Why this neglect? Is it because of his realist subject matter, his republican views or his impenetrable caricatures – you almost need a degree in French 19th century history to fathom out the comings and goings of the Bourbon restitution, the constitutional monarchy of Louis–Philippe, the Second Republic, the Second Empire of Napoleon lll, the Franco Prussian war, the Paris Commune and the establishment of the 3rd Republic. As a caricaturist Daumier satirised the bourgeoisie, the politicians and the Royalist cause. His political cartoon which depicted Louis–Philippe as ‘Gargantua’ swallowing up the wealth of the nation earned Daumier 6 month in prison.
Political satire, and in this he can be compered to Rowlandson, needs to be accompanied by lengthy written descriptions of long forgotten historical events and nothing dates more than period political and social gossip. What redeems these caricatures, however, is Daumier’s unerring drawing ability combined with his wit and courage to attack the vested interests of the day.
It may be easier to attract an audience with chocolate box Impressionist exhibitions – and they would be much more lucrative – but occasionally an exhibition comes along that concentrates the mind on qualities that make for an exceptional artist and reinserts in the mind of the viewer his position in the canon of great art.
Daumier has never been short of supporters; Baudelaire considered him to be one of the greatest of modern artists and he was greatly admired by his contemporaries – Delacroix, Courbet and Corot. Degas was a great collector, Cezanne copied his work, Pissarro praised his abilities as did Picasso and in more recent times Francis Bacon, William Kentridge and Peter Doig have all been enthusiasts.
When compared to his contemporaries Daumier’s paintings are less ambitious and the subject matter more modest: the washerwoman with her heavy load, leading her child, the occupants of a third class railway carriage, the print collector leafing through a portfolio of work.
His best work is small in scale and done on paper. Subjects often seem to exist in the isolation of their own lives, as if time has been suspended, which can bring to mind the contemplative tranquillity of a Chardin still life. In Daumier’s hands the workaday draftsman’s tools of charcoal, pen and ink, watercolour and gouache transcends the everyday. The paintings and drawings show his interest in chiaroscuro and dramatic lighting effects, the subject matter often done contra jour.
Daumier’s working process is of interest. He did not work from models, preferring to draw from memory, and would sometimes create sculptures to work from as part of the creative process. In the exhibition there is a series of small painted clay heads collectively known as the ‘Celebrities of the Juste Milieu’ that served as models for his caricatures. There is also a small bronze statue, greatly admired by Giacometti, of Daumier’s ‘Ratapoil’, a character he invented who supported the Monarchist cause.
Daumier’s drawings of Saltimbanques – a subject matter that was to be later used by Picasso in his Rose period – show his compassion for the street performers and are full of pathos. In the scenes depicted ,The Drummer announces the performers’ presence to a disinterested audience. Only a child looks on with curiosity. The theme of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sancho Panza also provided him with subject matter, as does the legal profession – an area wide open for his satirical imagination.
Daumier would often reuse and trace drawings, trying out ideas in any number of positions before arriving at the preferred composition. He produced over 6,000 works over his lifetime but, despite fame and many admirers, died in poverty.
If you are interested in seeing great art revealed in painting, drawing and sculpture I advise you to see this long overdue exhibition.
Daumier – Visions of Paris runs at the Royal Academy until 26 January