Viewed from any direction, the swaying, strutting Ratapoil is Daumier's brilliant stab at the political ambitions of Louis-Napoleon, who would proclaim himself emperor of France in 1852. Daumier strongly supported the nascent French democracy and used his art -- both his drawn caricatures of Ratapoil that appeared in the satiric journal Charivari and this vigorous sculpture -- to oppose the idea of a return to monarchy. He fashioned Ratapoil (Ratskin) as one of Louis-Napoleon's agents-provocateurs, a cudgel-carrying bully whose job was to stir up crowds, using bribes and force when necessary, to convince the people to return Louis-Napoleon to power.
Daumier used a rough-modeled realism to detail the character of Ratapoil. With hat crumpled and smashed down over a bony skull, eye glaring, nose broken, mustache and beard pointed to a Satanic extreme, and outmoded frockcoat and trousers streaming over an emaciated torso, Ratapoil seems a mix of self-confident dandy and has-been thug. Sweeping diagonals invigorate the figure: Ratapoil's neck and jaw turn hard to one side, shoulders, chest, and right leg propel him forward as he arches his back in a dramatic curve, grasping his club behind him.
Though less than 18 inches tall, Ratapoil, as political symbol, was given monumental status by Daumier's fellow Republicans. Because of his fear of government reprisals after Louis-Napoleon's successful coup in 1851, Daumier reportedly hid the statuette for the rest of his life. The original clay Ratapoil is lost; the National Gallery's bronze version is one of a series cast from a plaster model in 1891, thirteen years after the artist's death.
model 1851, cast c. 1891
DIMENSIONS: 43.5 x 16.4 x 18.2 cm (17 1/8 x 6 7/16 x 7 3/16 in.)
COLLECTION: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Rosenwald Collection
ACCESSION NUMBER: 1951.17.3