Art can be a dangerous profession. Some such thought such might have occurred to the 24 year old artist Honore’ Daumier (1808-1879) as he entered the gates of Ste Pe’lagie Prison in August of 1832. A skilled draftsman with a penchant for mischief, the young Daumier arrived to fulfill a six month sentence for drawing the likeness of King Louis-Phillipe in the guise of the gluttonous fictional character Gargantua. Daumier depicted Gargantua sitting on an enormous privy chair, his gaping mouth receiving tax offerings carried up a long plank on the backs of government workers, his digestive system producing favors for the ruling class who eagerly accept the privilege of pulling them from the pile forming under the chair. The publisher and printer of La Caricature, the satirical weekly responsible for committing this drawing to print, were also incarcerated. Charles Philipon, the editor and genius behind this satire, arrived some weeks later.
Several years prior, Charles Philipon had gathered a team of artists and writers to promote the Republican ideals of the revolution of 1830, which brought King Louis-Phillipe to the French throne. Freedom of the press had been one of the popular guarantees central to those ideals, which the “Citizen King” supported. It soon became clear, however, who would benefit from Louis-Phillipe’s ascension to the throne, and Charles Philipon had no qualms about reminding the French public of this. In addition to La Caricature, Philipon edited several publications, the most lasting of which was the daily Le Charivari, a three-page paper with a one-page illustration. Each of Philipon’s publications capitalized on the relatively new medium of lithography. Unlike copper engraving or woodcuts, lithography allowed an artist to draw directly onto a limestone slab to produce a large number of prints without deterioration to the image. Possessing incredible wit, Philipon found the ideal artist to depict his ideas in the young Honore’ Daumier, who had produced his first lithograph at age 14.
As one of Philipon’s artists, Daumier’s ability to visualize the editorial direction of the paper afforded him a degree of artistic license, and he rarely failed to meet their expectations. In April of 1834, insurrections and public disorder began to disrupt life in Paris once more. Some in the government believed the press encouraged this protest. After the indiscriminate actions of the civil guard resulted in the deaths of nineteen people, including several children at number 12 Rue Transnonain, La Caricature printed one of Daumier’s most damning responses. Within a year, the French monarchy, in an effort to contain the press, instituted an era of censorship prohibiting criticism of the government and the King. Eventually La Caricature found it necessary to close.
With Le Charivari, which began publication in 1832, Philipon responded to the new censorship climate by directing criticism toward the bourgeois lifestyle of the rising middle class, in short: those who by their complacency kept the King in power. Daumier found no lack of subjects or material here. He saw reasons for humor in every aspect of Parisian culture. He began to group his works by series, addressing such themes as Current Events, Parisian Types, Parisian Emotions, and even the culture surrounding the public baths. The print included in the September 25, 1839 issue of Charivari pokes a little fun at the social leveling of public bathing by depicting a priest in a moment of recognition by one of his parishioners. Father Goutot’s hesitancy may be about more than the temperature of the water.
As Daumier’s reputation grew, people, especially artists and connoisseurs, began collecting his prints. Parisians laughed heartily at the scenarios and anticipated the publication of various series. Daumier even poked fun at the seeming inability of Parisians to recognize themselves in the drawings. “Are there really people who resemble this, Monsieur Durandet?” asks the older gentleman as he examines a drawing with both their images in the November 9, 1841 issue of Charivari.
Images such as this deepened many viewer’s enjoyment of Daumier’s work. Some lithographs became so popular it became necessary to issue editions on wove paper and offer them for sale in the editor’s galleries. Le Charivari even spawned an imitator in England when Punch, referring to itself as “the London Charivari” began publication in 1841.
Over his lifetime Daumier produced over 4000 prints, though, in truth, his artistic vision extended much further. While enduring periods of political freedom and censorship, Daumier painted, sculpted and drew. At his passing in 1879, in addition to his prodigious print oeuvre, Daumier left over 300 paintings, 1,000 drawings and nearly 100 sculpted clay figures. Additionally, Daumier’s influence on modern art began in his lifetime – Eugene Delacroix recommended his students study the lithographs of Daumier, and Van Gogh, while in the asylum at Saint Rémy, painted a version of The Drinkers, now in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, which first appeared as a Daumier wood engraving in Le Monde Illustré.
Daumier’s artistic gifts have much to offer us today. His brilliant draftsmanship and economy of line are rich in expression and understanding of the human form. His insight into personality and Parisian culture were unparalleled. Though humor is produced with an eye toward a given time and place, many of Daumier’s observations maintain relevance today. Those who fight for the liberty and rights of all people could use such a champion.