Daumier: Visions of Paris

Daumier: The Sideshow

(Royal Academy, London, until 26 January 2014)

The Royal Academy’s autumn exhibition, nestled up in the Sackler Wing, turns the focus onto Daumier, one of the liveliest and most irrepressible artists of the 19th century. He has always fallen slightly outside my comfort zone and, when I first began looking at his art some years ago, I had the impression that there was something rather hard and cutting about it. That’s probably because I was most familiar with his lithographs, laced with political satire, whereas this show presents a survey of his whole career, deliberately looking beyond the caricatures to bring to light the vein of human sympathy running through his art.

Here is 19th-century Paris in all its glory: the bubbling passion and fervour of republicanism swelling in the shadow of the restored monarchy; the hand-to-mouth lifestyle of the downtrodden poor; the lawyers and saltimbanques, both performing for an audience; the crammed occupants of railway carriages (anyone who travels on the Piccadilly Line will sympathise); and wealthy connoisseurs savouring their latest acquisitions. In this world, the grandeur of the Greek myths is undermined, transformed into lowbrow comedy, while the figure of a working man clinging to a rope becomes a subject worthy of a monumental canvas.

The show follows a chronological progression, although exhibits are grouped thematically. It begins with works inspired by the reign of King Louis-Philippe, whom Daumier most famously interpreted as Gargantua, in a scathing lithograph that earned him six months in prison. With the fall of Louis-Philippe and the advent of the Second Republic in 1848, Daumier was inspired to create scenes of crowds and demagogues: a theme which came to its fullest expression in his enormous Ecce Homo (Museum Folkwang, Essen), with its powerfully simple conception of form. So far he had earned a living from his political caricatures, but from 1852 this was no longer possible as the Second Empire’s censorship (under Louis-Napoleon) forced Daumier to find other sources of income.

He turned his eye to social commentary, both through lithographs, which quietly ridiculed the fads and pomposity of the fashionable classes, and in paintings and watercolours, exploring the various strata of French society. Throughout his life he refused to be drawn into the usual bread-and-butter work of portraits and history painting, sticking instead to his principles as a quiet cataloguer of everyday life in this fervent, turbulent period – with one eye always on the darkening clouds of European conflict that were gathering on the horizon. And perhaps it was because Daumier so steadfastly refused to become part of the establishment (he refused the Légion d’honneur in 1870) that his fellow artists rallied around him so much and loved him so deeply. He was a close friend of Corot, whose portrait of him is included in the exhibition, and  he later inspired Degas, Van Gogh and Picasso among others.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to get a broader insight into Daumier’s work and totted up a little list of highlights as I went round. One was The Connoisseur (circa 1860) from the Metropolitan Museum, in which an elderly man sits contentedly in the silvery light of his study, contemplating the curves of a statuette of the Venus de Milo. It’s a daydream captured in watercolour: a gentle nod to the pleasures of surrounding oneself with beautiful things. I also enjoyed The Defence (circa 1865), lent by the Courtauld, which was one of only a few lawyer-sketches in the exhibition. Daumier’s drawings capture the whole range of advocates’ behaviour in the law-courts: briefing their clients, weighing up their rivals, bantering with their colleagues and consumed by the frenzy of courtroom argument. The Defence falls into the latter category and it shows how Daumier’s style – which can be so controlled – loosens to accommodate the lawyer’s frantic gesticulation, suggested with trembling lines which threaten to break their bounds and fizz all over the page. (I wish there had been more lawyer-sketches in the show, but you can’t have everything.)

Daumier: The Defence

Honoré Daumier, The Defence, c. 1865, pen and ink and watercolour, Courtauld Gallery, London

A similar rippling freedom appears in some of Daumier’s studies of clowns and saltimbanques, especially in The Clown (Paillasse) (1865-6) from the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. Here the skittering pencil almost vanishes into the wash and it reminded me of Fragonard’s Ariosto sketches which have the same fluid, watery feel to them (I’ve no idea whether Daumier was consciously trying to emulate them). Yet his great skill is that he can switch between this febrile effervescence and a much more measured, poignant treatment of the same subject. The clown’s fluid looseness is the face he wears for the public. We have a glimpse of his private face in the moving watercolour The Clown Resting (Hercules and Pierrot in the Wings) (circa 1865-70) from the Steinhardt collection in New York. Here the manic energy is gone: the clown sags over his knees, exhausted or melancholic, while the strongman leans nonchalantly against a post, abandoning his posturing. It’s a beautifully sensitive watercolour, all the more so because the clown’s head is left unfinished: without his public persona, he almost fades into nothingness.

Daumier had little time for the classical myths and legends that had so captivated his Neoclassical forbears and he executed a series of lithographs reworking Greek legends. Here the beauties and heroes of Neoclassicism are recast as gauche men and women of the people: Daumier’s Pygmalion, for example, is a scrawny Jack-the-lad who grins up at his animated statue as if he’s just won the lottery. Galatea, with a cheeky grin, is less interested in her creator than in his box of snuff – these ancients have thoroughly modern vices. Rather than being carried off by Paris, Daumier’s Helen carries him, as he lounges back smoking, a boastful, skinny ne’er-do-well. 

Daumier’s heart lay with a different set of stories: those of Don Quixote. I already knew the rather eerie painting of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (circa 1870) from the Courtauld, which creates such a striking picture of the gaunt knight and his rotund servant; but it was great to see it along other pictures of the same subject. I hadn’t realised before exactly why Don Quixote was such a draw for artists of this period: apparently Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were perceived as the two complementary halves of the artistic temperament: on one side, the fanciful dreamer; on the other, the down-to-earth pragmatist.

Look through his works, and you will see parading before your eyes all that a great city contains of living monstrosities, in all their fantastic and thrilling reality.

Baudelaire on Daumier

It’s always a bit of a crush in the Sackler Galleries and I suffered the usual consequences of being short and pressed for time, forced to bob about behind people’s shoulders in an attempt to see some of the smaller works. In a couple of cases I felt the lighting could have been a bit better – especially in the case of the double-sided drawing which was set into a thick false wall and overshadowed on both sides by the recesses of its mount. But, that aside, I thought the layout was clear and helpful; and of course it’s always great to see things in the flesh that you’ve only ever seen in books. Occasionally the physical impact is remarkable – very much the case with the Ecce Homo and with the imposing pair of Man on a Rope pictures. This is the first Daumier show in the UK for fifty years and, as such, it absolutely has to be seen (in case it’s the last for the next fifty).

A quick word on the catalogue: personally I don’t feel it’s quite as successful as the exhibition itself. It’s a good visual record of the show with high-quality full-page reproductions of the exhibits, but there are no catalogue notes, not even truncated paragraphs tucked away at the back. There are four brief essays at the beginning which focus on various aspects of Daumier’s work, but (call me old-fashioned) I hanker after the good old days when £25 got you good images of the exhibits, as well as discussions of each item’s context, significance and inspiration – with details of provenance and bibliography, and even some comparative images if you were lucky. As it stands, the catalogue isn’t really something that works as a substitute for those who can’t make it to see the show – although it serves very well as an aide-memoire for those who can. I might actually pop back one day and take notes from the wall-labels so I can pencil them in beside the illustrations for future reference.

Buy the catalogue

2 thoughts on “Daumier: Visions of Paris

  1. Michael Savage says:

    Absolutely agree about the disgraceful catalogue. I don't know Daumier well either, and found the show a revelation. I still don't much care for some of his most famous and most repeated images, which I find a bit cloying. And I thought the Ecce Homo a bombastic failure. But the Man on a Rope was amazing. Daumier is so famous for his raw images, the illustrations and propaganda, that I was quite startled by his purely painterly success in pictures like the wonderful versions of Man on a Rope.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh, I'm glad to hear you agree about the catalogue. So at least I'm not the only one who likes the old-style catalogue entries! As for the rest… well, I think it's our privilege as friends to be able to disagree about Ecce Homo – I wouldn't say it was wonderful, but I was certainly very impressed by its scale and impact (maybe I am just swayed by bombast?!). 😉 But yes, weren't the Man on a Rope images remarkable? There was so much in the exhibition that I just hadn't really processed before – if you find a really good book on Daumier, please let me know, because I really want to learn to appreciate him more. Preferably in English – I could probably cope with the French catalogue, but it would be less purely enjoyable!!!

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