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International Socialist Review, Fall 1958


George Lavan

Daumier – Political Artist


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.4, FallFrom International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.4, Fall 1958, pp.133-137.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Imprisoned for his radical views, his caricatures delighted millions a century ago. Today he is held to be the originator of modern political cartooning

* * *

THIS year marks the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the great French artist Honore Daumier. Throughout the world museums and cultural publications have observed the occasion with special exhibits and articles. In Paris, the Bibliotheque Nationale assembled the most comprehensive Daumier exhibit in history.

Yet Daumier was not considered a legitimate artist by the tastemakers of his period, and his name could not even be found in the art histories for decades after his death. In 1878, the year before his death, a group of the blind old man’s friends and admirers organized an exhibit of his works as a tribute and to relieve his desperate poverty. Though the chief sponsor was Victor Hugo, the exhibit was a dismal failure. Daumier’s fate was to live and die appreciated as an artist only by a small group of literary men and artists.

Nevertheless, Daumier had a tremendous audience almost from the beginning of his career – the readers of the newspapers for which he worked. His popularity was incontestable, and he was appreciated – but as a political and social caricaturist.

This mass audience, overwhelmingly petty-bourgeois and proletarian, did not expect to find “art” outside its well-defined precincts. Nor did it presume to make its own judgments on such arcane matters. It either had none or accepted ready-made the pronouncements of the high priests of the art world.

While some of the high priests may have, in their unofficial capacities, also enjoyed Daumier’s cartoons, rarely if ever did they regard them through their art-examining spectacles. To them, art consisted of painting and sculpture. Newspaper lithographs simply were not within the official purview.

* * *

Honore Victorin Daumier was born in Marseilles February 27, 1808. His father, Jean Baptiste, was an artisan – a glazier, who had his own shop. Honore’s mother was a poorly educated village woman. Jean Baptiste was not an ordinary glazier. He was self-educated, a thinker and poet. A product of the Enlightenment and Revolution, he was a passionate admirer of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Condillac; and for his verse he took as models the classic French tragedies of Racine and the Latin poetry of Vergil, which he knew in translation.

Even under Napoleon the revolutionary ideal of equality still influenced provincial intellectual circles. The Academy of Marseilles encouraged the literary endeavors of the workman-poet, which appeared in the local press, and finally honored him with membership. The older Daumier now made a literary career his sole aim. He wrote a five-act tragedy in Alexandrine meter about Philip II of Spain. It was generously applauded at its reading before the Academy of Marseilles. Intoxicated with this success, Jean Baptiste sold his modest shop and with his family set out for Paris, the literary capital.

It was hardly a favorable time in Paris for even the most talented of newcomers. This was 1814, the year of the Napoleonic Götterdammerung. It had opened with the joint invasion of France by all its enemies. The militarily brilliant, but politically hopeless, campaign of the Emperor had not prevented the taking of Paris. In quick succession came Napoleon’s first abdication, exile to Elba, restoration of the Bourbons, to be followed in less than a year by the Hundred Days, Waterloo and the second return of the Bourbons.

Even when calm years finally came, the elder Daumier continued to meet rebuffs from theatrical producers and publishers. In the whole period he succeeded in getting but one volume of poetry published, probably at his own expense. Meanwhile his family suffered great material hardship. After nine years the disheartened worker-poet gave up the unequal battle and took up his glazier’s tools again, though still remaining in Paris.

Honore had started to draw on his own at an early age and became increasingly infatuated with it. One can readily appreciate the father’s alarm as he saw his son heading into – what must have seemed from his own bitter experience – a blind alley for people of their station in life. Drawing met parental discouragement and Honore was apprenticed to a law-court usher with the perspective of rising to a modest but dependable position.

Though outwardly this law-court errand boy appeared no different from the others, he guarded within himself a great sensitivity and perception. He despised the work and the atmosphere. Here it was that he stored up those mental images and devastating knowledge of the chicanery, hypocrisy and pettiness of judges, lawyers and other traffickers in “justice” which to this day is a most powerful commentary on bourgeois law.

His distaste for the apprenticeship was so great that his father secured him a position as a bookstore assistant. Though it was an improvement, young Honore was still unhappy. He devoted every spare moment and scrap of paper to drawing. So stubborn was he that to settle the dispute his father finally called in a professional artist to render a verdict. Upon the judgment that the youngster had a real talent, the father gave in. Using connections from his literary days, he secured his son’s admittance to the studio of an academician named Lenoir, this being the way for one to study painting at that time.

Not much is known about Lenoir but it is not difficult to guess the reasons for Daumier’s unhappiness in the studio and his final revolt from it. There then existed a dictatorial rule in the art world unequalled by anything in art history until the regimentation of art in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

The French Revolution had adopted neo-classicism as its art form. Themes from the Roman Republic of antiquity and classic simplicity of style had been the revolutionary answer to the decadent coquetry and eroticism of the rococo art of the ancien regime. The great master and pioneer of neo-classicism was Jacques Louis David whose early works, Oath of the Horatii and Brutus Receiving the News of the Death of His Sons, were linked to the popular agitation of the revolutionists. With the triumph of the Revolution, David became its official painter. He was elected to the National Assembly, reorganized the Acadey and became the art arbiter. Though imprisoned during Thermidor for his connections with Robespierre, he made the required political transition. The artistic transition was not as demanding; instead of depicting revolutionary virtue through the themes and heroes of Republican Rome he depicted Napoleonic glory through the themes and trappings of Imperial Rome. Having rallied to Napoleon after the Return from Elba, David was exiled by the Bourbons. But he continued to rule French art through his deputies – Baron Gros and Ingres – till his death in 1825 and then for almost the remainder of the nineteenth century through his ghostly domination of the Academy.

Artistically, as well as politically progressive in its early period, neo-classicism had declined to the meaningless sterility and self-imitation of the rococo it had displaced. Dutifully furnishing the public with paintings of “ennobling” subjects and idealized classical figures, the academicians served the French bourgeoisie as an esthetic police force, keeping canvases with subversive tendencies from the annual exhibits of the Salon, from buyers, from popular acceptance.

In Lenoir’s studio, as in that of any academician in the 1820s, Daumier must have been put to the tedious exercises of drawing over and over again classical ears, ankles, etc. After a seemingly endless period of such work he might be finally allowed to a life class where the model would not be drawn but serve as a frame for the assembling of the disjointed bits of classical anatomy he had learned.

Against the tedium of the studio Daumier found antidotes. The Revolution had created the public museum and in the Louvre (a former palace) he could study the revelations of the Renaissance, Rembrandt, Rubens. Among some fellow students, he found sympathy with his rebelliousness. One taught him the new method of making printed pictures – lithography. Soon he had executed a few drawings in this new medium and sold them. He stopped going to the studio and struck out on his own.

* * *

Printed illustrations had been produced in Europe since the late Middle Ages. These were woodcuts which mark in the pictorial propagation of knowledge the same giant advance that Gutenberg’s invention of movable type had in the propagation of literal knowledge. But both books and prints were expensive. Indeed woodcuts were used primarily for book illustration and thus their audience was restricted to the aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie. What contact the lower orders of feudal society had with the woodcut was mostly in its early period when they had been used to increase the salability of religious indulgences to illiterates.

Other methods of print making were later followed. Whereas a woodcut is an actual wooden bas-relief of the picture to be printed, the opposite form of intaglio, or carving the picture down into metal, was invented. Varieties of metal engraving came to include dry point, etching with the aid of acid, etc. But all of these methods of making prints were highly specialized, laborious, slow and expensive.

A few years before Daumier’s birth, a Bavarian, Alois Senefelder, invented a method which would revolutionize the making of prints. Senefelder found that the flat surface of a certain type of stone would retain a film of water poured or wiped onto it. If a grease mark or design had previously been put on the stone, no water would remain on that part. Then, if a roller covered with greasy ink were run across the stone’s surface, it would leave ink only where the grease marks were. If a piece of paper were now pressed against the inked stone it would receive an exact imprint from the inked mark. By keeping the stone wet and re-inking it each time, an indefinite number of impressions or prints could be made.

This planographic or lithographic method was extremely cheap. The only tools required were a grease pencil or crayon, inks or paints with grease bases. The stone could be planed down and used again and again for years. Moreover, anyone who could draw or paint could use the method – unlike wood cutting and metal engraving which, because of the time, effort and training required, artists were more and more abandoning to craftsmen who executed by rote.

Senefelder’s invention spread but slowly in the period of the wars. At first it was used for printing textiles and sheet music. But a combination of circumstances had arisen in France that would soon spread it like wildfire. The public education established by the French Revolution had produced a mass reading public; the application of steam to the printing press made cheap mass-circulation newspapers possible; finally the French Revolution of 1830, and the five years of relative freedom of the press which followed, allowed the blossoming of such newspapers.

Just as these papers would democratize literature by their serializations of the novels of Balzac, Dumas and Eugène Sue, so would they democratize art in its print form through the use of lithographs for illustrations and caricatures. One must examine the French press from 1830 to 1850 to appreciate how lavishly the publishers slaked the public’s thirst for pictorial representation with lithographs. Papers with more than fifty per cent of their space devoted to lithographs are not uncommon.

* * *

Daumier makes his debut in 1830 as a caricaturist for the republican press, which speaks in the name of those elements of the petty bourgeoisie and working class who had made the July Revolution only to find upon their descent from the barricades that, instead of a republic, there was being fobbed off on the country a “republican” king – Louis Philippe of the Orleans line, the “Citizen King,” a creature of the financial bourgeoisie. For five years, during which France was rocked by attempted republican coups, assassination attempts, and strikes (the red flag first appears in 1832), this republican press wages a vitriolic campaign of words and caricatures against the regime. Then it is muzzled. During this period young Daumier rapidly forms his style and emerges as the “Michelangelo of Caricature.”

It is also the period that will shape Daumier’s political and social outlook. Though of the working class and a fighter against the bourgeoisie for the rest of his life, he will remain basically a “Revolutionist of 1830,” even when that movement’s ideals, aims and its panacea of universal suffrage have become outmoded by the full development of Marxist socialism.

The freedom of the press resulting from the July Revolution permitted the radical republicans to launch an offensive against the regime. Before the July uprising Daumier had come to know Charles Philipon, a republican with a flair for promotion, who founded the journal Caricature and assembled for its staff a dozen young lithographers including Daumier.

Undistinguished at first, Daumier’s cartoons showed remarkable development in a period of months. By 1832 he had begun that series of heads which set him apart from all contemporary caricaturists and marks the beginning of the modern political caricature. Daumier is thus the father of the modern political cartoon and all the greater for having had no predecessor. He was soon arrested for caricaturing the King as Gargantua consuming the wealth of the nation and put in Ste. Pelagie prison from the summer of 1832 till February of 1833.

Six months in the company of other revolutionary prisoners unquestionably added to his political education and to the store of faces, characters, bodies in his phenomenal memory – he never made sketches or notes.

European balance

The government’s campaign against the press intensified. By 1834 the office of Caricature had been seized 27 times; fines multiplied, threatening bankruptcy; Philipon was sentenced to six months. After the riots of 1834 the regime killed the opposition papers. For example, La Tribune underwent 111 prosecutions and 20 convictions totalling 49 years of imprisonment as well as 150,000 francs in fines.

But before the end came, Philipon proved fertile in devices to outwit the prosecutor. Forbidden to caricature Louis Philippe’s pear-shaped head any longer, the monarch was not clearly identified, being drawn from the side or rear. When that could no longer pass, not a human figure but a pear was used as a symbol of the hated ruler. To avoid certain fines, Caricature did not publish risky cartoons, but set up a separate Monthly Lithographic Society which published them with the announced aim of using proceeds to pay fines.

For this series Daumier produced four of the greatest lithographs ever drawn. They were Le Venire Legislatif (The Legislative Belly), a view of the interior of the National Assembly with magnificently pitiless caricatures of all the ministers and leading deputies at their benches; Enfoncé Lafayette, a view of Lafayette’s funeral with Louis Philippe as an undertaker’s assistant apparently weeping but on closer inspection seen to be grinning behind his handkerchief; Ne Vous Y Frottez Pas (Don’t Monkey With It), a young printer in his work clothes, reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s David, standing in defense of freedom of the press against the King and his ministers; Rue Transnonain, Le 15 Avril 1834 – this is not a cartoon in the sense that it contains no distortion but is a naturalistic representation of a room in which are seen the corpses of a murdered family and the dishevelled beds from which they had been pulled. This is Daumier’s comment on an atrocity by the royalist troops the previous night. Claiming that they were being sniped at from the building, they had entered it and slaughtered all the inhabitants. In the all-pervading gloom of the room, the foreshortened body of a half-nude father who, with horror the observer comes to see, is lying on the body of an infant. This is one of the most powerful political drawings ever made and on an artistic level is comparable to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson.

Had Daumier died at the age of twenty-six, these lithographs alone would have entitled him to a permanent place in the history of modern art.

The final end of freedom of the press in 1835 found the resourceful Philipon with another iron in the fire. This was a new paper, Charivari, whose caricatures would be social rather than political satire. Daumier soon adjusted to this new field and again became its greatest artist.

At the suggestion of Philipon, always an idea man, Daumier created a character – Robert Macaire, taken from a popular play of the time. Robert Macaire was an adventurous swindler, shabby one day, affluent the next, completely cynical and opportunist but compelling a sort of admiration by his breath-taking effrontery. Macaire appeared in cartoons as stockbroker, lawyer, doctor, railroad promoter, suitor, salesman, phony inventor, etc., etc., always fleecing the gullible petty bourgeois. The series had a phenomenal success. Re-issues of the series were common. Macaire became a household word.

The Macaire series was, of course, a social critique of capitalism and specifically of France under Louis Philippe which was par excellence the regime of bankers and stock-exchange manipulators. Secondarily it was a taunting, as inveterate dupes, of the middle class, whose support of the regime, even though it did not even allow them the ballot, had permitted its consolidation.

In The Civil War in France Marx writes:

“The July monarchy was nothing other than a joint stock company for the exploitation of French national wealth, the dividends of which were divided among ministers, Chambers, the 240,000 voters and their adherents. Louis Philippe was the director of this company – Robert Macaire on the throne.”

Robert Macaire, however, is not one of Daumier’s best caricature creations. The series’ enormous popularity was largely due to its topicality – in a period when financial and governmental scandals broke almost weekly. Also the lengthy inscriptions written by Philipon below the cartoons, filled with puns and witty allusions, have lost their appeal today.

Incidentally, the lengthy inscriptions appearing beneath Daumier’s cartoons were rarely, if ever written by him. Those he wrote are terse. He believed the picture should tell the story, not the inscription. Since he often turned his lithographs in with a mere word or two to indicate the idea, or later merely turned in drawings of types or scenes that had attracted his attention, the writers of Charivari had to invent humorous inscriptions. Since they were usually paid by the line, their tendency to lengthiness is understandable.

All of Paris, all the human variety in modern urban society with its classes and their subsections, with their manners, customs, idiosyncrasies, became subject matter for Daumier’s social satire. His range was so great that his work has often been compared to the Comédie Humaine of Balzac, who in turn upon first seeing Daumier’s work remarked that “there is something of Michelangelo in that fellow.”

The critic Leon Rosenthal said of Daumier:

“No one has known as he did the soul of the petty bourgeois. He has defined it with perspicacity and without acrimony, conscious of its virtues as of its mediocrity ...”

In quantity Daumier’s drawings constitute an encyclopedia of types. But more impressive than the quantity is the quality – the viewer recognizes at once that these are real people, universal yet particular, burlesqued yet more truly portrayed because of that.

In his Curiosités Esthétiques, the poet Baudelaire wrote:

“Daumier’s distinguishing note as an artist is his certainty. His drawing is fluent and easy; it is a continuous improvisation. He has a wonderful, almost superhuman memory, from which he works as from a model. His powers of observation are such that in his work we never find a single head that is out of character with the figure beneath it. The artist manifests here a marvelous cunning in portraiture: while caricaturing and exaggerating the features of his originals, he yet adheres so faithfully to nature that these productions might serve as models to all portraitists.”

The Revolution of 1848 again brought a few brief years of press freedom and political caricature. To be signalized among Daumier’s work of this period is the creation of Ratapoil, the Bonapartist agent. Ratapoil is the personification of the agent-provocateur, the bully boy, a section leader of the Society of December 10, President Louis Bonaparte’s private army of adventurers and lumpen-proletariat – a seventy-year anticipation of Benito Mussolini’s first fasci. It was the Society of December 10 that Bonaparte shipped ahead when he toured France so they could impersonate the masses at each railroad station, shout, “Vive l’Empereur!“ and beat up any opponents. Daumier shows Ratapoil as a sinister, seedy, middle-aged but wiry adventurer, with an imperial beard and mustache, carrying a half-concealed club up his sleeve. This figure incarnated all of Daumier’s hate and contempt for Napoleon the Little, by whom, to his credit, he had never been taken in as had such men of the left as Proudhon and Victor Hugo.

Bonaparte’s coup d’état in 1851 ended the Second Republic and freedom of the press. Daumier is again restricted to social satire. A marked change in his style takes place during the 1850s. The deep, velvety blacks and delicate shadings of gray are replaced by short, nervous curved lines – a sort of pictorial shorthand or impressionism. The change is attributed principally to the introduction of fast new presses which were not capable of the fine presswork required for his earlier type of lithograph. Moreover, stones on which he had always composed directly were now being replaced by granulated zinc plates and special drawing-transfer paper.

In the late sixties, the regime, sensing its impending downfall, tried to placate the liberals. Daumier was even offered the Legion of Honor – he refused. The press censorship was eased and political caricature within limits again became possible. Daumier devoted himself largely to cartoons against the arms race and the danger of war, into which Louis Napoleon would plunge France in 1870 in an effort to strengthen the regime with an upsurge of patriotism.

All his life Daumier had lived in a working-class section of Paris. His earnings approximated those of a skilled worker. He had married at the age of 38 and he supported his parents. When unemployment struck in 1860, the family was in desperate straits. To live cheaper they moved to Valmondois, a village outside Paris. Daumier now first began to have serious trouble with his eyes. In 1864 Charivari rehired him but his earnings were not enough to keep him out of debt. Threatened with eviction from his home, Daumier was saved by Camille Corot, an old friend, who, after thirty years without selling a single picture, suddenly came into vogue in England. The flow of English pounds permitted Corot to set himself up as a one-man mutual aid fund for impoverished fellow artists. Corot bought the house and presented it to Daumier on his birthday.

It is not fully clear what Daumier’s attitude was to the Parish Commune. That he was against the Assembly of Bordeaux, which later moved to Versailles, and its head, Thiers, who had been a target for savage caricature ever since the days of Louis Philippe, is apparent from those few cartoons Daumier did in this brief period (the Commune lasted only two months). But it would seem that he regarded the struggle in terms of 1830 and 1848 – the fight for a republic and universal suffrage rather than as the first proletarian government.

It may well be that Daumier’s views on the Commune were afterwards concealed by himself and his friends, for the repression was merciless. His friend, the father of realism in French art, Gustave Courbet, was imprisoned, forced into exile, and his property confiscated for his role in the Commune. Jules Dalou, Jean Charles Cazin, and other artists suffered banishment. Undoubtedly the suspicion that a man with Daumier’s political past must have been a friend of the Communards contributed to the failure of the one-man show of oils and water colors which his friends and admirers organized in 1878 as a tribute and in the hope of some sales.

That the president of the exhibit was Victor Hugo could only reinforce the suspicion. For though not a Communard, Hugo had made an impassioned plea to Belgium for the right of asylum of escaped Communards. The deadly effect on art exhibits of the witch-hunt was demonstrated by the third Impressionist exhibition the year before. The second exhibition had registered a modest advance in acceptance and sales. The 1877 exhibit was unjustly labelled as “Communard” art by reactionary circles and witch-hunters. The subsequent storm of abuse made the exhibit a financial disaster.

Daumier died February 10, 1879 at the age of 71. According to Sarah Newmeyer in Enjoying Modern Art, there was no money to bury him and the state put up twelve francs for a pauper’s funeral.

“The mayor of Valmondois virtuously refused to requisition even the tiny minimum sum ordinarily supplied to dignify the body of a respectable pauper. Hadn’t Daumier been a jailbird ... an agitator through the power of his art, a political caricaturist often on the wrong side? Some newspapers, commending the mayor, criticized even the expenditure of twelve francs for the grave.”

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