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Honore Daumier (1808-79)

( Originally Published 1955 )

Satirical graphic artist and painter of the French Realistic movement. Daumier's reputation as a caricaturist obscured his standing as a painter during his lifetime, and it has only been posthumous study of his works that has properly related him to the development of modern French painting. His output was enormous; working under journalistic contract he produced four thousand lithographic plates alone. His development of the potentalities of that inexpensive, painterly medium is one of his major claims to fame. His career passed through several phases. Of humble origin, he showed early talent for poetry and the arts. Brought to Paris as a child, he reveled in the Louvre, but was not allowed by his parents to become a painter. Instead he worked first with a lithographer and then a publisher, becoming involved in journalism. He worked for the periodical La Caricature, along with Grandville and others, and for it he passed six months in prison because of a cartoon, Gargantua, an attack on Louis Philippe. Upon his release he produced a series of acid comments on the political scene, culminating in the famous Legislative Belly of 1834. In the same year appeared his Rue Transnonain, vignette of a civilian massacre in Lyon. This dramatic lithograph seems to be based on a study of Gericault, and it has artistic implications far beyond its mere message. It shows him to be a master of the Baroque devices revived by the Romantics and capable of applying them unaffectedly to contemporary events. It bears interesting comparison with another image of martyrdom, David's Death of Marat. The laws censoring the press terminated this phase of Daumier's development and turned him to more harmless satire on mores, social and cultural. Such cartoons ran for years through the pages of Charivari and other periodicals. They range from comment on the bourgeoisie to lawyers, artists, actors, and even to such abstractions as Classic and Romantic Theory. His style by the 1850's entered its last phase, becoming broader and more cursive; and Daumier himself associated less with journalists, more with artists such as Corot, who supported him when his sight failed from overwork in 1877. His character Ratapoil, based on Louis Napoleon, is of this period and occasionally we find him rendering such figures in a striking type of sculpture.

Daumier's satire is profoundly human, never slapstick. Some of his comments are so gentle and universal that it is difficult to draw the line between tragic and comic. This certainly accounts for his delight in the stock characters of the Italian Comedy, whom he treats with deep perception for the first time since Watteau. His illustrations for Cervantes are remarkable for the understanding with which the Spanish tragicomic hero is treated. Except for political satire, most of his characters are not so clearly recognizable as Don Quixote, but are anonymous, amorphous types swept up in a crowd, recalling Pieter Brueghel's world of men. The Crowd itself is studied as a revolutionary mob, as refugees blown before the wind or as modern city-dwellers rushing for a train. Interesting in this regard are the various drawings, paintings and lithographs which Daumier produced on the subject of railroad travel, that outstanding contribution to the habits of the industrial age. In the railroad car interiors he practices arrangments by which he can unite a group of individuals thrown together by chance and lost in their own reveries. He must have profited here from a study of Rembrandt, who is one of the few painters to deal with such psychological isolation amongst individuals physically juxtaposed. Daumier's technique in painting is a brusque one of interplay rather than congruency of mass and outlined silhouette, of dark streaking lines competing with strong color areas that are built up in glazes. Inanimate elements and patterns of his backgrounds in some compositions like the Carriages, The Uprising, and The Laundress seem to have a life or to carry a symbolism of their own.

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