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Two biographies of Honoré Daumier have been published by the National Gallery of Art in the systematic catalogues of its collection. Both are given here.
By Lorenz Eitner, in French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century. Part I: Before Impressionism, published 2000:
Honoré Daumier's career was one of the most unusual in the history of nineteenth-century art. Famous in his time as France's best-known caricaturist, he remained unrecognized in his actual stature--as one of the period's most profoundly original and wide-ranging realists. Even today, his essential quality may not be fully understood; the marvels of his pictorial inventions are half-hidden in the profusion of his enormous lithographic work, the sharp truths of his observation overshadowed by his comic genius and penchant for monumental stylization. Honoré Balzac's remark, "There is a lot of Michelangelo in that fellow," was perceptive, though probably made in a spirit of friendly condescension.
Daumier was born in Marseille in 1808, the son of an eccentric glazier and frame maker with highflown poetic ambitions. In 1816 the elder Daumier took his family to Paris in pursuit of his doomed literary projects. Young Honoré, obliged to earn a living from the age of twelve, started as a book dealer's helper and later ran errands for a firm of attorneys. Though he showed signs of a talent for drawing, his parents, perhaps fortunately, were unable to pay his way through the course of regular art training. A family friend, the antiquarian Alexandre Lenoir, who had assembled fragments from churches vandalized during the Revolution in a Musée des Monuments Français, gave him early, informal drawing lessons. On his own, he took his sketching pad to the sculpture galleries of the Louvre and attended the Académie Suisse, a teacherless establishment that offered inexpensive model sessions. He is said to have made his first experiments in lithography in 1822, aged fourteen; by 1825, at any rate, he had found employment with a commercial printer in whose shop he gained the technical skills he needed. From 1829 onward he was able to produce lithographic caricatures of his own, imitating the styles of such popular artists as Nicholas-Toussaint Charlet (1792-1845), Charles-Joseph Traviès (1804-1859), and Henry Monnier (1799-1877).
The relaxation of censorship after the Revolution of 1830 opened the door to a flood of illustrated pamphlets. After working briefly for several short-lived journals, Daumier in 1831 was engaged by a great publicist, Charles Philipon, as cartoonist for a newly founded journal of political satire, La Caricature. This launched him on a career of forty years as comic artist to the weekly press, during which he drew 3,958 lithographs before the onset of blindness in the 1870s put a stop to his work. The initial target of his attacks was the government of King Louis-Philippe, which he ridiculed with a corrosive wit that brought him to the notice of the press police and earned him a jail term of six months in 1832. He nevertheless continued to draw for La Caricature and for another of Philipon's journals, Le Cbarivari, developing, in the heat of weekly combat, a graphic style of unsurpassed brilliance in an art that in France had little prestige, and only a brief history compared to the English tradition that boasted such ancestors as William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827).
Living at the time amid a circle of bohemian friends that included the sculptor Auguste Préault (1810-1870), he relied on his own talent for sculpture in modeling small clay portrait busts of politicians, based on sketches drawn during parliamentary sessions. Several of these cruelly truthful likenesses served him for a series of lithographic caricatures culminating in Le Ventre législatif, a burlesque collective portrait of the National Assembly. Published in 1834 as a supplement of La Caricature, it was shortly followed by a sinister sequel, Rue Transnonain, recording the aftermath of a murderous police raid. These large prints crown Daumier's youthful work: visual reportage, conceived in the anger of party strife, their graphic power carries them beyond their period and its politics.
When a tightening of censorship in 1835 put an end to La Caricature, Daumier shifted to politically unobjectionable social satire for Philipon's other journal, Le Cbarivari. In hundreds of lithographs, published serially, two or three a week, he
turned a sharp eye on the characteristic look and demeanor of every segment of Parisian society, ranging from the crotchets and timidities of the urban middle class with which he fondly empathized (Les Bons Bourgeois), to the frauds of speculators (Robert Macaire), the pomposities of lawyers (Gens de justice), the self-delusions of artists, the rapacity of landlords, and the vanity of bluestockings. For its breadth and insight, his work has been compared with that of the novelist Balzac and for its expressive energy with that of the art of Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). Though himself without intellectual pretensions, Daumier was closely in touch with a sophisticated, modern-minded society of literary men and artists, including Charles Baudelaire, Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), and Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878), who gathered at the Hôtel Pimodan, near Daumier's house on the Ile Saint-Louis, where after 1840 he was modestly quartered with his wife, Marie-Alexandrine Dassy, a dressmaker.
The revolution that overthrew the monarchy of Louis-Philippe in February 1848 briefly opened the art establishment to marginal, nonacademic practitioners. Daumier did not exhibit at the "free" Salon of 1848 but later that year entered an official competition for an allegorical painting of the Republic. His design, representing a powerfully statuesque female "giving nourishment and instruction to her children" was judged eleventh in a group of twenty entries. He did not carry this project further but was evidently encouraged to devote himself seriously to painting in oil, producing in short order several exhibition pictures on literary and even classical subjects. His Miller and His Son (Glasgow Museums, The Burrell Collection), based on La Fontaine's fable, was shown at the Salon in 1849, his Nympbs Pursued by a Satyr (Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal), Drunkenness of Silenur (Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle, Calais), and Don Quixote at the one held in 1850-1851. Self-taught as a painter in oil, Daumier struggled with the technical difficulties of the medium. His exhibited work was ignored by the critics. Among his unfinished projects of this time was The Uprising (The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), a daring attempt to give monumental form to a modern political subject of dramatic urgency.
The Bonapartist coup d'état of 2 December 1851 abolished the parliamentary constitution and installed Louis-Napoleon as autocratic president, shortly to be confirmed by plebiscite as emperor of the French (December 1852). During the struggles that preceded the fall of the Republic, Daumier drew fiercely polemical caricatures and created his most memorable sculpture, Ratapoil (1851), the image of a Bonapartist bully of the type that terrorized the Parisian electorate on the eve of the coup. The strict censorship enforced by the imperial government once again limited Daumier to politically harmless social caricature for Le Charivari. During 1853-1857 he spent his holidays in Valmondois on the Oise in the company of his friend Daubigny and frequently visited Théodore Rousseau and Millet in Barbizon.
His lithographic imagery now assumed a larger, more painterly character, perhaps reflecting the influence of his friends. After 1853 he ceased to exhibit at the Salon but continued to paint privately. In 1860 he was dismissed from the staff of Le Charivari; his caricatures no longer amused the public. For his living, he turned to painting large, finished watercolors on modern subjects for which there was a demand on the art market. More privately, he continued to work in oil, a medium that he found difficult and practiced experimentally and cautiously, as an "amateur" wholly independent of the fashions of the Salon and the recipes of the Academy. In a broadly sketchlike technique he recorded observations from his everyday life: street entertainers, histrionics of the stage or the courts of law, railway travelers, artists at work, collectors rummaging in their portfolios. Caricature and comic effect, central to his works on paper, hardly appear in his paintings in oil. It seems as if, in his modesty, he considered humor appropriate for the popular media of communication but unsuited to the dignity of painting.
Granted a new contract by Le Charivari in 1864, he resumed his weekly lithographic chores. His eyesight was gradually failing. Needing the restorative quiet of the country, he extended his stays at Valmondois, where, in 1865, he rented a small house that, except for business stays in Paris, was to be his home for the remainder of his life. The government discreetly approached him in early 1870 with the offer of the cross of the Legion of Honor. Daumier quietly declined. Poorly paid and in constant financial straits, he continued to draw lithographs for the press and to paint in private. The great series of episodes from Don Quixote, begun in í850 and continued through the 1860s, may have been influenced, in part, by Gustave Doré's (1832-1883) popular illustrations published in 1863.
The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) swiftly disposed of the empire of Napoleon III. During the siege of Paris, Daumier, who had been elected a member of the commission charged with the protection of the collections of the Louvre, was one of the artists who opposed Courbet's proposal to destroy the column in the place Vendôme. Some of Daumier's most powerful lithographs date from this time of war and civil strife; stark, tragic, grandiose in their appeal to humanity and common sense, they are his last works in this medium.
The final years of his life were darkened by poverty, illness, and growing blindness. In 1874 a gift from his friend Corot enabled him to buy the small house in Valmondois which he had been renting for the previous nine years. In 1877 he was granted a small government pension, and the following year an exhibition of his paintings, drawings, and sculptures was arranged under the patronage of Victor Hugo at the Paris gallery of Durand-Ruel. On 10 February 1879 Daumier died after a paralytic stroke. He left behind a large number of paintings in various states of incompletion. When, about 1900, the demand for his work began to rise, many of these remainders, some badly deteriorated, were restored, finished, and supplied with "signatures," making it difficult in some instances to determine Daumier's half-effaced authentic part in them.
By Suzanne Glover Lindsay, in European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century, published 2000:
Information about Honoré Daumier's life and his personal beliefs is limited. He seems to have lived mostly apart from the great events of his day, retreating to a modest life within a small circle of family and friends. He was born in 1808 in Marseilles to the world of the cultured artisan. His father was a framer and glazier whose literary ambitions, as a classicizing poet, took the family to Paris early in the Bourbon Restoration. Museum director and archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir (1761-1839), a patron and family friend, reportedly convinced Daumier père to allow his son to prepare for an artistic career, after seeing the boy's drawn copies from the Louvre. Lenoir, who studied painting with Gabriel-François Doyen (1726-1806), undertook the boy's initial education himself, supervising further drawing from antique casts, his own collection of paintings, and the collections at the Louvre. The latter were in dramatic flux, absorbing elements of Lenoir's dismantled Musée des Monuments Français as Napoleon's artistic booty from throughout his dominions was removed for repatriation. Among Daumier's many jobs during the 1820s, it seems, was to move sculpture for Lenoir as part of this process. However brief, Lenoir's tutelage was critical to Daumier's later work. From about 1823 to 1828, Daumier reportedly worked from the live model at the studios of the Bureau des Nourrices, rue Saint-Denis, at the academy of someone known only as "Boudin," about whom little is known, and at the Académie Suisse. Though he supposedly learned more about the figure at the public baths, it was at these informal art academies that he made some of his most enduring friendships, notably with painters Philippe-Auguste Jeanron (1807-1877) and Paul Huet (1803-1869), and the sculptor Antoine-Augustin Préault (1809-1879).
Around the same time (c. 1820s), Daumier apprenticed to a lithographer, Zéphirin Belliard (1798-after 1843), setting the course for his lifelong profession. After some itinerant work for several print publishers around 1829, he began his long association with liberal editor and caricaturist Charles Philipon (1800-1862), as one of the various artists for Philipon's satiric journals, La Silhouette, then La Caricature, and, finally, Le Charivari. Like other draftsmen working for Philipon, Daumier produced a considerable amount of political caricature for the newspapers. A vast proportion, however, instead represented scenes of broader modern life, physiologies of social types--lawyers, doctors, the bourgeois--and ambitious compositions concerning modern creativity (Chimeras of the Imagination). Unlike his editor and publisher, Daumier was charged, fined, and imprisoned for satiric images against the government only once, early on, from late 1832 to February 1833, for his censored Gargantua. He concentrated on genre images when press censorship suppressed political dissidence at different points in his career: from 1835 to 1848, and from 1852 to 1867. Daumier's published imagery seems to convey the views of his engaged and witty editor. His own politics and social vision remain unclear and prompt continuous debate among modern scholars. One contingent claims Daumier was at times even more radically left than Philipon, who rejected images that promoted the more extreme position. Others argue that Daumier had no political views--or did not express his own in his published images. Many scholars feel that, though Philipon supervised all prints and controlled the legends attached to them, Daumier's images of women--the bluestocking, the laundress, the devoted wife--reflect his own Rousseauesque antifeminist views. What little is known about his home life seems to fit: His own wife was reportedly retiring and devoted to the family hearth.
By the 1850s, Daumier had won high accolades as a draftsman and caricaturist. He was lauded by Baudelaire as a peer of both Delacroix and Ingres, and was later extolled by the Goncourts. He was painting simultaneously, though canvases or panels reportedly executed in the 1830s have never been traced. By the 1860s, when Philipon's death temporarily interrupted work for Le Charivari, Daumier had produced an abundance of watercolors, paintings, and drawings for sale and exhibition at dealers. An advocate of alternative exhibition contexts, Daumier showed only sparingly at the Salon, and in a largely different vein from his prints: mythological and literary subjects. In 1849, a republican Salon, he showed a celebrated fable subject from La Fontaine, a painting entitled The Miller, His Son, and the Ass (Burrell Collection, Glasgow). In 1850, he showed Don Quijote and Sancho (panel, private collection) and bacchic images (Women Pursued by Satyrs, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal; and an unlocated drawing of Silenus). Despite the critics' dislike of their pallid, unmodulated color, the republican government commissioned paintings from Daumier: his sketch for the 1848 state competition (Republic) and two religious subjects. Daumier was unaccountably unable to complete any of these projects beyond sketches, however. Yet he produced successfully and voluminously for the market, atypically yielding works instead full of vibrant, translucent color that were bought by collectors in Paris and the United States. During the Second Empire official circles sought to honor him. In 1869 the Ecole des Beaux-Arts bought a drawing of Fugitives for its collections, and the following year government offered him the cross of the Légion d'Honneur, which he refused. Daumier continued to work quietly, as his eyesight failed, until he died in 1879 at his country home at Valmondois.
Daumier's sculpture is central to his work yet constitutes one of its most enduring puzzles. His formal idiom is repeatedly called sculptural for its light-catching volumes in three-dimensional space. He is known to have produced sculpture from the 1830s to at least the early 1850s. The corpus of widely accepted works is limited to about fifty clay models, thirty-six of which are an informal set. The latter are Daumier's earliest autograph sculpture--polychrome unbaked-clay maquettes--caricatural portrait busts commissioned by Philipon and executed beginning around 1832, as lithographic models (Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Only one statuette is surely documented: Ratapoil, executed around 1851, and two bas-relief variants entitled Fugitives of around the same time. Apart from these, there are many genre figures and portrait heads whose attribution to Daumier remains debated. Most of his sculpture represents modern life, except for Fugitives, an ambiguous image with neutral spaces and anonymous nude figures. Few were executed in a "finished" material during the artist's lifetime; those cast in plaster were more durable and stand in for the lost originals. The many posthumous campaigns to serialize Daumier's sculpture, which lasted well into the 1960s, have provided a subtly altered view of that aspect of his work at the same time they made examples widely available.
Little is known about Daumier's sculptural training. His friends Préault, and later Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume (1716-1802) and Jean-Jacques Feuchère (1807-1852) in the early 1850s, are often credited with inspiring the artist to work in this medium. Geoffroy-Dechaume is known to have cast certain models into plaster and stored them in his nearby studio--Fugitives, for instance, which he eventually owned in plaster. The unconventional non-finito and close resemblance of Daumier's sculpture to his two-dimensional work suggests, to most scholars, that he had no formal training in the discipline. Though speculative, it seems likely that Lenoir directed Daumier's education there as well. He was a trained artist, known to emphasize technique, and he had devoted his professional career, as founder and director of the previously mentioned Musée des Monuments Français (a repository of French sculpture), to making that body of work available to artists and the public.
Daumier's prints reveal how intimately aware he was of the many facets of the medium, its makers, and the public. They repeatedly explore sculpture-filled studios, plaster-casting in progress, amateurs holding figurines, the public's disinterest in Salon sculpture, and the symbolic power of public effigies. His own sculpture is technically challenging. Though of painted, unbaked clay--a fragile state doomed to disintegrate--the initial set of thirty-six portrait busts reveals a sure and daring hand with the clay and modeling tools, producing nuanced features as well as the celebrated molten textures. The clay model for Ratapoil, the location of which is now unknown, would have required a sophisticated armature for its serpentine, contrapposto pose.
The conclusion that the busts were made by an untrained artist stems from an unclear notion of their purpose. Except for Ratapoil, the accepted works were called maquettes or sketches in their own time; they were thus defined as private preliminary efforts, not as finished works. None was apparently produced for public view or sale. Most critics and the public at large only learned of Daumier's sculpture at his retrospective the year before he died. The resemblance of the sculpture to the two-dimensional oeuvre has caused scholars to consider the surely attributed examples as study pieces, rather than as separate exercises in a different medium. However, Ratapoil emerges as an independent work produced for Daumier himself, apparently midway through the print series for Le Charivari.
Daumier's sculpture distills some essences of his art, which are in turn profoundly traditional to the three-dimensional medium. One essence is its subject matter. His sculpture utilizes the most time-honored tool and concern of the medium, the human figure, to focus on the primary subject of his work, the human condition. The artist's modeled forms emphasize a widely acknowledged virtue of his oeuvre, the rich expressive power of the human form--through costume, gesture, expression, and structure. Daumier took those expressive features to a greater extreme than his peers, often in the name of satire. His three-dimensional pieces deploy a formal quality that is quintessentially sculptural: manipulating the war between gravity and heavy mass for expressive purposes. His modeled forms in relief and in three dimension suggest mood or character through their interaction with gravity: disheartened humans struggle for progress on a difficult road; lumpy, static portrait busts suggest obstructive mental inertia. This expressive strategy gives special power to his drawings and paintings. His many images of burdened laundresses, of Atlases struggling with overwhelming loads, of Louis-Philippe as the pear weighing heavily on the belly of a traumatized citizen (often likened to Fuseli's Nightmare), suggest Daumier represented the symbolic power of weight, of a body struggling with a spiritual or symbolic burden made physical. Physiological interest of this sort links Daumier's work with the late oeuvre of Degas, who admired Daumier and similarly explored physical tensions within laboring bodies. However, the overtly expressive use of ponderous mass relates Daumier to Michelangelo and to Rodin, whose tortured caryatids are the clearest evidence of their portrayal of psychological weight through burdened physical form.
Daumier's sculpture apparently influenced the Belgian nineteenth-century sculptor Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) and possibly Henri Matisse (1869-1935) in its sense of apparent scale, despite its small size, and in its capacity to suggest the epic or monumental quality in modern life, whether in modern dress or in ideal nudity.
For all its transgressive blend of pictorial and sculptural sources, Daumier's work seems to respect artistic mode. There are usually differences, details, or fundamental strategies explored in one medium but not in another, suggesting he undertook each category on its own terms. The innovativeness that came with such respect may have contributed to his influence in each formal type.