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 …