Best known for political cartoons and humorous caricatures satirizing contemporary life, Daumier's paintings reveal a more serious examination of the human condition. The itinerant street musicians and acrobats in Wandering Saltimbanques are depicted without ridicule, the artist sympathetically revealing the poverty and isolation of their offstage lives.
Daumier may have felt a personal affinity with the entertainers. The little boy carrying a chair could be a recollection of Daumier's childhood, when his family, destitute and living in Paris, endured numerous displacements to progressively worse lodgings. Further, it has been suggested that the older clown clad in traditional costume and leading his family in this painting may be associated with the artist's father, a failed poet and playwright committed to the insane asylum at Charenton in 1851, where he died.
Daumier was self-taught as a painter, and his style has many characteristics of the graphic media in which he trained. The blunt silhouettes of the figures and the simplified space they occupy are stylistic elements that originated in his lithographs. The unspecific, indefinite appearance thus produced endows them with more universal meaning. Personal associations aside, the saltimbanques here are artists struggling to make their way in a world that, as Daumier depicts it, is a bleak, anonymous place.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: Before Impressionism, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/french-paintings-nineteenth-century.pdf