Honoré Daumier was born to a modest Marseilles family who moved to Paris when Daumier was still a child. From bailiff’s errand boy, young Honoré graduated without enthusiasm to bookshop assistant. He was attracted to the Louvre and wanted to draw. His parents turned a deaf ear until Alexandre Lenoir, who created the Musée des Monuments Français and was an acquaintance of Daumier’s father, encouraged him to let his son follow his bent. The first trial, however, proved inconclusive, probably because conventional tutoring was ill-suited to the student’s temperament. Despite this, he managed to get a job under a lithographer named Ratelet. There he drew alphabets, ornaments for the covers of romances, and so on. He went on to work for the publisher Zéphirin Bélliard and then for Achille Ricourt, until he finally made a modest journalistic debut, collaborating on the Silhouette (1829).
From there he took his first steps under the guidance of Charles Philipon, a formidable polemicist and brother-in-law of the publisher Gabriel Aubert. At the Maison Aubert in 1830, Philipon launched the satirical journal Caricature, which stands as a monument of literary and artistic dissent. Working for Caricature would earn Daumier his first spurs: a six-month prison sentence for a lithograph entitled Gargantua (published 1831). It shows King Louis-Philippe as the Rabelaisian character, gorging himself on the money of the downtrodden French populace. This work did not appear in the journal but rather was sold separately and soon seized by police, who also ordered Aubert to destroy the proofs and the lithographic stone. At Caricature, Daumier rubbed shoulders with the caricaturists J. J. Grandville, Joseph Traviès, Edmé Jean Pigal, and, sometimes, Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet, Auguste Raffet, and Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. The literary contributors included Louis Desnoyers and Honoré de Balzac, who signed his articles under the pseudonym ‘Alexandre de B’. The young draughtsman’s unpublished attempts must have been distinctly superior to his first public fumblings, for Balzac would tell their colleagues that ‘he had a bit of Michelangelo in his blood’. Soon he was quite the artist, as his politician’s Masks show, published in 1831. Moreover, some of his early lithographs had real vigour. Adolphe Thiers, Comte d’Argout, Count Horace and Sebastiani had already been the butt of well-delineated, mischievous portraits, and Henri Gisquet and Marshal Lobeau the objects of equally telling caricatures. Daumier served his prison term at Ste-Pélagie from 31 August 1832 to 14 February 1833 and took advantage of the free time afforded him by his detention to do the pleasant watercolour series Imagination, signed Rogelin and lithographed by someone else. This was a turning point in Daumier’s career, and on his release he was a different, more mature man. He attended parliamentary sessions and hurried home to model in clay, from memory, small busts of the speakers, ministers, and other protectors of the ‘established order’ attacked in his paper. These small painted sculptures, arresting in their vivacity and comic intensity, server as models for the lithographed portraits destined to become landmarks in the annals of satirical portraiture. Known collectively as The Celebrities of the Juste Milieu, the sculptures found their finest expression in the famous Legislative Belly plate and in the no less famous series April judges, the members of the Chamber of Peers who served as judges at the 1834 trial. This period of social unrest and military as well as judicial repression also yielded the powerfully dramatic lithograph Rue Transnonain, depicting the aftermath of the government’s brutal massacre of its working-class opponents; the superb compositions for Freedom of the Press ( Liberté de la Presse); Lafayette’s Funeral ( L’Enterrement de La Fayette); and sundry denunciations of political trials. Daumier would swoop on his subject with a broad stroke and finish it off with the utmost attention to detail. The art world opened its doors wide to the draughtsman: Auguste Préault, Philippe-Auguste Jeanron, Narcisse Díaz, Paul Huet, and Louis Cabat were his companions, and they met in old office premises on the Rue St-Denis. They formed a congenial brotherhood, living frugally, taking on commissions for signboards for 50 francs apiece in order to fund their other projects. This was the first money Daumier would earn from painting, and his finest lithographs did not bring in much more. In 1835, Caricature was suppressed by the government, bringing to a close the second phase of Daumier’s career. Political caricature was proscribed on 29 August 1835.
The third phase, dictated by the political climate, was first characterised by a shift towards social commentary, to be found chiefly in Maison Aubert’s new periodical Charivari ( Uproar). There he became the powerful and razor-sharp observer of the bourgeoisie, lawyers, judges, artists, and so on. First and foremost, his fame would rest on the Robert Macaire series, in which all the foibles of the time, the daring speculations, and the egregious expressions of Prime Minister François Guizot’s injunction to ‘get rich’ are castigated. Daumier gave free rein to his dramatic powers in his reworkings of Frederick Lemaître’s clever rogue. This aspect of his work occupied him until 1848. In 1847, a new grouping of closely associated artists was founded, the small Art Circle of the Île St-Louis ( Cénacle de l’Île St-Louis), which included Charles-François Daubigny, Louis Steinheil, and Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume, occasionally supported by Eugène Lavieille, Jules Dupré, Auguste Boulard, and a few others. This is how Camille Corot came to know and greatly appreciate Daumier, and how Eugène Delacroix came to value his work to the extent of copying some of his lithographs in his sketchpads.
Daumier’s journalistic style had, by the 1840s, become more relaxed and sweeping. The full-length portraits of Representation of Our Representatives marked the beginning of this new phase. His execution, less three-dimensional perhaps than April Judges, remained solid and very lively in a more cursory hand. The portrait David d’Angers, among others, is a masterpiece of characterisation. Daumier resumed his political interests and felt free to mock the party to whose victory he had contributed, sensing the imminent curtailing of that newfound freedom. The political unrest of 1848 had brought about a Second Republic, ominously presided over by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, and over time this threat saw Daumier championing threatened liberties. Two salient facets in his artistic and philosophical development date from these times: the creation of Ratskin ( Ratapoil), his archetype of the opportunistic and corrupt thugs who had brought Louis-Napoléon to power; and the growing friendship with Jules Michelet. The latter maintained a correspondence with Daumier, which is a testament to the shared aspirations of these kindred but vastly different spirits. Soon frontal opposition became almost impossible under the Second Empire. Daumier could no longer openly attack the government but continued to fight its actions, sifting through current events to seize upon every opportunity for satire, picking up on every significant European move. He thus foresaw the Franco-Prussian War and anticipated Léon Gambetta, the founding father of the Third Republic. Finally, in 1870, he painted terrible scenes of devastation and rounded out Victor Hugo’s Punishment ( Châtiments) with a striking drawing. This would be his commanding account of the The News ( Actualités). He continued to contribute to different papers: the Boulevard, the Journal Amusant, the Illustrated World ( Monde Illustré), and, most notably, Charivari. This considerable journalistic output did not interfere with his painting activity but yielded quite a number of drawings, sometimes highlighted with watercolour, reckoned to include 200 paintings and 300 drawings, excluding sketches and drafts.
Some of Daumier’s friends did acquire one or the other of these works for modest sums in his lifetime. A large quantity was taken from his widow for a piteous amount by an unscrupulous consortium of art dealers. The main themes of that powerful body of work are popular scenes, types, commedia dell’arte characters, episodes of Don Quixote, scenes from the Law Courts, and three or four large historical compositions. Daumier, who had always been poor, became almost completely blind and only escaped destitution thanks to Corot’s generosity, who bought for his friend a small house in Valmondois. Thereafter he lived on a state pension, which hardly reflected what the Third Republic owed him. He barely suspected the greatness of his work or the acclaim it eventually received.
Daumier, a great social painter and discerning draughtsman, was ignored until the beginning of the 20th century and has been recognised by such writers as Balzac, Michelet, Théodore de Banville, Charles Baudelaire, Edmond Duranty, and Philippe Burty, and by artists such as Delacroix, Millet, Corot, Geoffroy-Dechaume, Dupré, and Théodule Ribot.
1990–1991, Citizen Artist: Daumier and His Time, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
2011, Daumier to Degas: French 19th-Century Prints, Kunstmuseum, Basel
2011–2012, Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
1979, Daumier et ses amis républicains, Musée Cantini, Marseille
1981, The Armand Hammer Daumier Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, London
1984, Honoré Daumier, Georges Rouault, Académie de France, Rome
1990, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Mons
1992, Daumier Drawings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
1999, Daumier 1808–1879, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, also presented at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
2003, An Eye for Satire: The Lithographs of Daumier, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (NY)
2008, Daumier: l’écriture du lithographe, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
2008, Honoré Daumier & La Maison Aubert: Political and Social Satire in Paris, Zimmerli Art Museum, New Brunswick (NJ)
2010, Daumier und sein Paris: Kunst und Technik einer Metropole, Museum für Kunst und Technik des 19. Jahrhunderts, Baden-Baden
2011, Daumier: Art for the Masses, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Aix-les-Bains (Mus. Faure)
Amsterdam: Christ and His Disciples; Singing Couple (painting)
Avignon (Mus. Calvet): Notre-Dame in Paris as Seen from Pont St-Michel; Thought to Be a Self-portrait
Baltimore (Walters AM): Amateurs (after 1862, watercolour)
Berlin: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (painting)
Boston (MFA): Man on a Rope
Bucharest (Muz. National de Arta al României): Third-class Compartment
Buffalo (Albright-Knox AG): Laundress on the Quai d’Anjou (c. 1860, oil/wood panel)
Cambridge, MA (Fogg AM, Harvard University): Butcher (watercolour)
Cardiff (National Mus. and Gal.): Night Revellers
Cleveland (MA): Art Lovers (wash)
Dallas (MA): Portrait of an Actor (c. 1845-1850, bronze); Outside the Print-seller’s Shop (1860-1863, oil/panel); Head of Pasquin (1862-1863, oil/panel); lithographs, drawings
Dijon (MBA): The Burden
London (Courtauld Institute of Art): Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (c. 1870, oil on canvas); Le Malade Imaginaire (c. 1850, black chalk, watercolour/paper)
Lyons: Bystanders or Waiting at the Gare de Lyon (painting); After the Hearing (painting)
Marseilles (MBA): Busts of Parliamentarians; Ratskin (Ratapoil)
Montreal (Learmont): Country Feast
Montreal (MBA): Critics Visiting a Painter’s Studio (c. 1862)
Munich (Neue Pinakothek): In the Theatre (c. 1860-1864, oil on canvas)
Otterlo (Kröller-Müller Mus.): The Amateur (watercolour); Pagliaccio (Paillasse) (drawing)
Paris (Mus. d’Orsay): The Thieves and the Donkey (painting); Portrait of the Painter Théodore Rousseau; The Republic (1848, painting); Laundress (painting); Crispin and Scapin (painting); Scene in a Comedy (painting); Carnival (watercolour); Soup (drawing); The Kiss (drawing); Study for a Parade (drawing); Silenus’ March (drawing); Celebrities du Juste Milieu or; Parliamentarians (1832, oil on unfired clay); Emigrants (1848, plaster relief); Ratskin (Ratapoil) (1850, bronze); Martyrdom of St Sebastian
Paris (Mus. du Petit Palais): Etching Collector (painting); Trio of Amateurs (painting); Chess Players (painting); Emigrants (painting); Street Singers (watercolour); At the Law Courts (watercolour)
Prague (Národní Muz.): Family on the Barricade
Rheims (MBA): The Painter
The Hague (Rijksmus. Hendrik Willem Mesdag): The Chat
Troyes (MAM): On the Waterside
Washington, DC (Phillips Collection): Painter in Front of His Work; Sculptor’s Studio
Zurich: Don Quixote’s Head