Artist - Daumier
( Originally Published 1925 )
Mr. Frank Weitenkampf, the curator of the Lenox Library print department, shows nineteen portfolios which hold about seven hundred litho-graphs by Honoré Daumier. This collection is a bequest of the late Mr. Lawrence, and we doubt if the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris surpasses it; that is, in the number of detached examples. There the works of the great artist are imbedded in the various publications for which he laboured so many years — such at La Caricature, Les Beaux Arts, L'Artiste, Les Modes Parisiennes, La Gazette Musicale, Le Boulevard, and Masques et Visages. The Lawrence lithographs are representatives, though not complete; the catalogue compiled by Loys Delteil comprises 3,958 plates; the paintings and drawings are also numerous. But an admirable idea of Daumier's versatile genius may be gleaned at the Lenox Library, as all the celebrated series are there: Paris Bohemians, the Blue Stockings, the Railways, La Caricature, Croquis d'Expressions, Emotions Parisiennes, Actualités, Les Baigneurs, Pastorales, Moeurs Conjugales, the Don Quixote plates, Silhouettes, Souvenirs d'Artistes, Types Parisiens, the Advocates and Judges, and a goodly number of the miscellanies. Altogether an adequate exhibition.
Honoré Daumier, who died February 1879, was almost the last of the giants of 183o, though he outlived many of them. Not affiliated with the Barbizon group though he was a romantic in his hatred of the bourgeois — several of these painters were intimate friends; indeed, Corot was his benefactor, making him a present of a cottage at Valmondois (Seine-et-Oise), where the illustrator died. He was blind and lonely at the end. Corot died 1875; Daubigny, his companion, 1878; Millet, 1875, and Rousseau, with whom he corresponded, died 1867. In 1879 Flaubert still lived, working heroically upon that monument of human inanity, Bouvard et Pécuchet; Maupassant, his disciple, had just published a volume of verse; Manet was regarded as a dangerous charlatan, Monet looked on as a madman; while poor Cézanne was only a bad joke. The indurated critical judgment of the academic forces pronounced Bonnat a greater portraitist than Velasquez, and Gérôme and his mock antiques and mock orientalism far superior to Fromentin and Chasseriau. It was a glorious epoch for mediocrity. And Daumier, in whom there was something of Michael Angelo and Courbet, was admired only as a clever caricaturist, the significance of his paintings escaping all except a few. Corot knew, Daubigny knew, as earlier Delacroix knew; and Balzac had said: "There is something of the Michael Angelo in this man!"
Baudelaire, whose critical flair never failed him, wrote in his Curiosités Esthétiques: "Daumier's distinguishing note as an artist is his certainty. His drawing is fluent and easy; it is a continuous improvisation. His powers of observation are such that in his work we never find a single head that is out of character with the figure beneath it. . Here, in these animalised faces, may be seen and read clearly all the meannesses of soul, all the absurdities, all the aberrations of intelligence, all the vices of the heart; yet at the same time all is broadly drawn and accentuated." Nevertheless one must not look at too many of these caricatures. At first the Rabelaisian side of the man appeals; presently his bitterness becomes too acrid. Humanity is silly, repulsive; it is goat, pig, snake, monkey, and tiger; but there is something else. Daumier would see several sides. His pessimism, like Flau bert's, is deadly, but at times reaches the pitch of the heroic. He could have echoed Flaubert's famous sentence: "The ignoble is the sublime of the lower slope." Yet what wit, what humour, what humanity in Daumïer! His Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are worth a wilderness of Dores. And the Good Samaritan or The Drinkers. The latter is as jovial as Steen or Hals.
A story went the rounds after his death which neatly illustrates his lack of worldliness. His modesty was proverbial, and once Daubigny, on introducing him to an American picture dealer, warned him not to ask less than five thousand francs for the first picture he sold to the man. The American went to Daumier's atelier, and seeing a picture on the easel, asked, "How much?" The artist, remembering Daubigny's warning, answered, "Five thousand francs." The dealer immediately bought it, and on demanding to see something else, Daumier put another canvas on the easel, far superior to the one sold. The Yankee again asked the price. The poor artist was perplexed. He had received no instructions from Daubigny regarding a second sale, so when the question was repeated he hesitated, and his timidity getting the better of him, he replied; "Five hundred francs." "Don't want it, wouldn't take it as a gift," said the dealer. "I like the other better Besides, I never sell any but expensive pictures," and he went away satisfied that a man who sold so cheaply was not much of an artist. This anecdote, which we heard second hand from Daubigny, may be a fable, yet it never failed to send Daubigny into fits of laughter. It may be surmised that, de-spite his herculean labours, extending over more than half a century, Daumier never knew how to make or save money.
He was born at Marseilles in 1808. His father was a third-rate poet who, suspecting his own gift, doubted the talent of his son, though this talent was both precocious and prodigious. The usual thing happened. Daumier would stick at nothing but his drawing; the attempt to force him into law studies only made him hate the law and lawyers and that hatred he never ceased to vent in his caricatures. He knocked about until he learned in 1829 the technics of lithography; then he soon became self-supporting. His. progress was rapid. He illustrated for the Boulevard journals; he caricatured Louis Philippe and was sent to jail, Sainte-Pélagie, for six months. Many years afterward he attacked with a like ferocity Napoleon III. Look at his frontispiece—rather an advertisement — of Victor Hugo's Les Châtiments. It is as sinister, as malign as a Rops. The big book, title displayed, crushes to earth a vulture which is a travesty of the Napoleonic beak. Daumier was a power in Paris. Albert Wolff, the critic of Figaro, tells how he earned five francs each time he provided a text for a caricature by Daumier, and Philipon, who founded several journals, actually claimed a share in Daumier's success because he wrote some of the silly dialogues to his plates.
Daumier was the artistic progenitor of the Caran d'Aches, the Forains — who was it that called Forain " Degas en caricature" ? — Willettes, and Toulouse-de-Lautrecs. He was a political pamphleteer, a scourger of public scamps, and a pictorial muck-raker of genius. His mockery of the classic in art was later paralleled by Offenbach in La Belle Hélène. But there were other sides to his genius. Tiring of the hurly-burly of journalism, he retired in 1860 to devote himself to painting.
His style has been pronounced akin to that of Eugène Carrière, his sense of values on a par with Goya's and Rembrandt's (that Shop Window of his in the Durand-Ruer collection is truly Rem brandtesque). This feeling for values was so remarkable that it enabled him to produce an impression with three or four tones. The colours he preferred were grays, browns, and he manipulatecl his blacks like a master. Mauclair does not hesitate to put Daumier among the great painters of the past century on the score of his small can-vases. "They contain all his gifts of bitter and profound observation, all the mastery of his drawings, to which they add the attractions of rich and intense colour," declares Mauclair. Doubtless he was affected by the influence of Henri Monnier, but Daumier really comes from no one. He belongs to the fierce tribe of synics and men of exuberant powers, like Goya and Courbet. A born anarch of art, he submitted to no yoke. He would have said with Anacharsis Cloots: "I belong to the party of indignation." He was a proud individualist. That he had a tender side, a talent for friendship, may be noted in the affectionate intercourse he maintained for years with Corot, Millet, Rousseau, Dupré, Geoffroy, the sculptor Pascal, and- others. He was very impulsive and had a good heart with all his misanthropy, for he was an idealist reversed. The etching of him by Loys Delteil is thus described by a sympathetic commentator: "Daumier was very broad-shouldered, his head rather big, with slightly sunken eyes, which must, however, have had an extraordinary power of penetration. Though the nose is a little heavy and inelegant, the projecting forehead, unusually massive like that of Victor Hugo or of Beethoven and barred with a determined furrow, reveals the great thinker, the man of lofty and noble aspirations. The rather long hair, thrown backward, adds to the expression of the fine head; and finally the beard worn collar wise, according to the prevailing fashion, gives to Daumier's face the distinctive mark of his period." This etched portrait may be seen in several states at the Lenox Library.