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 …

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