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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.


'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. The fact that each lithograph submitted for approval had to be dated enables links to be drawn with specific events, while the need to deposit copies in the King's library, subsequently the Bibliotheque Nationale, ensured their survival, even of those refused permission for publication. Likewise the regime's controlling tendencies has helped to preserve subscription lists, such as that of Le Charivari. Numbering some 1,400 people, only a quarter were resident in Paris.

Daumier's personal role during the 1830 Revolution itself is unclear. In his lithographs marking the 'Three Glorious Days', his strong support for the revolution is reflected in his admiration of those manning the barricades (e.g. 'The Insurgent Grocer') and applause for Charles X's expulsion ('On Your Way, Pig!'). In the event, the republicans were outmanoeuvred by the Orleanists. 'La Galette' (September, 1830), records Daumier's disappointment with the advent of Louis Philippe, and prompted Daumier's decision to campaign to promote republican ideals. Frequent brushes with the authorities would result from his participation in what Thackeray called Philipon's 'little army' ranged against the state.


For Daumier the 1789 Revolution, which ushered in the First Republic (1792), dramatically extended the horizons of the French people. The reactionary tendencies of Charles X (1824-30) and Louis Philippe (1830-48), alongside his reading of Rousseau, reaffirmed Daumier's support for the republican alternative, and particularly for the 1793 democratic constitution as the preferred model for moving forward to a better France. In the words of the poet Theodore de Banville (1823-91), Daumier was 'a Republican spontaneously; it was the air he breathed. He was of the people, and he loved the people from the bottom of his heart'. However, his democratic vision was not all-embracing, and, like many contemporaries, he proved remarkably conservative regarding the emancipation of women.

Inevitably, Louis Philippe became the central target for attack in Daumier's war against the government, with the image of 'la poire' (the pear) emerging as the subtle weapon of choice. Symbols are part of the caricaturists' stock-in-trade; in November 1831 Philipon used a four-stage drawing to transform Louis Philippe's features into a pear when seeking to convince the court about the device's validity for depicting the King: 'Can I help it, gentlemen of the jury, then, if His Majesty's face is like a pear?'


'La poire', whose visual impact was accentuated by its slang meaning of 'idiot', was taken up wire enthusiasm by Daumier, among others, to depict the King and the whole system of government. An early example was 'Gargantua' (December 1831), in which a pear-shaped character, seated on a commode, is shown taking baskets of money from the people, only for the money to be excreted to his supporters in the form of honours and rewards. The etymological significance of the title would not have been lost on those familiar with Rabelais' Gargantua, that is, a coarse and brutish character obscured by an outwardly benign facade. Daumier's lithograph 'Gargantua' focused on the regime's greed and corruption at a time of controversy regarding the alleged extravagance of the King's Civil List. Unsurprisingly, this work failed to secure the requisite official approval for publication in La Caricature. Instead, Daumier was taken to court, fined and given a suspended six-month sentence.

In August 1832, following further seizures of his work, Daumier was arrested, and sent to Sainte-Pe1agie prison. Perhaps the most detailed personal description of the 'artist-painter' is to be found in the official file recording his imprisonment on this occasion:

Physical description: 24 years of age. Turned-up nose. Height 1.71 metres. Medium mouth. Black hair. Oval, protruding chin. Medium eyebrows. Oval face. Broad, flat forehead. Ordinary colouring. Grey eyes. Identifying marks: scar on upper forehead near hairline.

The scar was reputed to be the result of a sabre cut received in some (unknown) way during the 1830 Revolution.

As well as the King himself, Daumier also targeted those serving the hated regime. During 1832-33, his series of portraits, based upon clay figurines modelled by himself, gave readers of Le Charivari and La Caricature a rogues' gallery of the July Monarchy. Typically, he exaggerated the sharp, cruel features of Jean Charles Persil, the chief prosecutor, while emphasizing the long nose of d'Argout, the Minister of Arts and Public Works. Individually, each portrait makes a strong impact, hut subsequently, one lithograph, 'The Legislative Paunch' (1834), provided a collective picture in which the rows of parliamentary benches are occupied by a repulsive looking group of ministers and deputies.


Though both liberals and republicans demanded a free press as an outcome of the Revolution, in fact, as Daumier had discovered first-hand, the period known as the July Monarchy (1830-48) witnessed the growing use of the law against the press. By the close of 1834, there had been numerous court cases instigated on such grounds as insulting Louis-Philippe or inciting hatred and contempt of the government. Arrest, packed juries, fines, suspended sentences and imprisonment became occupational hazards for journalists, editors and caricaturists. Satire and exaggeration, though stock tools of the caricaturists' trade, became devices increasingly relied upon to evade the censor's pen.

Daumier did what he could to highlight government oppression. 'I am pleased with you, my brave fellows' (1834) depicted an incident in which policemen, disguised as workers, brutally dispersed a crowd near the Bourse. Perhaps his most moving work was 'Rue Transnonain: April 15th, 1834'. Telescoping a series of repressive acts by the authorities into a single event, Daumier employed a realistic style to heighten the impact. The room is still after the troops' action, the bodies are prostrate, with one man seemingly shielding a small child, the mattress has been ripped open, presumably by a bayonet, the chair is overturned, and there is blood on the floor. All combine to give a feeling of horror and shock, as well as to indict a so-called liberal regime of cruelty and oppression.

The role of the press in defending the people's rights and liberties represented another priority. In October 1833 Daumier depicted a printer using a press to squeeze Louis-Philippe to a shapeless pulp, while in March 1834 a muscular printer, fists clenched, stood up defiantly against the attempts of an umbrella-waving ruler to curtail press freedom. Charles X, the fallen king in the background, warned Louis Philippe about his predecessor's fate: 'Don't meddle with it!' (1834). The revolutionary reputation of printers, forged by their role in 1830, reinforced the impact of a lithograph, whose sales boosted the finances of L'Association Mensuelle Lithographique, a mutual aid fund established to help meet fines imposed upon caricaturists and journalists.


Mass trials of the regime's opponents, alongside official interference in the courts, were mocked by Daumier. Typically, 'You have the floor, explain yourself' (May 1835) shows a defendant, gagged and held down, being invited to state his case. But time was running out for political lithographs, and Joseph Fieschi's abortive attempt to assassinate the King in July 1835 prompted a more reactionary Press Law (September 1835) alongside greater penalties for those responsible for drawings which 'spoke to the eyes' and were presented as inciting people to action. Reportedly inspired by Goya's 'Los Caprichos' (1799), Daumier's 'They Died for Liberty' appeared in what proved to be the final issue of La Caricature, dated August 27th, 1835. Those killed on the barricades in 1830 peered out of their graves only to witness that nothing had changed.

Caricaturists were forced henceforth to redirect their efforts in order to steer clear of the heavy hand of the law. Thackeray summed up the impact of the new law: 'the Press was sent to prison'. As a result, Daumier harnessed his artistic skills, powers of observation, and intimate knowledge of the people to offer an absorbing panoramic commentary upon French, especially Parisian, life. The fact that the period was a time of rapid socio-economic change provided plenty of material. Industrialization, railway building, financial speculation, urbanization, worker-employer tensions, and everyday life in the courts, all find their place in what Baudelaire described as a pictorial version of Honore de Balzac's La Comedie Humaine (1842-55). Subsequently, Daumier contributed to an illustrated edition of this work. Series titles of his lithographs, such as 'The Railways', 'The Bluestockings', 'The Middle Class', 'Lodgers and Landlords' and 'Men of the Law', suggest the broad scope of Daumier's subjects. One series, 'Wedded Life', acquired added significance following Daumier's marriage to Marie-Alexandrine Dassy (1822-95), a seamstress, in April 1846.

Imparting historical detail to the otherwise anonymous masses, Daumier gave substance to their everyday way of life. In many respects, he conducted a dialogue with the people focused upon the government's failure to alleviate unemployment, bad housing and inadequate educational provision. The July Monarchy seemed neither to understand nor to sympathize with the problems of the people, whether they were workers, old concierges or top floor lodgers. Daumier's sympathy with society's victims emerged clearly in lithographs illustrating, for example, the poor looking through shop windows at food they could not afford, suffering in the courts at the hands of vain, corrupt and unscrupulous lawyers, or harassed by grasping landlords. The frequently critical tone of his commentary, though reflecting in part his own problems in managing money or dealing with debts and landlords, suggests that even after 1835 Daumier's art remained fundamentally political in intent, especially as the authorities were unable to prevent people reading what they wanted into such lithographs.

In 1840 a government report highlighted the dangers posed by Paris' criminal classes: 'It is generally agreed that the most dangerous elements ... are gamblers, prostitutes ... vagabonds, swindlers, confidence tricksters, pick pockets'. Significantly, one of Daumier's most enduring characters, Robert Macaire, drew from several of these criminal categories. Indeed, Daumier saw a Macaire in all walks of life in the July Monarchy. A theatrical character inspired by the actor Frederic Lemaitre, Macaire figured in two series of lithographs produced for Le Charivari between 1836 and 1842. The 100-plus lithographs, implying never ending swindles, depicted Macaire as the instantly recognizable universal con man in numerous guises, whether acting as a doctor, lawyer or speculator.


For Daumier, the July Monarchy offered numerous opportunities for Macaire type pretenders and dissemblers. By implication, the greatest rogue of all was the King. In this way, Macaire, a fictitious yet seemingly real character, delivered--to quote Thackeray--'a blow that shook the whole dynasty'. At the end of the series, Macaire, accompanied by Bertrand, his faithful assistant, was shown leaving France carrying sacks of money. In February 1848, Louis-Philippe followed suit, albeit in greater haste and less auspicious circumstances.

Louis-Philippe's failure to reconcile monarchy with the new forces emerging in French society played an important part in the proclamation of the Second Republic in 1848. The extent to which Daumier and company had performed a contributory role, whether by pressing a republican message, attacking the fundamental props of the July Monarchy or in undermining support for the regime among a wide cross section of French opinion, remains unquantifiable. The authorities' repressive actions suggest that caricaturists were viewed as a serious threat to the political and social order, even if the uncertainties regarding their responsibility for leading people onto the streets in 1848 has been stressed by historians like David Kerr. What is certain is that Daumier, whose 'Last Cabinet Meeting of the Ex Ministers' (1848) contrasted the confusion among Louis-Philippe's discredited government with the serene figure of the Republic, welcomed the advent of the Second Republic. He credited also the role of the crowd, as recorded in 'The Urchin of Paris at the Tuileries' (March, 1848), where a street kid was shown sinking into the royal throne.


Welcoming the new freedom, Daumier exploited the opportunities arising from state patronage of art by cultivating his passion for painting, as evidenced by 'The Republic', one of France's most famous paintings. But there remained an insatiable appetite for his lithographs, which recorded his escalating concern about the Republic's rapid loss of direction. Indeed, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte's assumption of the presidency (December 1848) and subsequent coups modifying (1851) and then overthrowing the Republic (1852), confirmed Daumier's worst fears. For Daumier, the menacing figure named Ratapoil, whose ever present cudgel was available to persuade any critic, was employed to warn Le Charivari's readers about the growing Bonapartist threat.


In turn, the increasingly reactionary character of Napoleon III's Second Empire (1852-70) forced Daumier to repeat the post-1835 experience of retreating into general social comment. Ratapoil gave way to M. Prudhomme, a typical Parisian, while other topics included 'Theatre Sketches', the 'Saltimbanques' (travelling entertainers), Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris, and the 1855 Paris Great Exhibition. Nor did Daumier, an early advocate of disarmament, ignore international affairs, as illustrated by his lithographic commentaries highlighting the destructive capacity of modern weaponry and the growing Prussian threat.


Paradoxically, the war that Daumier feared--a Franco-Prussian War--brought down the hated Second Empire (September 1870) and led to the Third Republic. For a time, the sense of triumph felt by Daumier was tempered by both the continuation of war and the fear that, as in 1848, the Republic's success might be short lived, given the severe strains resulting from war, defeat, the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, and the 1871 Commune, in which thousands lost their lives. In September 1872, his hopes for a republican future were embodied in one of his final lithographs, 'The Corpse of Monarchy'.

Failing eyesight restricted, then terminated, the work of Daumier, who retired to Valmondois, just north of the capital. For much of Daumier's lifetime, his oils and watercolours, though occasionally shown in the Salon, as in 1861 ('The Laundress') and 1869 (three watercolours), went largely unnoticed. Paradoxically, an exhibition held in 1878 just before his death, proved influential in securing growing recognition of Daumier, the artist, as opposed to Daumier the newspaper caricaturist and illustrator. The organizing committee was presided over by Victor Hugo, whose Les Chatiments had figured prominently in Daumier's critique of the Second Empire entitled 'A Page of History' (1870).

When Daumier died in February 1879, France, helped by disagreements among the monarchists, remained a republic. Subsequently, in April 1880 the artist's body was returned from Valmondois to Paris, the focus of his life and work, for reburial in Pere Lachaise Cemetery near the graves of Corot and Millet.

Stendhal presented his novel Scarlet and Black (1830) as offering a 'mirror of life' in contemporary France. In this vein, Daumier provides a visual archive of his era that was not lost on his contemporaries. Generally, Daumier has been portrayed as a member of the lower-middle classes, an artisan living and working among the people. Nevertheless, despite avoiding artistic and literary coteries, he attracted to his studio visits from prominent artists, art critics, historians and writers, many of whom held him in high regard. According to Baudelaire, Daumier was 'one of the most important men of modern art', worthy of comparison to Delacroix. Delacroix himself, writing to Daumier during the mid-1840s, asserted that 'there is not a man I value and admire more than you'. Another admirer was the historian, Jules Michelet, who described Daumier as 'the Michelangelo of caricature'. Similar sentiments were articulated by Balzac, a fellow contributor to La Caricature.


Today, Daumier is placed increasingly 'among the greats' (David Kerr) of the art world, and recognized also as an influence upon impressionism. For cartoonist Quentin Blake, his lithographs are both powerful and extraordinarily alive: 'they are, as it were, not so much observed, as lived'. Historically, his work remains impressive for its artistic range, quality, and strong sense of political commitment. Daumier proved one of French society's sharpest observers and critics. Much of his work, benefiting from the use of humour, and touching upon enduring themes like city life, greed, the dangers of armaments, the challenge of new technology, and the abuse of political power, possesses a timeless quality enabling Daumier to strike a chord still in today's fast-moving world.


Further Reading

Quentin Blake, 'Honore Daumier', The Independent Magazine, Dec 10th, 2000, p.94; Daumier 1808-1879 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa 1999); R.J. Goldstein, Censorship of Political Caricature in Nineteenth Century France (Kent State University Press, 1989); B. & S Harris, (eds.) Honore Daumier. Selected Works (Crown, 1969); David. S. Kerr, Caricature and French Political Culture, 1830-1848: Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press (Clarendon Press, 2000); J.R. Kist, Daumier. Eyewitness of an Epoch, (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1976); O.W. Larkin, Daumier. Man of His Time, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967); Bruce Laughton Honore Daumier (Yale University Press, 1996).


Peter J. Beck is Professor of International History at Kingston Univeristy, and author of Using History, Making British Policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
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Author:Beck, Peter J.
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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