“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?
Daumier would have gazed into the lines he had drawn—some of them lively in the extreme, some of them (to my eye at least) utterly meaningless. Then he would take a pen and pick out what he could use, going over the important lines in ink, and he was always aware of how his inventions could be transferred both as they were and in reverse. Several drawings survive on tracing paper, and there is even a tracing on glass (an unlikely survival). Although such transitional phases are illustrated in the catalog, none was deemed worthy of inclusion in the show, but I think the tracings would have been worth looking at. They seem to record a set of decisions, what is of the essence in an image and what not. They also remind us of this artist’s reversible imagination, to which over four thousand lithographs bear witness. A subject to which Daumier frequently returned, his image of a great procession of emigrants or fugitives, he executed perhaps first on paper, then as a relief in clay, and also in various versions in oil. In these versions the crowd is sometimes moving to the left across the page, sometimes to the right. He seems to have been unable to make up his mind about which way was better.
When Daumier executed a drawing in order to sell it, he brought it to completion by means of colored washes drawn from a restricted palette: ochres, browns, blues, and reds are those listed by Wechsler. These are used with great care and suggestiveness. In the celebrated study of a collector (cat. no. 252, one of Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer’s great legacies to the Metropolitan Museum), in which the connoisseur relaxes in his chair, admiring a reduction of the Venus de Milo, the artist wants us to know, without being distracted by the knowledge, what kinds of drawings and paintings are on the wall behind. Each one is carefully distinguished in tone (although this is not so noticeable in the catalog reproduction) in order to suggest this background information, and the washes of course also indicate the distribution of light around the room.
Such finished drawings seem to have been made at times when Daumier was out of work as a lithographic caricaturist, and the method of procedure contrasts with that of the lithographer in every way. A finished drawing such as the Met’s Connoisseur was preceded by several studies, whereas strikingly few studies for the lithographs have survived, leading one to believe that strikingly few were made. 3 One supposes that he executed a lithograph in a limited period and that if he botched it in some way he had to clean off the stone and start again. The stones were delivered to him from the newspaper office, and he would place them on a little stand on his desk, so that he was drawing on a tilted, not a level, surface. Two such stones were exhibited in the Paris show, with Daumier’s drawings still on them. The stone would be returned to the office, and proofs pulled. One of these would be sent to Daumier, who would check the cropping of the image and the caption. What looks like a typeset title and caption is in fact carefully drawn (in the office) onto the stone.
Most of the forms of artists’ printmaking have the capacity to bring a work of art in cheap multiples before the public, although this capacity is not always valued or fully exploited. Some, such as the drypoint etching, have a limited reproduction life anyway, because of the vulnerability of the plate, and etching itself has tended to attract the connoisseur and the devotee of the rare. Lithography from the first was seen as a popular mode of reproduction. In The Charivari Parade, a lithograph published in 18394 (see illustration on page 13), the editor and staff of Charivari are depicted as popular entertainers, saltimbanques, hawking their wares at a fair. This was the way they saw themselves in relation to the public—playing to the crowd, offering their wares on the cheap.
In Germany during World War I, the publisher and dealer Paul Cassirer, through whose hands many Daumier works seem to have passed, founded a paper called Der Bildermann. It consisted not of caricatures but of lithographs largely by the Expressionists. The masthead of the paper, drawn by Max Slevogt, shows a Daumier-like fairground scene in which a sandwich-board man stands covered with lithographs, while a barker calls out to the crowd. The subtitle of this magazine, Steinzeichnungen fürs Deutsche Volk (“Stone-drawings for the German People”), along with the price of 30 pfennig an issue, emphasized the populist nature of the enterprise.
But it was a somewhat cerebral populism. The artists involved were reviving lithography in the spirit of a bygone age (an age that coincided very roughly with Daumier’s working life) long after the great magazines of caricature had switched to other modern methods of reproduction, which they used—it ought to be said—frequently to brilliant effect. The fact that the great popular caricaturists of Germany and France were working in other media seems to have freed up the lithograph, and put it at the disposal of artists who also enjoyed reviving the woodcut (in as crude and savage a form as they pleased).
At the same time as the lithograph was being rescued for the service of art, favorite Daumier themes were taken up and given new life. The saltimbanques had been taken over by Picasso, who had been introduced to Daumier’s work by Alfred Jarry. In Germany, where fairground scenes were a staple of the artist’s trade, Max Beckmann, in a series of etchings, made explicit the idea of the artist as performer, depicting himself as a circus barker, summoning the customers with a bell. And what philosophy could have been more congenial to the artists of the Weimar era than Daumier’s “Il faut être de son temps“? It was necessary to be of one’s time, and, it might be added, for the people. Daumier’s study of two heads (cat. no. 52) is an image of the working man as a creature of suffering, dignity, and above all strength—moral strength, political strength. This is the worker (in this case wearing the paper cap of the pressman) as he will appear in later decades, in other countries—on Russian posters, in the sculptures of Constantin Meunier, in the work of Käthe Kollwitz. I note that this drawing, now in Rotterdam, came from Paul Cassirer’s gallery in Berlin. If we accept Pantazzi’s dating, what we have here is the political rhetoric of the French 1830s speaking directly to German taste of the early twentieth century.
Daumier had become a classic, and it would not have been odd to find him spoken of in the same breath as Goya. When the first generation of French collectors of his work began to die off in France and their collections were dispersed, many German collectors stepped in, as the catalog makes clear, but this history of the dissemination of the work is not reflected in the loans to the current exhibition. (The vast majority of the loans came from France and the United States.) There are good reasons for this. For a start, a number of Daumier’s works were destroyed in the bombing of Germany during the Second World War, while others made their way to the vaults of the Hermitage afterward. Then there is the fate of art collectors and their collections during the Nazi period. A part of the reason for the wealth of Daumier’s work in American collections is that the taste for Daumier was promulgated by German exiles. But there were Daumiers crossing the Atlantic even during the artist’s lifetime, including the omnibus and the railway carriage scenes commissioned on behalf of William T. Walters, the railway magnate, in 1864, surely one of the most interesting American artistic commissions of the nineteenth century.
That Daumier had made models, portrait busts, from which he later drew caricatures for lithographs was known to contemporary writers. Henry James mentions the fact, although he had clearly not seen the heads, most of which now belong to the Musée d’Orsay. They are made of unbaked clay, which Daumier soon after modeling them painted with oil paint. The case of Daumier and his sculptures is eerily like that of Degas. The way they were made (at least in the case of the heads) implied that they were not intended to be permanent, and many of them must have fallen to pieces. Others had to be restored and patched up before—around a century after their original execution—they began to be cast in bronze. Ottawa and Washington have shown the bronze versions, the fragile originals being unable to travel, and it has to be said that the Paris exhibition was at a great advantage in showing the originals, and in being able to show them well, so that they could be seen from all sides.
Although the bronze versions of the heads have been useful in making Daumier better known as a sculptor, they have done so at a certain cost: they have misrepresented the artist. If Daumier had been setting out to create something permanent, he could easily have done so by hollowing out the clay so that it could be fired without exploding. And if he had wanted a conventional kind of polychromy, he could have glazed the fired clay, thereby arriving at something resembling the finish of an English Toby jug. But this was an option not taken, just as sculpture itself, in the professional sense, remained for Daumier a road not taken.
One may rail against such perverseness in one who, with every sculpture he did make, showed such a free, innovative spirit. “Ce Daumier, quel sculpteur!” said Rodin, holding a bronze of Ratapoil, a character invented by Daumier to evoke, as Henry James put it, “the ragged political bully.” But the perverseness is part of the history. In 1832, Charles Philipon, then editor of La Caricature, commissioned Daumier to model clay caricatures of the “celebrities of the juste milieu.” Quite how Daumier set about modeling the leading politicians of the day is unclear. An early source says he went to the sessions of the Chambre des pairs with a piece of clay in hand and modeled them from the life. Edouard Papet, in the current catalog, thinks this unlikely, and reminds us that Daumier was well known for his extraordinary memory, and for never drawing from nature.
It seems probable that Daumier watched his victims in action, then went home and modeled them, leaving the heads to dry until the surface would take a layer of oil paint. Daumier had many sculptor friends, and we may be fairly sure that he would not have used this method over a period of a few years if he had intended the models to last. Perversely enough, he made the models in order to draw lithographic caricatures from them—Daumier, the artist who never drew from nature, drew on this occasion from his own models. The lithographs make a curious group, but they are by no means as extraordinary as the models themselves: for once, Daumier’s method has forced constraint upon his graphic style.
Daumier always responded to sculpture in a lively way. Often when a sculpture appears in his drawings, it seems to be a living thing. For instance, in the Met’s drawing of The Connoisseur, mentioned above, the moment of quiet communication between the armless statuette of Venus and the elderly gentleman is subverted by what I take to be a comic expression of disapproval on the bust behind the collector’s head. Along with this natural affinity for the art, however, there came the knowledge of the difficulties faced by anyone setting out to be a sculptor. Apart from the caricature heads, the clay relief of refugees (which survives imperfectly in plaster casts), and the clay figure of Ratapoil,5 there is evidence that there was once a wax relief of a Bacchanal scene. It is a small oeuvre, of the highest significance.
If the sculptures dominated the earlier part of the show in Paris, it was Daumier’s paintings of Don Quixote that formed the climax both in Paris and Ottawa. Daumier’s paintings are a wonder and a mystery. How extraordinary it is to see side by side the Ottawa and Boston versions of The Man on a Rope (see illustration on page 11) and to learn that until 1913 both of these unfinished canvases—unfinished, reclaimed, heavily scraped surfaces bearing the same image sometimes known as “The Escape”—belonged to the same collector, who thought well enough of them to have them hung in Renaissance-style frames. They could so easily have been chucked out when the studio was cleared, but the fact that one collector admired them so much reminds us that Daumier, however little known as an artist among the wider public, always enjoyed the very highest esteem of a few. It was the fate of some of his unfinished canvases, as of his slighter sketches, to be posthumously “improved,” overpainted or drawn over. But anyone setting out to overpaint either of these strange works would have to have had some notion of what the painter was planning to do next and this is something impossible to fathom. A man dangles on a rope, but what sort of a man in what sort of circumstances? We are at a loss to say. Henry James says of Daumier’s art that
it puts method, and power, and the strange, real, mingled air of things into Daumier’s black sketchiness, so full of the technical gras, the “fat” which French critics commend and which we have no word to express. It puts power above all, and the effect which he best achieves, that of a certain simplification of the attitude or the gesture to an almost symbolic immensity. His persons represent only one thing, but they insist tremendously on that, and their expression of it abides with us, unaccompanied with timid detail.
February 24, 2000
Daumier, Caricaturist by Henry James (Miniature Books, Rodale Press, 1954). ↩
See Judith Wechsler’s Daumier, p. 114. The author cited is Théodore de Banville, Mes Souvenirs (1882), pp. 174-175. ↩
But see Bruce Laughton, “Daumier’s Drawings for Lithographs,” Master Drawings, Vol. 22, 1, 1984, pp. 55-63. Laughton believes that there must have been many studies for the lithographs, which have simply been destroyed. He also believes that Daumier made preliminary lines on the stone in a dry chalk or other medium, and that these disappeared when the stone was cleaned before printing. This is plausible but unprovable. As for the destruction of the preliminary drawings, it is striking that, out of more than eight hundred surviving watercolors and drawings in K.E. Maison’s catalog, only half a dozen relate to lithographs. ↩
Illustrated on page 14 of Honoré Daumier by Bruce Laughton (Yale University Press, 1996). ↩
All versions of the Ratapoil figure derive from a plaster cast now in Buffalo, which could not be lent for the exhibition. ↩