Daumier: Man of His Time
Daumier poses enormous problems for the critic and historian alike. He was very highly praised in his own day, and greatly esteemed by such opposites as Delacroix and Corot. We know almost nothing about the man or his life. His work appeals to and touches us today more by what it says than by its properties of form and color. And the only comparisons which seem to be valid are with artists and novelists whose depth, range, and stature are incomparably greater than his own. Moreover, Daumier exists as a lone figure outside the artistic currents and fields of pictorial interest of his own time. It is therefore very difficult, unless one is violently partisan, to arrive at a fair estimate of his greatness. When Daumier was still very young, Balzac was heard to remark that he had “Michelangelo in his blood.” When Daubigny looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel he exclaimed “Daumier!” These seem pretty excessive utterances when one looks at Daumier’s wobbly operatic nudes and unheroic bourgeois. However, later critics have gone on comparing Daumier to Rembrandt and Goya, while Valéry evokes the names of Dante, Cervantes, and Balzac. This is grand company indeed.
The ascertainable biographical facts concerning Daumier are singularly scanty. We know little beyond the date and place of his birth—Marseilles, 26th February 1808—the names of his teachers, the date of his marriage, the addresses where he lived, the dates of his imprisonment, the names of some of his friends, and the date of his death, 11th February 1879. All the rest—and Daumier must have had an intense inner life—has to be reconstructed from what can be read in his works. There are no letters, no journals, no revealing stories to help us. Delacroix records dryly in his Journal of 1849 that Baudelaire had told him Daumier “had great difficulty in finishing his paintings,” which we can see for ourselves. And Théodore Banville has described a visit to Daumier’s studio on the Ile St. Louis in 1848: “You cannot imagine anything less luxurious, more severely bare, with no odds and ends of any sort lying around. The walls were painted a soft shade of pale gray, but nothing hung on them…An iron stove, square, black and enamelled, a few chairs, on the floor and against the wall folders bulging with drawings to the point where they would not shut—that’s all one saw in this large, light, gray studio besides the little table on which Daumier worked at his stones, and even that did not have on it the most essential things such as lithographic chalks….” To this we can add the knowledge that Daumier aspired to be a painter but was obliged to concentrate on caricature because it was the only way he could earn a living. Then we can form an image of what Daumier looked like at different ages from a putative self-portrait of c. 1832, from a later medallion head by Kreutzberger, from portraits by Corot, Feuchère, Jeanron, and Gavarini, and lastly from photographs taken by Nadar in the 1860s. But that is all.
IN THESE CIRCUMSTANCES, the late Robert Rey took the easy way out when compiling his new monograph, for he was content to re-formulate conventional, outdated views. His contribution to the study of Daumier is quite undistinguished and the reader has to put up with comments such as:
There have been frequent mentions of Daumier’s fondness for wine—indeed rather too much has been made of it. However, if he really liked to drink, was it not primarily because he was attracted by the peaceful, relaxed atmosphere of the modest cafés he seemed to favor?…From his choice of subjects we can see that although he preferred humble working-class cafés, he was also perfectly familiar with more “bourgeois” establishments where the customers did not favor le gros rouge…but beer.
This is French bla-bla at its most vacuous. The rest of the volume consists of forty-eight erratic color reproductions of paintings, a small selection of graphic works, and a summary Biographical Table.
Professor Larkin of Smith College, taking a bolder and less well-trodden path, has written an unexpected, enlightening, and very informative book.
The seventy-one years of Daumier present no turbulent actions, no sexual escapades, no searing emotional crisis, no agony and no ecstasy [he writes]; the pattern of his daily existence differed in no striking way from that of the thousands of Frenchmen of middle station to whom his drawings gave an instant and enduring life…The man is wholly in his work…The sources of his themes, his point of view, his attitudes toward the human situation in the political, social, literary, and artistic context of his time are relevant to the understanding of what he accomplished.
This proclaims an eminently sensible attitude, and Professor Larkin honors his promise by cutting out surmise, speculation, and fictional embroideries. His text is down-to-earth and devoted primarily to interpreting the changing subjects and gradually modified technical procedures of Daumier’s lithographs, the one securely datable part of his work. Larkin thus builds up an image of Daumier as an honest, politically conscious representative of the middle class, who knew what his responsibilities were, was determined to stick up for the rights both of the bourgeoisie and of all victims of oppression, and used his art—since it was his only weapon—honorably and conscientiously both to defend and attack. This approach leads Larkin to embed Daumier solidly in the events and life of his time by weaving around the episodes he satirized in political cartoons, and around the various coteries who appear in his sociological commentaries, a well-informed and shrewd account of the intrigues, storms, uprisings, betrayals, hopes, disillusionments, and material prosperity which together make up the violent history of post-Revolutionary France between 1830 and 1870. Larkin has planned his book so that the material is divided into a series of explanatory chapters, in which he discusses Daumier’s growth as an artist and follows the successive phases (often necessitated by outside interference) of his interests. In between these he has inserted four “vignettes,” which are summary appreciations of Daumier “as a person, however mild and inconspicuous” at successive points in his career.
ALONG THE WAY, Larkin tries, in the face of a disconcerting lack of evidence and countless conflicts of opinion, to give some logically reasoned account of Daumier’s development as a painter. Here, unavoidably, Larkin is less successful because he becomes imprecise and evasive. In a sense, Daumier himself leaves him no alternative. For his paintings do not correspond in date to the same subjects treated as lithographs, none are dated, individual canvases were re-worked over many years without ever being finished, and even those few which Daumier exhibited at the Salon or elsewhere during his lifetime were not necessarily recent works at the time of their showing. More tiresomely still, Daumier did not trouble to date any paintings in the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition of his works held in April 1878, less than a year before he died, in the Paris galleries of Durand-Ruel. Small wonder that no two writers are now agreed on their chronology or that discrepancies of ten years and more seem to separate Larkin’s theory from that of Rey. But here Larkin lays himself open to serious criticism. For whereas Rey states the dates he has decided on, Larkin merely gives vague indications in the text and leaves it to the reader to work out their application. How much easier it would have been to follow his arguments if he had included the dates he had in mind in the captions beneath the illustrations. As a matter of fact, he does not even do so for the lithographs he reproduces, but here it matters less because we can always turn to Delteil’s exhaustive catalogue.
Larkin, like Rey, has no doubts whatever on the score of Daumier’s absolute greatness as an artist in every medium. He therefore makes no attempt in his book to distinguish critically between one set of works and another. To Larkin, for instance, Daumier’s paintings are intimately related to, and must be seen as, an enriched, a perfected re-working of whatever he did in lithography. “When we turn from the lithographs to the paintings,” he writes, “do we not see a richer and more profoundly penetrant expression of Daumier’s commitment to man’s struggle? In many respects a painting by Daumier is an extension of his lithographic method: It begins with a drawing, and its forms as they come into existence are supported and clarified by lines; its tones suggest color without exploiting actual color contrasts; its action is likely to occupy a small format and to take place within a relatively restricted and clearly defined space; light is an active force which searches out and concentrates upon the essential…. As he worked, those details which in the lithographs made his point more obvious were sacrificed for greater intensity of utterance.” This is excellent as an analysis of Daumier’s painting technique, which was heavy-handed and uncertain in its application. But Professor Larkin surely over-estimates the pictures that resulted. It is not that I feel we should see Daumier purely as a lithographer, though there is no doubt that by his highly inventive handling of the medium and incredible mastery of its expressive possibilities he is far greater as a lithographer than as a painter or even as a draftsman. After all, his paintings add nothing to his lithographs and are less sharp and more approximative.
Daumier was a vivid, though not a great, draftsman because there was no economy in his handling of the technical means. This mattered less in the broader technique of lithography; also his remarkable gift for conjuring up a gesture, an attitude, a facial expression, or a type with pungent verisimilitude makes us to some extent forget about his shortcomings. But we cannot help seeing on his canvases that he was not at his ease with oil paint and had to labor all his life against the lack of a good art-school training. For what Daumier learnt from Boilly and Lenoir, in addition to what he picked up from studying the masters in the Louvre, seems to have confused rather than to have helped him. True, Daumier aimed at broader and more dramatic effects in his paintings, which makes them different, but he never had enough time to work at his painting and become really proficient in the art. His constant straining after effect moreover suggests that he was not born with a true painter’s vision, as does the fact that he was obliged to impose a certain amount of rather coarse drawing over the paint before he could get his figures to come alive. So I would agree with Novotny that Daumier’s paintings are little more than an “adjunct to his graphic work” and that nothing justifies our considering them as “the culmination of his art, and the real essence of his artistic being.”
TO MY MIND it is the spirit of Daumier which counts above all and constitutes his real greatness. This is what endears him to us as an artist and enables us to overlook the great unevenness of his achievements. Valéry, likening him to Michelangelo and Rembrandt, says that what “compels us to group these genuine ‘creators’ together is a common urge, instinct, passion for employing the human image to serve a profound purpose, giving it a meaning, a value, a sort of mission, instilling it with a charge of life quite other than any real living being can convey.” But from then on we have to separate Daumier from the other two, because for all that his work is vibrant with a feeling for life, he was not a humanist, as they, and his immediate predecessor Goya, were, Daumier was first and foremost a moralist and a realist, who used satire as a means of putting across both the ideology which burned like a flame within him and his affection for and understanding of his fellow men. For Daumier does not give us a succession of quirky individuals, but a generalized image of Man. That is why it would be wrong to dismiss him simply as a pictorial journalist or a political cartoonist. He was, of course, both; but he was far more besides.
Daumier has left us an inexhaustible portrait gallery of the politicians and public figures of his day, portraits which are unmistakable as realistic likenesses although the features of the original models have been exaggerated and burlesqued. “Every little meanness of spirit,” Baudelaire could write in 1857, “every absurdity, every quirk of intellect, every vice of the heart can be clearly seen and read in these animalized faces; and at the same time everything is broadly and emphatically drawn. Daumier combined the freedom of an artist with the accuracy of a Lavater.” Then Daumier has left us an elaborately documented record of the class struggle in France from 1830 onwards and of the shifting currents of public opinion. In both of these respects, we may see Daumier as the counterpart of Michelet the republican historian. Next Daumier takes us right to the heart of everyday life in Paris, showing us the bourgeois at home, in the street, on shopping expeditions, relaxing at the theater or in the country, traveling by train. And of course he also deals with their smugness and cultural pretensions, before turning to their vital financial sequence of dowry, security, death, and inheritance. Then Daumier looks at the petits-bourgeois, the masses of little shop-keepers and suburban dwellers, and shows their struggle to survive in the face of usury, greed, and exploitation from which they suffer both at the hands of the bourgeoisie and of the men in power.
“Look through his works,” says Baudelaire, “and you will see parading before your eyes all that a great city contains of living monstrosities, in all their fantastic and thrilling reality. There can be no item of the fearful, the grotesque, the sinister, or the farcical in its treasury, but Daumier knows it. The live and starving corpse, the plump and well-filled corpse, the ridiculous troubles of the home, every little stupidity, every little pride, every enthusiasm, every despair of the bourgeois—it is all there.” All there, that is to say, except the representatives of the Church, the Army, the newly rich, and newly risen aristocracy, the workers, and the peasants, who belonged to strata of society which were outside the range of Daumier’s class-confined experiences.
NOW DAUMIER MIGHT, if he had been a lesser artist or a man with less heart and less human understanding, have left us an image of his period in which we could see nothing which is applicable beyond that time. That is the limitation which divides Rowlandson, Gilray, Gavarni, or Low from Daumier. On the contrary, the characters which Daumier, like Molière, created are in fact timeless. Humanly speaking, they are as true today as they were then. Therein lies a great part of Daumier’s greatness, though the merit is not purely artistic. The rest seems to me to flow from his natural greatness of spirit, that quality which distinguishes Daumier as a man and makes him forever worthy of our fullest respect. Whatever Daumier shows us bears the stamp of his humanity, of what Champfleury calls his fundamental “goodness of heart,” and of his compassion. There is no bitterness, no rancor, no destructive mockery, except when Daumier is dealing with the monsters of the July Monarchy, with the arrogant and incompetently executed policies of the Second Empire which threatened the whole future of France and of his own bourgeois world, and of course with those “men of the law” under whom he had suffered early in life and whom he knew therefore as lackeys and profiteers who lived by betraying one of his great ideals, justice. The strength of Daumier lies in his abiding faith in the ideal of democratic republicanism, in the ideal of a solid, proud, amply built, benevolent Republic, whose protection is extended to all, in which all have equal rights and receive an equal measure of nourishment and instruction, just as we see her in the historic painting in the Louvre. As Larkin says, “nearly forty years of drawings were to prove his obstinate belief in a republic, in economic, social, and political equality, the right of all Frenchmen to determine who should best represent them, and full freedom of written and spoken opinion.” And this faith found its ultimate expression in a series of lithographs dealing with the fate of the tottering Second Empire which, after Goya’s Disasters of War, constitute the most powerful appeal in art to a spirit of pacifism.
I am grateful to Professor Larkin for all the thought-provoking material in the form of critical arguments, historical background, personal insights and common sense, which he has packed into his book because he has made me think again about Daumier and his standing as an artist. When I had finished reading, however, I turned to David, Goya, and Manet in various media and saw at once that, on a purely esthetic level, Daumier does not hold his own beside any of them. He was not a great, nor even a major artist, because he inclined too much towards illustration. But he was endowed with a great and inspiring human spirit which is almost as rare a gift.