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Daumier’s Human Comedy

Honoré Daumier: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Water Colors and Drawings

by K.E. Maison
New York Graphic Society, Vol. 1, 446; Vol. 2, 620; 1161 illustrations pp., $157.50 the set

All that is relevant has in fact been said about Daumier,” writes Mr. Maison in the Preface to his splendidly impressive catalogue raisonné, and he backs up this assertion with an equally dogmatic pronouncement by Paul Valéry: “On a tout dit sur Daumier—tout ce qui peut se dire.” Were this true it would leave the reviewer (and everyone else) distinctly embarrassed. In fact it is Mr. Maison’s own labors which have invalidated these claims, and before struggling once again with a “superfluous” appraisal, we must indicate what those labors have now revealed to us, for the more we study these handsome and bulky volumes the more apparent it becomes that much of what has been said about Daumier the painter has been based on drastically inaccurate information.

Thus Arsene Alexandre, who knew the artist personally and published a biography of him less than ten years after his death, wrote that Daumier produced “about a hundred canvases and as many sketches and a little more than double that number of drawings and water colors.” Mr. Maison catalogues nearly 300 paintings and more than 800 drawings and water colors—so much for Valéry’s statement (made during the course of an admittedly perceptive essay) that apart from caricatures and lithographs he left behind only “a few small canvases.” In fact, he was an exceptionally prolific artist, even if we omit the work by which he is best known.

But Mr. Maison is rigorous in his selection. Of 283 paintings listed in the previous catalogue raisonné he rejects more than a quarter. One specific example of his severity may be mentioned. Few pictures by Daumier have been more widely admired than the Emeute (Scene of the Revolution of 1848) in the Phillips collection in Washington. Yet Mr. Maison says of this, “I can hardly see the master’s hand anywhere but in the original conception (and brush drawing) of this magnificent composition.” And while acknowledging that “Daumier’s inspiration and basic work were the decisive factors in [its] creation,” he places it firmly in the second part of his catalogue devoted to “Paintings with restorations so extensive that they may have decisively altered the appearance of part or the whole of a composition, and sketches and unfinished paintings by Daumier either definitely or probably completed by later hands.” No such demolition work can have been done on any artist since the young Berenson and his contemporaries began to sort out the innumerable “Raphaels,” “Leonardos,” and “Giorgiones” that still cluttered museums and auction rooms at the end of the century.

Far from its being impossible to say anything to the point about Daumier, serious appraisal of his career can only begin now. It is therefore a great pity that Mr. Maison, who knows more about the artist than anyone else, should have refrained from making virtually any considered judgment on him and should have referred us instead to Oliver Larkin’s excellent, but primarily historical and biographical, Daumier, Man of His Time.* The volumes under review are a great monument to “pure” connoisseurship, but like all such monuments they are somewhat arid—until, that is, we look through the hundreds of fine plates and are swept away once again by the inspiring greatness of Daumier’s vision.

We now know the extent of Daumier’s oeuvre—but not much else. He never dated his works, and almost never exhibited them at the annual Salons, so that it is virtually impossible to follow his development as an artist. Neither he nor his friends wrote anything of significance about him as a painter, and even the subject matter of this so-called realist is by no means always clear. We have been told by one of the most authoritative and influential critics of nineteenth-century art that “he was not a great, nor even a major artist, because he inclined too much to illustration.” But what does he illustrate? Would we even know that the three florid Rubensian girls who burst at us from his large canvas in Glasgow form part of a composition illustrating La Fontaine’s fable of The Miller, His Son and the Donkey if we did not, for once, have a title? Only then are we made fully aware of the significance of the little group bunched together in the background, and in the preliminary sketch for this picture in the Barnes Foundation he has not even left room for the ostensible main characters of the story. The painting is admittedly an early one—it was exhibited at the Salon of 1849—but the approach is hardly that of an illustrator.

What is shown in the sketch which is reproduced by Mr. Maison simply as Quatre personnages, but which has also been called “Susanna and the Elders”? Or in the little picture showing a grotesque old hag and a young girl which powerfully recalls traditional representations of a procuress with a new recruit, but which the reticent Mr. Maison entitles La Confidence? Many of the pictures illustrated were not completed by the artist himself and many more have darkened irreparably through his use of faulty techniques, but even when these considerations are taken into account, his stark forms looming out from ill-defined and indeterminate backgrounds again and again assume the obsessional power of figures seen in dreams and nightmares rather than those that we can observe in the streets around us.

Daumier was one of the earliest artists of real stature whose subject matter was taken largely from the ordinary life of his times—“Il faut être de son temps” is one of his few authenticated statements—but some of his greatest and most memorable pictures are of scenes from the literatures of the past, and, almost alone, he was able to bring those literatures to life and avoid that faintly embarrassing air of a fancy dress charade which we find in similar scenes painted by the Romantics. He was a strong anti-clerical and agnostic, but was there a single artist of the nineteenth century capable of creating a more powerfully religious picture than his Nous voulons Barabbas, now in Essen? His art was based for the most part on direct observation (though he never drew from life), but in the sketch of La République, which he submitted to a competition in 1848, he produced one of the very few allegorical figures since the French Revolution which still carries conviction. His work is full of such paradoxes.

Perhaps one way of trying to approach him is through a negative. Among the pictures formerly attributed to him is a group of portraits which have recently been eliminated from his oeuvre. It is surely not a fruitless and pedantic question to ask why this incredibly acute observer of the human physiognomy should apparently never have taken to this branch of painting. Commissions were, of course, out of the question, but he was happily married, had a circle of close and admiring friends, and realized that he could only rarely hope to sell his pictures. In these circumstances we might well have expected to find portraits of his family and friends, and indeed of himself; and those that used to be attributed to him—of Michelet, Baudelaire, Rousseau, and so on—were just of this kind. But in fact his portrayals of individuals were almost entirely confined to hostile caricature, either in sculpture or lithography, with the exception of a very few drawings, mostly early. This is in many ways surprising, but a story told by Alexandre, his first biographer, throws some light on the matter.

In 1878, under the patronage of Victor Hugo, a group of his friends organized an exhibition of his works at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, which had, two years earlier, been the site of the Second Impressionist Exhibition. Ninety-four of Daumier’s paintings were shown, and this was the first opportunity (and the only one during the artist’s lifetime) for the public to see this aspect of his work. Among the visitors was the politician and one-time lawyer Gambetta, who was much struck by one picture set in the law courts, which Mr. Maison reproduces but tells us is now in an inaccessible private collection in Paris. “Really, your Daumier is astonishing,” exclaimed Gambetta. “He knows them all! There is Maître X…. and next to him Maître Y. And here is Z. You can’t mistake that air of profundity hiding his emptiness. Did he make sketches on the spot?” Daumier’s friend Geoffroy-Dechaume, who was taking Gambetta around the exhibition, explained that none of the lawyers was a portrait as Daumier did not know them and had not set foot in the law courts for more than ten years. “But I can assure you that he knows lawyers, and above all the prototype of The Lawyer, better than they know themselves. And that explains those likenesses which astonish you.”

There is a hint of Platonism behind this, and it brings out clearly how determined the artist always was to establish the type rather than the individual. Looking through the plates in Mr. Maison’s volume, we can see him struggling again and again with a limited number of recurring themes, paring away the incidentals in order to arrive at a generalized, but still wonderfully concrete, image. He does not try to convince us, as does Degas (who nevertheless owed much to him), that this is how some individual person or scene appeared at a particular moment in time. Rather, his compositions have the monumental grandeur which we associate with Cézanne—another painter who surely studied him with interest.

In one of his few general statements about the nature of Daumier’s work, Mr. Maison observes that his “activities as a social cartoonist on the one hand, and as a painter on the other, were not only separate entities in his life; they were opposed to each other. The dominant comic element, essential in the lithographic oeuvre, is totally absent in the artist’s paintings.” The last sentence can be accepted with reservations—Mr. Maison cannot surely think that comedy is essential to the Rue Transnonain?—but I am not convinced by the wider assumptions that lead up to it. Just as it is impossible to accept any more the old story that Daumier’s true genius was utterly thwarted because of his economic dependence on newspaper editors, so surely we can now see that for him, and for most other artists of his kind, the creative processes behind caricature and idealization (using the word in a broader sense than usual) were not fundamentally different.

In both genres he was trying to make out of the trivialities of existence something that would have a deeper resonance than a plain visual record in the Impressionist manner. And in both genres he was preoccupied by certain themes which occur with great frequency both in his lithographs and paintings. One of the most insistent and poignant of these is the hopeless pursuit of the beautiful by the ugly. At its most ridiculous we see this in those lithographs where ungainly peeping Toms peer eagerly into women’s bathing establishments, only to be disillusioned by what they see there, or old hags complain bitterly in the Salon that “cette année des Vénus…toujours des Vénus…comme s’il y avait des femmes faites comme ça.” But in a number of moving water colors and paintings of artists and collectors, he explores the same theme at a deeper level. His art lovers, shabby, ugly, battered, and arrogant, gaze with desperate intensity at portfolios of prints or pictures on easels as if trying to absorb into their cold, comfortless lives some of the beauty that they see in front of them. It has often been pointed out that the idea of such scenes may have come from the similar and very popular compositions by Meissonier set in the eighteenth century, and that Daumier has merely transferred them into contemporary costume. But he has done more than that. He has commented in a way that never occurred to Meissonier on the sadness that must at some time have been felt by every lover of art when contrasting his own inadequacies with the revelation of what man can achieve.

The pathos—and the comedy—inherent in our attempts to rise to higher things has never been explored with greater subtlety than in Don Quixote, and it is not surprising that of all the countless artists who have illustrated that novel, Daumier alone should have produced a series of interpretations worthy of Cervantes’s masterpiece. But he himself was the originator, or at least one of the great exponents, of a myth that has been almost as powerful: that of the sad clown. From one point of view the wonderful paintings and water colors of forlorn strolling players or heart-broken pierrots can be looked upon as the reverse of his Physionomies tragico-classiques. In these lithographs the great scenes of the classical repertoire are made to appear ludicrous because of the grotesque and feeble posturings of the actors who appear in them. In the paintings and water colors, on the other hand, the clowns and popular entertainers are weighed down by the tragedies of their private lives, and in Daumier’s imagery, as later in that of Lautrec, Picasso, Rouault, and many more, they appear as symbols of the artist himself.

The theme is thus a central one in Daumier’s art, but ever since Balzac said of him, while still a young illustrator, “Ce gaillard-là a du Michel-Ange sous la peau,” writers have felt it indispensable to compare him to innumerable artists of all kinds, and it may just be worth pointing to one picture that could have inspired him—in theme rather than in technique. Watteau’s Gilles (now at last beautifully shown in the admirably rehung Grande Galerie in the Louvre) seems to have been the first painting to explore the paradox of the sad clown. It was easily accessible in the Paris of Daumier’s day, and it would be surprising if he had not looked at it with some care, for his devotion to Fragonard is well known. It is irrelevant to speculate here on the exact significance that this great picture held for Watteau himself, because we know that among Daumier’s contemporaries the present “romantic” interpretation was already widely accepted. Indeed, one of those who most insisted on the sadness expressed in Watteau’s Gilles was Daumier’s close friend and admirer, Michelet. “After his last triumph, weighed down by success, by applause and by flowers, he returns before the public, humble, with lowered head. For one moment the poor Pierrot has forgotten his public. Surrounded by the crowd, he dreams (of how many things! his life in a flash), he dreams…Morituri te salutant. Farewell people, I am about to die.” The sentiment is true of many of Daumier’s saltimbanques, though it is doubtful whether they ever enjoyed the applause that Michelet has generously given to Gilles.

Daumier is rightly familiar as a great satirist and “realist”—the inverted commas become more necessary the more one studies him—but it becomes clearer than ever after one looks through the plates in Mr. Maison’s book that such a view is far too limited. He was also a very powerful creator of a new kind of imagery which depended neither on satire nor on realism and which remains immensely evocative. The various versions of Les Fugitifs, for instance, in which we see long columns of refugees driven inexorably forward through desolate and windswept landscapes by some hidden and terrifying force, convey as bleak a picture of helpless despair as anything in Goya, and it is uncanny to think that paintings of such wide and profound relevance to the human condition should have lain concealed and unknown in his studio. Now that Mr. Maison has done the essential ground-work so thoroughly we can all look at Daumier with fresh eyes, and it is to be hoped that not all art historians will devote all their energies to the still unsolved problems of chronology. The highly imaginative nature of his vision remains to be analyzed in detail, for with Van Gogh, Gauguin, and a few others he was surely one of the most intrepid and intensive explorers of the nineteenth century into the deeper currents of a world that is still our own.

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    McGraw-Hill, 240 pp., $9.95

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