Issue Number: 120
Honoré Daumier was admired by the artists of his time, as well as those who have followed, from Degas and Delacroix to Francis Bacon. As the Academy presents Daumier’s revolutionary work, painter Timothy Hyman RA assesses the pioneering role the Parisian played in modern art
‘I am writing to you from a café below the Pont-Marie, where 20 years ago the future was rose-tinted. But I still believe in the future...’ Daumier (letter to Geoffroy-Dechaume, 1863)
Honoré Daumier, 'Ecce Homo', c.1849-52. Museum Folkwang, Essen/Photo © Museum Folkwang, Essen. The painter Honoré Daumier emerged late. He was already into his forties when his five-foot Ecce Homo – arguably his first fully characteristic oil painting – took shape around 1850. Today this image may seem to relate unproblematically to our experience of art, perhaps as a Rembrandt essentialised and ‘made modern’, while the 20th-century painter who comes to mind is Emil Nolde, with his masked Dionysiac crowd acting out the Passion. All the figures except Jesus appear to be naked, and the heads are visibly improvised, masks hacked Goya-like out of tone rather than line. Although he has made some alterations – for example, the platform has been raised – it is evidently the work of a few intense hours, perhaps no more than two sessions. (In 1852, when Baudelaire and a friend were visiting, Daumier explained, ‘I start everything over again 25 times; in the end I do the lot in two days’.) As in so many of his later pictures, the figures are shown contre- jour, forms emerging out of darkness, silhouetted against the diffuse, yellowed and murky light of the 19th-century metropolis. To Daumier’s contemporaries such a painting must have appeared extraordinarily brutal and ‘primitive’; it probably remained unexhibited until the 1900s.
Honoré Daumier, 'The Laundress', 1861-63. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Lillie P. Bliss, 1931 (47.122)/Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence.
Daumier’s most fertile years as a painter were the most disastrous of his outward career. In 1860 he was dismissed from the satirical newspaper Le Charivari after 27 years as its chief caricaturist, and for the first time in his life devoted all his energies to oil painting. A large proportion of Daumier’s surviving pictures are thought to have been started over the next three years – begun, but not ‘finished’, and remaining unsold. When he sat down in 1863 to write to the sculptor Geoffroy-Dechaume, his closest friend, and declared, ‘I still believe in the future’, he was 55 and destitute. Shortly after, heavily in debt, he would be forced to move with his wife from the Ile St Louis to distant Pigalle. The massive silhouette of the washerwoman in The Laundress (1861-63), climbing up from the Seine, hand in hand with her little child who has been assisting with her paddle, is set against a wonderful fragment of hazy, sunlit cityscape, realised in impasted lead-white, with little figures and carriages on the far bank, locating us close to that ‘Pont-Marie’ which links the Ile to the heart of Paris.
Although Le Charivari rehired him and he once again undertook to supply a hundred or more lithographs each year, he was paid only an artisan’s wage, his income far below that of his artist friends; at the end of his life, blind and broken, their help would save him from ruin.
That ‘rose-tinted future’ which Daumier and his friends had dreamed of in the early 1840s and in which he ‘still believed’ was the hope for a reordering of society. Daumier was a lifelong Republican. He experienced three great disappointments. First, the 1830 revolution, when he was 22, which morphed into the repressively conservative regime of Louis-Philippe. Daumier had been apprenticed to a lithographer and now (partly inspired by the great, compassionate 1821 sequence by Géricault, Various Subjects Drawn from Life and on Stone), he emerged in the new medium as a prodigy of crayon-on-stone. In December 1831, he drew Louis-Philippe not just as the familiar pear-like figure, but as Gargantua, Rabelais’ giant infant, waiting open-mouthed to be fed, like some great cuckoo in the midst of the city. It is an image partly about the separateness of the classes. To the right, The People, starved and exhausted: a flunkey holds a list, and a pauper lets fall his last sous into the basket, which will join the others up the terrible ramp into the fat Bourbon. Gargantua’s throne is a lavatory; monarchy is revealed as an obscene mechanism that exists only to supply the ruling class with what they crave most, the honours and ‘decorations’ that flow out of the royal anus. Below Gargantua’s puny legs, courtiers grovel enthusiastically. It was for this print that Daumier was fined and sentenced to six months in Saint-Pélagie.
Two years later, he turned his guns on the politicians, and made one of the sculptural masterpieces of the 19th century. His series of wonderful little subversions of Neoclassical busts ‘The Celebrities of the Juste Milieu’ (including Jacques Lefèvre) is a rogues’ gallery of self-important creeps modelled in unfired clay and vigorously polychromed; the effect resembles Plasticine, and there is a gleeful infantile zest in these abusive characterisations. In one view of Daumier, he was really a thwarted sculptor. His relief The Fugitives (made about the same time as Ecce Homo, when many Republicans were being forced into exile) has a tragic grandeur. We witness this army of the defeated passing before us; their motion of turning away recalls the Captives winding around Trajan’s Column, of which Daumier is said to have possessed some fragmentary casts. The figures of his greatest paintings would re-echo that Michelangesque nobility and power of sculptural contour, yet rendered – as in The Laundress – proletarian, déclassé.
Watch: a video interview with the show’s curator Catherine Lampert
The second disappointment came at the end of the 1840s. Daumier had published his greatest political image in 1834, after the massacre of innocent civilians in the Rue Transnonain – a sober, almost realist portrayal, admired by Courbet. But the following year, much harsher laws suppressed all press opposition; it became an offence even to declare oneself a Republican. Daumier was forced to turn from political imagery to the much more trivial comedy of contemporary manners, and this coincided with a shift of style: his lithographs became more summary, the figures more blatantly ‘comic’. It must have become clear to him that he would no longer be fulfilled in this medium.
In 1848, when another street uprising deposed Louis-Philippe, a new Republican era seemed to be dawning. Daumier’s paintings began to accumulate, first as neo-baroque Rubeniste, then in more sombre mode. But around the time he depicts the Ecce Homo crowd that has chosen Barabbas instead of Jesus, Republican Paris chose Louis Bonaparte, soon to have himself crowned Napoleon III. One project set in motion by the Emperor was the destruction of Old Paris, its warren of barricadable lanes, in favour of Haussmann’s artillery-friendly new boulevards. ‘Le vieux Paris n’est plus’: when Daumier’s admirer Baudelaire wrote _The Swan (dedicated to the exiled Victor Hugo), in 1857, the whole city appeared an alien building site in which the poet is displaced, ridiculous as a swan stranded in the street.
To me the greatest of all Daumier’s emblematic images is Man on a Rope. In the first version (c.1858), it seems like the fulfilment of the fluidly brushed drawing-painting – sinopia – that underlies Italian frescoes. We hear of Daumier at this time still having ‘problems of finish’ in his oil paintings – though he could certainly complete his watercolours to whatever level contemporary taste demanded. That struggle, which was in essence a profound inner resistance to descriptive detail, is nowhere more poignant than in the second Man on a Rope (c.1858-60), where the picture’s surface – wounded, almost destroyed – is crucial to the creation of the image. The human figure is cut to skin and bone, suspended in a white void upon which the pigment lies like dried blood. Both versions may have come out of a modest silhouette-drawing (discovered by the RA exhibition’s curator Catherine Lampert at the Musée Rodin) of a whitewasher seen above the street, now taking on, through the power of the medium, a new significance and depth. This is painting returning to its origins, to that primary delineation across the uneven roof of the cave at Lascaux. It is one of several Daumiers that could be described as – in Merlin James’s phrase – ‘definitively unfinished.’ Incompleteness becomes allegory for the instability and transience of existence, or here, James suggests, even for ‘the artist’s grim determination to hold on to a thread of narrative.’ However we may interpret it, the effect is visceral and liberating, the most radically expressive painting of its time.
The figure of the ageing itinerant street entertainer becomes a constant in Daumier’s work after 1860. These saltimbanques were by now outlaws. The commedia dell’arte tradition had always been marginal and anti-official, often persecuted by the authorities. Domenico Tiepolo had drawn his Punchinellos in the 1800s, pitting their freedom of fantasy against the moralising of Enlightenment Neoclassicism. But under Napoleon III, the saltimbanques were to be finally cleared out as potential subversives. Baudelaire’s prose-poem explicitly identifies the old defeated clown as a self, and so surely does Daumier, in a wonderful tragic-comic sequence of drawings (see The Clown) and watercolours; he still beats his drum, still carries his chair on which to stand at the corner and belt out his song. Long before he got underway as a painter, Daumier had achieved recognition with his thousands of comic images; in 1845, Delacroix wrote to him, ‘There isn’t a man I value and admire more than you.’ But in the 1860s, the old entertainer’s greatest songs went unheard.
Walking through the huge Daumier retrospective that filled the Grand Palais in 1999, you came to a long hemispherical wall, on which some 20 images made evident his identification with the old, mad knight-errant Don Quixote. Daumier’s mother was illiterate, but his father, a glazier and frame-maker by trade, believed himself a great dramatic poet, leaving his family in Marseilles, eventually dying insane in Charenton. Daumier’s late pursuit of painting was also ‘Quixotic’. He discovers a tremulous, ever-in-motion line that embodies his absurd and restless quest. In Don Quixote and The Dead Mule (c.1866), we are made to feel the solitude and silence of the distant riders; painted on wood (and Daumier is known to have framed his work before completion) the composition has a superb finality, the dark form of the mule placed so close to us, the tragic endpoint of their journey, their lost cause. Don Quixote Reading (c.1865-67) – the version once owned by Degas – has an extraordinary breadth of handling in the rhythms of torso and chair; Daumier may already have been losing his sight. Most poignant of all is the large, very late Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (c.1870) from the Courtauld. Daumier had perhaps already witnessed his third, most terrible failed revolution, the Paris Commune. Exhausted but still upright, carrying his shield-cum-palette, the old fool endures, riding on and on. This was the work Francis Bacon declared ‘amongst the greatest paintings in the world’ and its possibilities still resonate, drawing and painting becoming inextricable.
Auden was writing in 1936, just before the Spanish Civil War divided Europe. In that brief moment of the Popular Front, when the Left tried to unite against Fascism, Daumier’s human-centred art became emblematic of hope, of liberty. Most of his paintings date from the same years when Realism was turning towards Impressionism, but Daumier ‘never drew from nature’ and landscape and still-life are alien to his vision. It will be fascinating to see Daumier at the RA so soon after Manet; 1863 was the year of Olympia and both were finding their subject-matter in contemporary Parisian life.
As it happens, we know a little of Daumier’s views, recorded by the young Cézanne, who probably visited the ageing artist around 1870. ‘I absolutely do not like Manet’s way of painting, but I find in it this enormous quality: it takes us back to the figures on playing-cards’. That hope, to recover some primitive or primal human image, would be fundamental in the reform we now call Modernism. Manet in 1863 is often seen as the pioneer, but I find my response to Man on a Rope more visceral than to any Manet, and I have written partly to understand why I am so moved – and why Daumier may offer more to ‘the future’ of 21st-century painting.