Undaunted And Unsentimental

A distrust of politicians and a compassion for working people drove Honoré Daumier's work

Michael Prodger

Charles Baudelaire was a poet and critic who kept the closest of watches on the art of his time. In 1858 he described Honoré Daumier as “one of the most important men, I will not say only of caricature, but also of modern art”. Baudelaire was on permanent lookout for “the painter of modern life”, an artist who could truly reflect the reality of mid-19th-century France, and in his urge to identify just such a chronicler he could be skew-eyed: he named both heavyweight talents such as Manet’s and lightweight ones such as Constantin Guys’s. Neither fully fits the bill but Daumier, with his facility and sense of engagement, was a better choice. 

Baudelaire was not alone in his judgment. Balzac claimed that Daumier had “Michelangelo under his skin”; Degas thought he belonged alongside Delacroix and Ingres; Picasso was a later admirer. Partly because art likes to maintain its hierarchies and partly because modernity quickly becomes passé, Baudelaire’s advocacy, and that of the others too, rapidly lost currency. Subsequent commentators acknowledged Daumier’s pre-eminence as a caricaturist but not as an artist.

Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris at the Royal Academy offers a chance to assess whether Baudelaire et al had a point. Daumier’s reputation as a serious artist may be healthier now than for a hundred years but the fact that the RA needs to include his dates as part of the exhibition title says something of his modest standing. There are 130 works on show, a fraction of his extraordinary output that numbered some 4,000 lithographs, 500 paintings and 100 sculptures. 

Daumier, known as “Bonhomme” by his friends, was not a vocal artist. Almost his only recorded adage is: “One must be of one’s own time.” His time was the rapidly changing world that saw post-Napoleonic France marked by revolution and by switches between monarchies and republics. This unstable scene was his subject. He was himself a dyed-in-the-wool republican and his politics, both in his distrust of politicians, lawyers and doctors and his sympathy with working people, drove his work. 

The bulk of his lithographs were produced for the satirical journals La Caricature and Le Charivari. Many of his images were those of an interested observer but he was possessed of a sharp edge too. After the publication in 1831 of a caricature of King Louis-Philippe as Rabelais’s gluttonous character Gargantua he found himself in serious trouble. Daumier depicted the monarch as a huge pear-shaped figure into whose mouth the poor are tipping their hard-earned money which is excreted in the form of peerages and decorations for the wealthy who cluster beneath his nether regions. The image earned Daumier two months in jail and a further four in a mental institution — the administration’s way of showing that dissenters were mentally disturbed. On emerging from this ordeal Daumier went straight back to work again, unchastened, and continued to produce weekly caricatures for the next 40 years.

As a painter he stood outside the mainstream. He exhibited at the Salon only twice in his career and his pictures were rarely seen by a wider public. If Daumier had the talent to be a painter he did not have the temperament: “I start everything 25 times over,” he said. “In the end I do it all in two days.” He nevertheless had a very distinctive style. The human figure remained his central motif but the social commentary of his caricatures was replaced by images treating Don Quixote, the Bible and classical mythology — themes perhaps a bit too appropriate to fine art. More natural were his Realist pictures of passengers in train carriages and figures from the street, whether of art lovers in print shops or street performers. His antecedents here are the Dutch genre painters of the 17th century and in his bistre colouring he shares both their earthiness and non-judgmental viewpoint.

Daumier’s successors, however, were not painters or caricaturists but photographers. It was not the Impressionists, who also painted the quotidian, who best understood him but the likes of Walker Evans, André Kertész, Paul Strand and Dorothea Lange in the 20th century who adopted his most obvious trait: unsentimental sympathy.

One artist whose ability to straddle the worlds of graphic art and painting has never been doubted is Dürer. A selection of his exquisite drawings is on show at the Courtauld Gallery in The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure. The works here exhibit not just his determination to understand the form of the human body but also to release its expressive potential. His success was such that Erasmus called him the “Apelles of black lines” and lauded his ability to express “the whole mind of man as it reflects itself in the behaviour of the body”.

The exhibition focuses on the years between circa 1490 and 1496 when, aged 19, he travelled through Germany, the Netherlands and possibly Italy learning his craft from different masters. This period, the Wanderjahre, which culminated with Dürer’s return to Nuremberg and his establishment there as a master, gave him the ambition to study the figure from nature rather than the pattern books that artists often used. This meant looking closely at his own body in order to unravel human anatomy: “For in truth, art lies hidden within nature: he who can wrest it from her, has it.” 

The drawings on show include both the schematic and the detailed. There are studies of his left leg and left hand, a self-portrait and a beautiful sketch of his new wife, Agnes, looking pensive — it is touchingly inscribed simply Mein Agnes. Some of the drawings are preparation for prints but others are simply the result of his artistic curiosity.

This then is a rare gathering of some 50 drawings and prints by both Dürer and artists such as Martin Schongauer who influenced him. Alongside the pleasures gifted  by the works themselves the exhibition also offers the opportunity to see how great artists are not born but made. 

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