The World of Daumier

Article excerpt

With a deft hand and penetrating eye, HonorA Daumier created caricatures, paintings, and sculptures that portrayed his times while probing universal themes.

This article is a condensation of the booklet Daumier, * National Gallery of Canada, 1999. Reprinted with permission.

The first full retrospective of the work of HonorA Daumier since his death in 1879 opened in June at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa. It features more than three hundred works, including oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, lithographs, and sculptures, as well as many of the famous caricatures that demonstrate the French artist's caustic wit. The exhibition Daumier is now at the MusAE d'Orsay, Paris, through January 3, 2000, and comes to the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., February 19--May 14. The following is a condensation of a booklet accompanying the exhibition published by the National Gallery of Canada.

HonorA-Victorin Daumier lived and worked during a time of extraordinary social and political change in France. His career encompassed the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, the era of the "Citizen King" Louis-Philippe (1830--1848), the Second Republic (1848--1852), the Second Empire of Louis-NapolAon (1852--1870), and the first years of the Third Republic (1870--1940). His initial fame was due to his vast oeuvre of nearly five thousand satirical prints on political and social themes. It was not until the late 1840s that he gained any recognition at all as a painter, and it was only shortly before his death that his achievements in this realm became more widely known.

Daumier was born in Marseilles on February 26, 1808. His father, a glazier and picture-framer, as well as an aspiring poet, moved to Paris in 1815 to seek his literary fortune--with mixed success. His family joined him there the following year. At the age of twelve, HonorA worked as an errand boy for a bailiff, and later he apprenticed to the lithographer ZApherin Belliard before beginning his own career as a creator of satirical lithographs.

The technique of lithography, invented in the 1790s, is based on the simple principle that oil and water do not mix. The artist draws on a large flat slab of limestone with an oily crayon. The drawn areas are chemically fixed to the stone's surface; the stone is moistened with water and then inked with a roller. The ink adheres only to the drawn areas, allowing the image to be transferred to paper in a press. Unlike the more technically difficult processes for copper engraving and woodcut, lithography allowed the artist to make the drawing directly on the stone, without translation by a technician. An almost infinite number of impressions could be produced. Lithography made possible the rapid printing of cheap images, creating increased employment for artists, writers, and publishers.

In 1830, a brief popular uprising led to the abdication of the repressive Bourbon king Charles X and the birth of a more liberal monarchy under Louis-Philippe, of the House of OrlAans. Daumier's career as a caricaturist took wing the same year, when his designs were published by the republican weekly journal La Caricature, founded by Charles Philipon. But doing political caricatures had its price: In 1832, Daumier was sentenced to six months in jail because of two lithographs he had made, one of which presented the king as Rabelais' gluttonous Gargantua. This scurrilous print depicts starving masses hauling an endless stream of money up to the open mouth of the king, who excretes rewards and honors upon the politicians waiting below.

Upon his release from prison, Daumier was commissioned by Philipon to create a series of clay portrait busts caricaturing, among other figures, many of the government deputies. The fragile busts, later cast in bronze, were displayed in the window of La Caricature's publisher, La Maison Aubert. Daumier also used them as sources for a series of lithographs of politicians, some published in La Caricature but most in Philipon's new daily journal, Le Charivari. …