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Daumier's Lithographs

( Originally Published 1914 )

HONORE DAUMIER was born at Marseilles, February 26, 1808, the son of an improvident glazier of Beziers, a mediocre poet unappreciative of his son's talent. From the age of seven Daumier lived in Paris, where happily he nourished in the antique, and later in the Dutch galleries of the Louvre, the artistic aptitude he had already shown in promising drawings. Discouraged, however, by his father, he began as a bailiff's errand-boy, and was later a bookstore clerk, till the archeologist Lenoir persuaded the parents to let the boy begin an education in art. In this training, chiefly in the academy of Boudin, he made a particularly minute study of artistic anatomy, and by a young friend he was initiated in the technique of lithography.

Just as Daumier's power was maturing, the opportunity was ripe both for a great lithograpber and for a great satirist. Lithography, still a young art, had quickly established itself as the favorite medium of the Romantic temperament, which it served so admirably because of its swift and spontaneous character, its capacity to record immediately and supplely the most intimate impulse of the artist's fancy. Lithography seemed to the young generation of Daumier's time to have, over the superbly trained and formal copperplate as exemplified by Robert Nanteuil, all the advantages that Romantic lyric and drama had, in their opinion, over the literature of the school of Corneille. Its capacities, as applied to the nascent Napoleonic legend by Charlet and the Vernets, were already familiar.

Political satire, too, had just found voice in illustrated journalism, in the brief and stormy career of Philipon's La Caricature and its successor, Le Charivari. For the service of these journals Philipon gathered a gifted group of young artists, including Gavarni and "Chain." The earlier periodical, founded in 1831, had a tempestuous life, exposed, because of its political audacities, to all the severities of the censorship,—for instance, within the limits of a single year, to no less than twenty-two lawsuits and fines. Charivari, begun in December, 1832, remained for a generation a storm-center of the electric public life of the Orleans monarchy and the Second Empire, and suggested the establishment of its London namesake.

Entering Philipon's group of young caricaturists, Daumier made an immediate success in 1832 by a series of satiric portraits of public men (of which doubtless the most skilful is the mordantly ironic Guizot), drawn after preliminary studies in clay, modeled and colored from memory, after observation in the legislative chambers. Six months' imprisonment at the end of his twenty-fifth year, for a political cartoon, Gargantua (of the monarch represented as devouring the wealth of the nation), secured for Daumier signal publicity and kindled in him a savage indignation which never afterward spared, while political satire was at all permitted in France, the oppressive quietism of ministers or sovereigns. A law of 1835 suppressed, for the rest of the Orleans regime, this vivid and irritating form of unparliamentary opposition. A vigorous revival at the Revolution of 1848 was in turn ended by the repressive Second Empire; and political satire became again possible only when the "terrible year" of '71 had finally discredited even "liberal" despotism.

Except during these three periods, therefore, Daumier was forced to confine himself to social satire, to which he devoted a gigantic volume of work,—the Del-tell catalogue lists 3958 prints, of which the Boston Museum possesses about 3000. He lived simply and quietly in the heart of Paris, with friends among the artists who through the mid-century were giving new modes of expression to French art. His personal interests shifted more and more to oil and water-color painting; he said to a friend in 1856: "I have for almost thirty years been thinking that each lithograph would be my last." Indeed, from 1860 to 1864 he freed himself from any contractual obligations to Charivari. But not till after his death did the public realize the power of his other work, and held him to his traditionally comic career until the end. To the relief of the last years, darkened by increasing blindness, the state contributed a small pension, and his closest friend, "Pere" Corot, a little home at Valmondois, the rent of which Daumier found himself unable to pay. Here he died in 1879, a year after the first, and gratifyingly successful, general exhibition of his work.

IN the immense production of Daumier there is much that is trivial in subject, of evidently perfunctory interest and careless execution; yet his work would be important, if for nothing else, as the completest picture of the petite bourgeoisie of Paris in the mid-century. His picture of French life is in many respects similar to the kindly yet uncompromisingly comic picture drawn by Charles Dickens of a similar social class in English life. In French literature there is perhaps no parallel as close. Here and there in its more farcical vein the Theatre Libre has Daumieresque touches: indeed, Guinon's "Seul" is a typical Daumier scene transported into the atmosphere of the stage. Or, if one sought by another comparison with literature to define the field of Daumier's satire, it would be by a fine scene in "La Douloureuse" of Maurice Donnay: a man and a woman, in a mood of dissipation at the daylight hour of a ball, suddenly quickened into seriousness and sympathy as they notice from a window, while luxuriating in the fresh air of dawn, a Paris laborer going forth to his task, to which, as they to pleasure, he is born as the sparks fly upward.

CERTAIN artistic limitations in this immense output are so obvious as to repel many who may examine it. There is here almost nothing beautiful for its decorative sense, for its quality of making a lovely pattern. There is here almost nothing picturing beautiful scenery or forms or faces. There is little delight in expressing—as lithography in the hands of Gavarni could so charmingly do—the brilliance and subtle variety of textures. There is rarely the delight of truly studied light and shade—representation, that is, so sensitive in chiaroscuro that evidently "the light is the principal personage in the picture." Except in political cartoons, there is not even the literary or historical interest of portraiture, as in the work of Deveria and Gigoux. Intense animation and expressiveness in rendering both bodily movements and facial expression are the key-notes of Daumier's work, which is guided not by a sense predominantly of beauty, but rather of character. This we may see by considering briefly his topics and his technique.

Two allied subjects inspired the more serious satirical lithographs of Daumier: he hated political oppression; he hated also pretense, rhetorical or theatrical, —the quality for which one thinks of French phrases, "le beau geste" or "emphase, "—a national weakness, as Daumier felt, that exposed French taste to the absurdities of Romanticism, and French national life to the political poseur. Perhaps two details in his own experience had thus especially directed his satire.

As bailiff's boy he had conceived an angry contempt for the profession which too often sacrificed justice to eloquence. In many plates of more than one series devoted to the gens de justice he pictures the chicanery of the avocat who enjoys his own bombast; who perverts justice by theatrical "tirade," strong in that discouraging fact that juries can be moved by irrelevant sentimentalities ; who hobnobs with rival pleaders in a good-fellowship quite oblivious of the victims that pay the costs of the intellectual game. Daumier's plates are never more sympathetic than when presenting the helpless in the hands of their lawyers,—such, for an example, as a little scene slipped so vividly yet so quietly and affectionately out of life, which pictures the frightened and futile ingenuities of the peasant tangled in a lawsuit, the sullen scepticism of his angry "bourgeoise," and the superiority of the public scribe who even in that outskirt of the profession has learned the common helplessness of those who are sued and those who bring suit.

Against the same quality of pretense was directed the series narrating the career of a character essentially of Daumier's creation, Robert Macaire, master swindler in palmy days of speculation. "Bluff" in politics is similarly ridiculed in that other creation of Daumier, Ratapoil, "ragged political bully or hand-to-mouth demagogue," with "the swagger and pose of being gallant for the people," as Mr. Henry James describes him. Even the prestige of Victor Hugo did not exempt him from Daumier's pencil, which drew in 1843, at the failure of Hugo's preposterous drama, "Les Burgraves," a wonderful bit of satiric portraiture.

Himself a victim of obscurantism, Daumier always ridiculed the efforts of politician or priest to put out all the lights. Sometimes his mood was hilarious burlesque, as in the plate of Veuillot supported by Mole, trying, after extinguishing education and the press, to snuff out also the sun,—a masterpiece of graphic satire, amusing, specifically aimed at comically recognizable individuals, independent of any explanatory text. It was in this manner that he commonly conceived his lithographs, not as illustrations of a given text, but as scenes evidently amusing in themselves. The text printed in Charivari was always supplied by members of the staff. Sometimes his mood was tragic, notably in the famous Rue Transnonain, one of a series of extra issues of exceptional size, .30 m. by .43 m., published to meet the journal's expenses of litigation. This ghastly scene of cruel repression, perpetrated by the police in April, 1834, was worked out by Daurnier through six months of merciless deliberation. The print, which ranks by general appreciation first in his work, appeared in September. It is almost unique among his plates in that it shows no trace of caricature. A tremendous reserve of power aims here to tell only a truth, before which, though men held their peace, the very stones cried out. At the other extreme of Daumier's career, and in a style as curt as the early plate is complete, are a few prints of bit-ter comment on the Franco-Prussian disasters ; and La Paix—Idylle remains the most adequate reply ever made to that glib political catchword of the imperial fakir : '' L'Empire, c'est la paix ! "

THE contrast between these two drawings is in epitome the story of Daumier's technique. His earliest manner is one of explicit finish, whether he present a portrait like the Guizot or a scene like the Rue Transnonain. On a very few stones he seems to have been interested in attaining the richest effects of illumination and "color." Of these probably the masterpiece is the concluding number of the series La Journee du Célibataire. Even here, however, the treatment of the face, an amazing bit of modeling, reminds us that Daumier's great gift was expressive line. This he more and more emphasized, though he combined with it again and again use of the velvety blacks which only the mezzotint disputes with the lithograph, as, for example, in the absurd scene at the "Zoo." A good example of his more exclusively linear manner is his little picture, also at the "Zoo," of withered gentility rubbing elbows with vulgarity, a typical bit of Daumier's quieter comment on social contrasts. The aggressively nervous quality of Daumier's line is evident in the unfailing animation of all his figures. Attitudes, though merely of standing, are made quiveringly alive, as in the figure of Ratapoil, who, as his comrade levies political toll, also ominously serves, though he only stands and waits. In his most hasty and extravagant caricature, wherein every accessory element is eliminated, leaving only essential line, the effect is supremely of animation. The little figures, who have almost lost human semblance, yet show a nervous vitality, a sudden alertness like insects : one expects to see them dart or leap.

Most characteristic is Daumier's treatment of human features, his amazing distortions of the facial mask, which, after all, rarely seem merely capricious but rather extravagances conceivably possible in natural growth. Noses, eyes, lips, cheek-bones have perhaps never happened to be so ; but such comic disproportions are not prohibited by any essential relation of bone and muscle. Daumier's oddest faces are not a defiance of cranial anatomy, but ingenious and intelligent developments from it.

In European art perhaps the nearest parallel is with the Caprichos of Goya, the difference being that in the Spaniard's work, as never in Daumier's, there is a bestial quality, elfish or monstrous, and sometimes a malignity almost satanic. A remoter comparison, but an interesting one, is with the superb masks carved by the Japanese for the NO dance. There, also, is the same contortion that in its most farcical extreme never ignores the structural facts of the human skull: but in the Oriental work with a difference. The decorative sense of the Japanese usually makes the con-tours, the wrinkles—exploited as expressively as Daumier's—also beautiful. Further, there is in the NO masks, whether serious or comic, a largeness of aim, an attempt to express essential character and universal emotions, and to ignore the incidental, so that some of the masks approach beautiful, conventionalized symbols. It is in his deft capture of every flicker of the incidentally amusing, in its practically endless variety, that Daumier is most a master.

A suggestive comment upon Daumier's quality is the fact that upon the wall of Corot's studio there hung no pictures, but a print or two by Daumier ; and that Delacroix constantly copied Daumier's litho-graphs (chiefly the merciless nudes of the Baigneurs et Baigneuses!) as a cure for his own vagueness of drawing. Corot and Delacroix, juxtaposed with Daumier, are amazing, but significant of Daumier's proper rank in French art during the July Monarchy and the Second Empire.

For further information about Honore Daumier:
Website Dedicated To Honore Daumier
Article About Honore Daumier
Le Juste-milieu
The Lithograph And The Woodcut


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