Bourgeois” probably served as a reference for the French middle class up to the 1940s. In any case, his “Lawyers” remain up-to-date.
Following tradition, Daumier took pupils who learned their craft by copying and imitating his works. Two of them are known by name: Boulard and Gill.
Less solitary than he is said to have been, and admired by the new school, notably by Manet, Daumier grew old: sadly, for he would have liked to give up his lithographic work in favour of painting, but he could not do so. But he was happy in the knowledge that his lithographs preserved their force, as Hugo said in 1870 when Daumier symbolized his great satirical poem Les Châtiments, "punishments," by a crucified eagle.
In 1871, Daumier, who had discreetly refused to be decorated by the empire, became a member of the anti-monarchical Paris Commune. He was almost blind during his last years. His drawings, like those of Edgar Degas, gained a magnificent wholeness. He had one last joy, an exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in 1878. People began to say that his paintings were at least as good as his lithographs, though it was more the republican than the artist that they wished to celebrate.
As a cartoonist, Daumier enjoyed a wide reputation, although as a painter he remained unknown. His fame was not based, any more than it is today, on critical appreciations but, rather, on the smiling or laughing admiration of those who read the satirical journals.
Daumier died on le 11 février 1879 in the Paris suburb of Valmondois.
(This post was adapted and condensed from Encyclopedia Brittanica and other sources.)
Daumier: One Hundred Twenty Great Lithographs