In 1857 the Parisian critic and poet Charles Baudelaire championed an artist who was unknown to his fellow Frenchmen. Wrote Baudelaire: “I want to speak about a man who each morning keeps the populace of our city amused. The banker, the businessman, the urchin and the housewife all laugh and pass on their way without even glancing at his name.” The artist who so delighted 19thcentury Parisians with his lively, biting caricatures of contemporary politics and manners was Honoré Daumier. Obscure in his own lifetime, he is now celebrated as one of the most brilliant visual satirists of all time—the latest occasion being an impressive exhibition of more than 250 Daumier prints, drawings, sculptures and paintings on display exclusively at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto until Sept. 8. As the show makes clear,
Daumier was both a romantic and a realist—an angry champion of democratic ideals and an amused, detached chronicler of the human comedy. At the same time,
Daumier’s sympathy for the poor and downtrodden established him as a profound humanist or, as one contemporary critic dubbed him, a “Michelangelo of the People.”
The works, on display in Canada for the first time at the AGO, were selected by U.S. art historian Elizabeth Mongan from the massive Daumier collection of Dr. Armand Hammer, the wealthy 87-year-old chairman of Occidental Petroleum who is also one of the world’s leading art patrons. Sponsored in part by Hammer through his private foundation and byOccidental, the exhibit has travelled throughout Europe and the Americas since 1979, periodically expanding as Hammer acquires new works. Although it regrettably does not include such major Daumier paintings outside the Hammer collection as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Third Class Carriage,
the exhibition provides ample opportunity to appreciate the scope of his genius.
A panorama of 19th-century Paris unfolds through Daumier’s art. He lived in an era of political upheavals—the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, the restoration of the monarchy and a series of bloody
uprisings and revolutions that culminated in the Paris Commune of 1871. In the social sphere, Daumier witnessed the rise of the newly powerful bourgeoisie, whose taste and habits in everything from wearing crinolines to strolling in the park on Sunday provided the artist with a spectacle as rich and varied as that of the theatre he loved so well. Yet whether Daumier is depicting the obsequious posturing of a king’s courtiers or the horrified expressions of new parents confronting their howling infant in the middle of the night, his cartoons —which comprise the bulk of the exhibi-
tion—are as fresh and revealing as when he penned them.
Beginning with one of Daumier’s earliest known works, a print of soldiers on guard at the Town Hall, which he executed when he was 14, the exhibition documents his evolution from the precise, documentary style of the cautious apprentice to the loose expressionism of a confident master. Born in 1808, the son of an impoverished glazier, Daumier received only rudimentary training in drawing and painting. At the age of 12 the pressing financial needs of his family compelled him to work as a bailiff’s assistant. When he was 17 he learned the trade of lithography, the newly invented process for printing images drawn with crayon on stone which offered for the first time a rapid means of printing illustrations. During his most active years as a cartoonist, between 1830 and 1872, Daumier produced more than 4,000 works—averaging two or three a week—chiefly for the weeklies La Caricature and Charivari, in collaboration with publisher Charles Philipon, who wrote the captions.
An ardent republican who believed in freedom of speech and the democratic ideals of the French Revolution, Daumier flourished as a political satirist in the early years of the reign of Louis Philippe. After the Orléans king seized power in the July Revolution of 1830, he promised to relax censorship laws and promote constitutional government. However, Daumier’s 1831 lithograph A Hero of July, which depicts a former supporter of Louis Philippe about to jump off a bridge in despair, sums up the widespread disenchantment with the monarch’s corrupt, autocratic rule. The daring cartoon Gargantua, which portrays the king as a gluttonous giant devouring the riches of his kingdom and excreting useless proclamations, earned the artist a stiff sixmonth jail sentence.
Censorship—under both Louis Philippe and the man who overthrew him in 1848, Emperor Louis Napoleon—eventually forced Daumier to abandon political satire in favor of broader social commentary. Daumier’s scenes display a broad range of emotion—including light humor in his portrait of the photographer Nadar and the darker mood of urban alienation captured in the weary faces of railroad passengers. Daumier’s strong sense of social justice is evident in his lampoons of the inequities of the justice system, the greed of landlords and the antics of the city’s countless hustlers and confidence men.
Late in his career Daumier returned to political themes with a powerful series of antiwar cartoons in which he surpassed himself with bold imagery and stirring, fluid draftsmanship. His European Balancing Act (1867), depicting the alarmed figure of Europe trying to balance herself on top of a live bomb, is a classic of its kind. In Bismarck’s Nightmare (1870), the grim figure of Death points out a field of corpses to German chancellor Bismarck, the enemy leader in the Franco-Prussian War.
The handful of paintings and bronze sculptures included in the exhibition —comparatively rare because for most of his life Daumier could only afford to pursue the fine arts as a hobby—reveal his ability to translate the passion and spontaneity of his lithographs into more complex art forms. His sculpture of Ratapoil, the character he created to caricature the warmongering Louis Napoleon, bristles with life, from the rakish tilt of his top hat to the swaggering thrust of one pointed toe. In his series of drawings and paintings depicting the characters of the deluded crusading knight Don Quixote and his practical squire, Sancho Panza, Daumier explores the tug-of-war between romanticism and realism that preoccupied 19th-century thinkers and characterized his own career. In Daumier’s gentle, lyrical painting of Don Quixote riding forward into the rosy dawn of a new day, completed in the artist’s 60th year, he seems to affirm his dedication to his romantic dreams.
Daumier never gained the wide public recognition he sought as a painter, with his first one-man exhibition coming in 1878, only a year before his death. But as the only great romantic artist who preferred everyday subject matter to lofty mythical themes, Daumier was a pivotal figure in 19th-century art and a forerunner of the Impressionists. The splendid AGO exhibition gives fresh currency to Baudelaire’s contemporary assessment of Daumier as “one of the most important men not only in caricature but in the whole of modern art.”
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