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.” 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 …

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