Pages of History: Daumier's Political Eye: Peter J. Beck Describes the Work of Honore Daumier, Born 200 Years Ago This Month, Which Provided an Early Visual Documentary Newsreel and Commentary on the Key Political and Social Movements in Mid-Nineteenth Century France

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'A world of light that one would in vain look for in regular books of history' wrote the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in The Paris Sketch Book in 1840, of the work of the artist, lithographer and caricaturist Honore-Victorin Daumier (1808-79). Daumier's caricatures offer a kind of nineteenth-century newsreel, presenting 'living' pictures of French politics and society with a propagandist message. His interpretation of events contrasts markedly with that provided by official documentary sources, offering a vivid, frequently critical, image of France in a period marked by revolution and a succession of monarchical, republican and Bonapartist regimes. His collaborator, the journalist and editor, Charles Philipon (1800-62), described his work as 'pages of history'.

Lithography, the art of printing from stone, was developed from the innovative work of Aloys Senefelder during the final years of the eighteenth century, and offered artists a low-cost reproduction process capable of producing multiple copies of an original drawing. Importantly, lithographs enabled relatively immediate responses to events. As such, Senefelder's invention opened up new audiences and sources of income for artists. In France, lithographs dealing with political and other topics were published in illustrated newspapers such as La Silhouette, La Caricature and Le Charivari, or sold over the counter in the growing number of lithograph shops, where they were frequently displayed for sale in shop windows. In this way, though beyond the means of most, lithographs provided a means of communicating ideas to the man or woman in the street, as well as to more traditional audiences. In spite of the tradition for caricature pioneered by Gillray, Hogarth and others in Georgian Britain, Thackeray opined that the lower classes in France displayed a much greater responsiveness to art in the mid-nineteenth century than did their English counterparts. Certainly Daumier benefited from, and promoted, the appreciation of lithographs as an art form. During the 1850s Charles Baudelaire, the poet and art critic, recalled how: 'Each morning (Daumier) keeps the population of our city amused ... the bourgeoisie, the businessman, the urchin and the housewife all laugh and pass on their way'.


Born in Marseilles on February 26th, 1808, Daumier was the son of a glazier with literary pretensions. The family moved to Paris in 1816, and the young Honore began work as an office boy for a bailiff in 1820. Daumier first came to public attention in 1830 when his lithographs commenting on the 'Three Glorious Days', appeared in Philipon's weekly journal La Silhouette as a response to the July Revolution, which ended the Bourbon Restoration and brought the Orleanist Louis Philippe to power. Thereafter, he would remain in the public eye for nearly fifty years. Yet in spite of Daumier's popularity and the observations about him by many famous contemporaries, he himself left almost no written record of his views, and remarkably little detail is known of his early life (he had some training under the master Alexandre Lenoir, 1761-1839, among others). Contemporary commentators describe him as good natured and shy, most at ease smoking his pipe, rowing on the Seine, or drinking cheap wine and talking with friends. Nevertheless, over 4,000 lithographs by Daumier survive, as well as 300 paintings and numerous sculptures made over a period of fifty years. The captions of his lithographs, however, tended to be written not by the artist himself but by journal editors like Philipon to complement the accompanying text rather than stand on their own.


By the law of March 25th, 1822, prior to publication, lithographers were required to deposit one copy of every lithograph for official authorization. Ironically, this system of control, though tiresome for the artist, helps the historian. …


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