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Free Spirit

Daumier: Le Cabinet des dessins

by Judith Wechsler
Paris: Flammarion, 126 pp., FF195 (paper)

Social and political caricature, as the present century has practised it, is only journalism made doubly vivid,” wrote Henry James in 1890, and he called journalism “the criticism of the moment at the moment” and caricature “that criticism at once simplified and intensified by a plastic form.”1 He thought of caricature as an art in which irony, skepticism, and pessimism “flower most aggressively,” and, rather surprisingly, for these thoughts introduce a friendly if cautious eulogy of Daumier, he states that “it is evidently of the essence of caricature to be reactionary.” The Daumier that James described he had known but slightly from his childhood, when the artist “still drove his coarse, formidable pencil.” His last, failing strokes, James tells us, “used to impress me with their abnormal blackness as well as their grotesque, magnifying movement, and there was something in them that rather scared a very immature admirer.”

This scariness, I think, is very recognizable: Who cannot recall the horror of first acquaintance with those judges and lawyers in their unfamiliar robes? The horror too of those jowly faces which seemed to emerge from a hectically jumbled relief map? Dark worlds, skeletal horses, frightened, scandalized, remorseless, ugly faces—where did they come from? What horrid world did they refer to?

If we can sympathize with the young James as he recoils from Daumier’s line, what is less easy to admire is the tentativeness with which the mature critic tiptoes around the question of the artist’s status: Daumier was “perhaps” a great artist, but Gavarni was wittier; Daumier was “a draughtsman by race,” but not perhaps as brilliant and experimental as his successors Charles Keene and Caran d’Ache. Daumier “has no wide horizon; the absolute bourgeois hems him in, and he is a bourgeois himself without poetic ironies, to whom a big cracked mirror has been given.” Daumier “leaves out so much of life”—and James specifies what it is that Daumier leaves out: “youth and beauty and the charm of woman and the loveliness of childhood and the manners of those social groups of whom it may almost be said that they have manners.” James cites John Grand-Carteret’s defense of Daumier’s apparent inability to depict such pleasing subjects:

Assuredly, humanity, as this great painter saw it, could not be beautiful; one asks one’s self what a maiden in her teens, a pretty face, would have done in the midst of these good, plain folk, stunted and elderly, with faces like wrinkled apples. A simple accessory most of the time, woman is for him merely a termagant or a bluestocking who has turned the corner.

Actually, as visitors to the current Daumier show, which comes to Washington after success in Ottawa and Paris, will be aware, the beauty of young women was by no means beyond Daumier’s interest or range. Beautiful and elegant women are to be observed in various railway scenes and at the theater, and there are charming studies of nursing mothers. These take their place alongside the ferocious Louvre drawing (not in Washington) called La Soupe, in which a ravenous couple lean over their plates, wolfing down the steaming soup on which survival depends, while the baby sucks at the breast of the monumental, disheveled mother. And there is a charcoal sketch from Toronto in which the feeding mother sits slumped in the chair, exhausted from her labors. Woman is far from a “simple accessory” in Daumier, as the numerous studies of a washerwoman and her child attest: life for these two is a struggle—a struggle against a high wind, a struggle to get up the steps, a struggle with a load of washing. James’s “loveliness of childhood,” if it is lacking, is lacking only because Daumier knew rather more about the childhood of the poor than James might have been prepared to countenance.

But then one must be fair to James, who seems to have known Daumier only through his lithographs and who simply may not have had a chance to see any of the works mentioned in the previous paragraph. As Henri Loyrette explains in his introductory essay to the present catalog, Daumier the artist was invented in 1878, a few months before his death, when a group of enthusiasts organized an exhibition of his work in all media. The exhibition was not a success. It took time for the reputation of Daumier’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures to establish itself to such an extent that it defined the artist in the public mind. In 1888, an exhibition of French caricaturists was held at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. James had missed this, but he knew that Daumier’s work had made a strong impression there. His essay is interesting as a snapshot not only of a moment in the history of the taste for Daumier, but also of the general dissemination of his work. What James knew of Daumier he knew largely from the lithographs.

You might think that this should not make too much difference. After all, a lithograph is nothing more nor less than an extremely faithful print taken directly from a drawing made by the artist himself on a stone. Even when produced on cheap magazine paper, with print showing through from the other side of the sheet, a lithograph will retain this utter fidelity. It reverses the image drawn by the artist, but, since the artist knows that this reversal is going to take place, the print represents the artist’s intention in a way that the drawing on the stone does not. There is no “original” lurking behind the lithographs that Daumier published in Le Charivari and other magazines of the period. The prints themselves that James bought in a Left Bank bookshop in 1888 were (although he calls them “a big parcel of …cheap reproductions”) all originals. “I did not,” he tells us,

take home all the portfolios from the shop on the quay, but I took home what I could, and I went again to turn over the remaining piles of superannuated paper. I liked looking at them on the spot; I seemed still surrounded by the artist’s vanished Paris and his extinct Parisians. Indeed no quarter of the delightful city probably shows, on the whole, fewer changes from the aspect it wore during the period of Louis Philippe, the time when it will ever appear to many of its friends to have been most delightful. The long line of the quay is unaltered, and the rare charm of the river. People came and went in the shop (it is a wonder how many, in the course of an hour, may lift the latch of an establishment that pretends to no great business). What was all this small, sociable, contentious life but the great Daumier’s subject- matter? He was the painter of the Parisian bourgeois, and the voice of the bourgeois was in the air.

James had put in his time studying Daumier’s lithographs, and it was natural for him to think that he had come to know the artist well. But although it is true that all of Daumier’s work in whatever medium (with very few exceptions) is clearly the work of the same artist with the same “handwriting,” the lithographs differ from the drawings in important ways.

Despite the fact that a lithograph is an utterly faithful print taken directly from a drawing on stone, Daumier’s lithographs are immediately distinguishable from his drawings—not only because they tend to come with a ruled frame, title, and text, but more importantly because they are the product of a self-discipline which did not necessarily come naturally to the artist. The vast majority are drawn using lithographic crayon alone (the others use pen and ink). Every stroke of the crayon is made to count, and there is no tolerance of mistakes or slight changes of mind. Michael Pantazzi, who showed me around the exhibition in Ottawa, pointed out that in all the lithographs on display there was only one example of a pentimento, an actual change of mind by the artist (it is in cat. no. 99, where the right leg of the striding boy has been repositioned). Daumier had a technique for removing areas of black from the stone (presumably with acid) in order to create white effects, as in his snow scenes. But that was his only way of working the plate other than by strokes of the crayon.

The drawings present a complete contrast to such a restricted method of working. Here he used, in the most carefully finished examples, pencil, charcoal, black chalk, pen and ink, watercolor washes, and gouache (that is to say both transparent and opaque areas of color), in any number of combinations. Judith Wechsler, in her account of Daumier’s technique, distinguishes four different kinds of lead pencil, black chalk, Conté crayon, and lithographic crayon, and she gives us this valuable contemporary account of the artist at work:

He always used to draw with the remains of the same ancient crayons, eventually deciding to melt them down when he could not do otherwise but more often utilizing, resuscitating against their will, stubs of crayons which could not even be sharpened, and with which it was necessary then to invent, to find an angle which lent itself to the feverish caprice [whim] of his agile hand, a thousand times more varied and intelligent than the stupid, perfect point obtained by means of a knife, which breaks or crumbles in the fire of composition. I would happily say that it was to his custom of using these scraps, these leftovers, these stubs of crayon, which begged for mercy and did not receive it, that Daumier owed something of the breadth and strength of his drawings, in which the thick, bold line is of the same stuff as the shadows and hatchings, if I did not know that one cannot explain such results from such small causes.2

The drawings are built up in layers, which can obliterate changes of mind or traces of the creative process. An extraordinary example of this is the theater scene (cat. no. 263) in which the figure on the right, holding opera glasses, is depicted in the nude. Obviously the drawing is unfinished. The gentleman’s buttocks would eventually have disappeared under a coat. It is interesting to see that at this early stage of the operation Daumier has already, according to the catalog, used charcoal, stumping, pen, brown ink, and gray and beige wash.

Some time after the artist’s death, the critic and editor Roger Marx went to visit Daumier’s widow, from whom he bought a washtub full of drawings. From the contents of this washtub and from other surviving sketches by Daumier, some of them of a kind too humble to have been considered for inclusion in the exhibition, one can tell a great deal about his preferred working method. Daumier was not, at least in his maturity, an objective artist, and his work is not based on any classical sense of solid form. The first steps toward representation, the first lines he draws in pencil or charcoal on the paper, are tentative and unpredictable squiggles, as if the hand itself were searching for inspiration. Accident must have had an important part in it, because what Daumier was searching for was the line, the set of lines, which would express his purpose, but his purpose was quite beyond the repertoire of the visual arts hitherto. What line, what set of lines, Daumier would ask himself, would express a man’s face singing, and not just singing but busting a lung, a man singing very badly indeed? What line will convey effort—the effort of the fairground barker to attract the attention of the crowd? What would look like pleading or stern accusation?

  1. 1

    Daumier, Caricaturist by Henry James (Miniature Books, Rodale Press, 1954).

  2. 2

    See Judith Wechsler’s Daumier, p. 114. The author cited is Théodore de Banville, Mes Souvenirs (1882), pp. 174-175.

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