I became gradually more impressed by Daumier as both a draughtsman and a painter as I made my way through this retrospective exhibition at the RA. I will leave aside the satirical lithographs, as they are well-known – indeed their fame, one starts to realise, has rather distorted Daumier’s reputation. They do, however, provide a useful chronological anchor, their topical subjects allowing an easy (and entertaining) narrative handle on French history as it unfolded during the artist’s lifetime.
At first Daumier’s oil paintings appear heavy-handed and ill-defined – especially in comparison to the precise and dynamic line of his pen or etching needle. The large opening canvas of the ‘The Miller, his Son and the Ass’ (1849) is a case in point, like a second-rate copy of an old master. However, we quickly reach the early prints for La Caricature (1830-32) and its successor Le Charivari, which would become his lifelong employment. Both were edited by Charles Philipon, who makes his appearance in a lively lithograph showing the hawking of these journals, and also in the form of a small clay portrait bust, looking not unlike Mr. Punch (left, 1833).
In the next space, however, the large oil painting ‘Ecce Homo’ (right, c.1849-52) provides the centrepiece, and strikes a wholly different note. The expressive, sketchy brushstrokes create an immediacy that combines with the dramatic sepia-toned contre-jour effect to throw us into the seething crowd who strain their eyes to see the hazy silhouetted figure of Christ against a halo of sunlight. Daumier, a Republican at a time when the new Republic threatened to become the Second Empire, might have used this subject for its allegorical power to comment on the contemporary situation. But it is in fact a timeless danger that is illustrated so powerfully, one that persists from the days of Jesus to the present; that of the political orator’s ability to manipulate the masses – with callous recourse to an innocent scapegoat. Jesus here symbolises the Republic, betrayed by its people.
From the same political concerns the character Ratapoil (literally ‘skinned rat’) was developed, initially in the pages of Le Charivari, and then in sculptural form (left, c.1851). He epitomised “the shady agent, the indefatigable representative of Napoleonic propaganda” – and by Daumier’s death in 1875 his name was in the dictionary, defined as ‘a supporter of militarism, and particularly of Napoleonic Imperialism.’ Ratapoil’s exaggerated pose and sharp features place him somewhere between a self-confident dandy and a fiendishly plotting deviant; it is a fiercely expressive statement of the artist’s views on the corrupt political machinations in France.
From here, the ‘Visions of Paris’ of the show’s title come to the fore. ‘The Laundress’ (right, c.1863) was a regular sight for Daumier, who was living on the Quai d’Anjou on the Ile Saint-Louis. He painted numerous versions of this duo as they traipsed back from the ‘bateaux lavoirs’ on the Seine – evidently late in the day as the Quai d’Anjou is in shadow while the opposite bank is bathed in light by the setting sun. Despite its diminutive size, this image was likened by his peers to Millet’s ‘The Gleaners’ for the figures’ quiet and stoical monumentality. Beyond are two large canvases entitled ‘Man on Rope’ that, in a manifestly unfinished state, are intriguing in their ambiguity.
The paint surface is like that of a crumbling fresco on the walls of a long-neglected Italian Renaissance church. The limbs, deftly sketched in ochre, have the muscular contrapposto of a Michelangelo cartoon. Yet the figure’s purpose and the focus of his gaze remain a mystery; he hangs suspended precariously in a moment of frozen time. That he is a whitewasher working on the facade of a building is the most plausible interpretation (though less romantic than the idea of an eager Romeo or an escaping convict) – but recent critics have proclaimed this irrelevant; in its enigmatic state, the painting is understood as an allegory of suspense, instability and transience, and viewed in this way it is radically modern in its existential expressiveness.
Certain characters and types particularly appealed to Daumier as an artist – among them lawyers, amateur print collectors, and street performers. Here we can see his multiple approaches and reworkings of these themes – in pencil, pen, watercolour and oil, and in scenes of dynamic performance as well as silent contemplation. A barrister, one arm clutched by the pathetic figure he is representing, points with a dramatic gesture
and wild-eyed intensity to the picture of Christ presiding over justice on the wall of the courtroom (‘The Defence’, left, c.1865). Meanwhile, a bourgeois gentleman in shabby greatcoat and top hat rifles through a portfolio of prints, absorbed in his perusal (‘L’Amateur d’Estampes’, above, c.1860). The street performers are the most poignant; the hang alternates images of pierrots and strongmen playing to the crowds with backstage views where we intrude on their exhaustion and despair, costumes hanging from hunched shoulders, ridiculous and degrading. The figure of the lone Pierrot, pitiful in his awkwardness, was famously painted by Watteau in ‘Gilles’ (1719) which Daumier would have seen in the Louvre. In ‘Street Scene with a Mountebank Playing a Drum’ (right, c.1865), however, the costumed figure is surrounded by the bustle of the Parisian street, rather than stranded within the idyllic fantasy world of the fete galante, and he is not a fictional character but a tired and aging man earning his living; yet he still appears isolated and ill at ease, a figure of fun with a sad expression of stoic endurance. Sickert would be an important beneficiary of this subject matter, translated to the music halls of Edwardian London, and the beaches of the ‘Brighton Pierrots’ (1915).
This same capacity for endurance is seen the travellers in the ‘Third Class Carriage’ (above, c.1860-3), who tolerate their uncomfortable journey with dogged patience, absorbed in their individual thoughts or tasks. The amber glow that suffuses the carriage might have made this a C19th social narrative full of pathos and high-minded moralism. Instead, like ‘Man on Rope’, the figures are simply seen suspended mid-journey, their lives and cares unknown; prefiguring the symbolism of Denis or Ranson, and the early studies of peasants and townsfolk by Van Gogh (who was an ardent admirer), they are presented as solid, human, in honest and unjudgemental terms.
‘Lunch in the Country’ (c.1867-8) depicts a more animated assembly. The deft outlines and spontaneous, lively brushstrokes bely Daumier’s skill as a graphic artist as well as his gift for capturing character and atmosphere.
From his fascination with the people and politics of Paris, from the immediacy of the everyday, Daumier started to retreat towards the end of his life into the realm of the imagination, and this is reflected in the significant number of studies and paintings he produced of the the figure of Don Quixote. ‘Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’ (right, c.1866-8) employs the contre-jour technique that Daumier established to such effect in his earlier oils such as the series of laundresses, and the figures still retain all the substance of the man and his ass of 1849.
In the Courtauld’s version of ‘Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’ (left, c.1870), however, the subject has come to symbolise the tension between the real and the imaginary – literally, as the faceless figures are gradually absorbed into the all-encompassing earthy tones of the surreal desert landscape. This passage from reality to imagination is illustrated even more cogently in ‘Don Quixote Reading’ (below right, c.1865-7) in which the character’s legs are well-lit and defined, as if grounded in the physical world, while his torso and head are indistinct and vague, disappearing into a dreamland conjured by the open book on his knee.
It goes without saying that Daumier was a man of his time; that is evident from the sharp and witty political ripostes he produced over many decades for Le Charivari. But having seen the scope of his non-journalistic paintings and drawings I would go further and say that he was an artist well ahead of his time – proven by the fact that these works were not exhibited until just before his death in 1879 (by the far-sighted dealer Durand-Ruel, an early supporter of Impressionism) and only came to be appreciated in hindsight,through eyes accustomed to modernism. ‘Two Sculptors’ (below) is no longer viewed as an ‘unfinished’ sketch lacking narrative significance, but as a forerunner of modernism – described by Baudelaire as ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’, that, once combined with ‘the eternal and the immovable’, produces great art.