Sunday, 24 February 2013


“Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.” - Helen Keller

Honoré Victorin Daumier (26 Feb 1808 - 10 Feb 1879) was a French artist, painter, draughtsman and sculptor who rose to prominence as the caricaturist of 19th century French politics and society. His determined focus on the foibles of 19th century France make him the one artist who comes closest to summing up this turbulent period of French history. Forced to quit school at the age of 12, Honore Daumier developed a life-long sympathy for the poor. Unfortunately, he sympathised so much with them that he died in debt and was buried in a paupers grave.

Honoré Daumier used his skills as a lithographer to ridicule French government and society. In his youth, he even ended up in gaol for caricaturing the French King. An extremely productive artist, he made almost 4,000 prints before going blind. He was also a talented painter and sculptor, but these works mainly became known after his death.

Daumier lived in an age of dramatic political, economic, and social upheaval. During his lifetime, there were five major changes in government as his countrymen grappled with the aftermath of the 1789 French Revolution. The Industrial Revolution was also taking place during this time, which served as a blow to the old social order, creating an entirely new class of impoverished industrial workers in the process. Against this backdrop, Honoré Daumier used his art as biting social commentary.

Honoré Daumier was born in 1808 in Marseilles, France. In 1816, his father moved the family to Paris to try his hand at poetry. His father did not achieve much economic success so at the age of 12, Daumier was forced to quit school and work at a bailiff's office. Witnessing the problems of those rifling in and out of jail imparted him with a life-long sympathy for the poor. At the age of 16, Daumier began receiving training in the art of lithography with Alexandre Lenoir and studying at the Academie Suisse.

Daumier used his print-making skills in several satirical publications of the era. During this period, this was a powerful social platform from which to influence the masses. In 1832, he published an offensive cartoon against the government and received a suspended sentence. He then published another anti-governmental cartoon that was just as vicious and was jailed for six months. Afterwards, he only caricatured the middle-class and particularly liked criticising lawyers and the justice system. In 1846, Daumier’s son was born and he married the mother of the child, a 24-year -old seamstress shortly afterwards. Sadly, his son died two years later.

In his old age Daumier increasingly worked on his sculptures and paintings. His works were accepted to exhibit at the Salon four times but received little attention, although modern critics consider them to be ahead of their time. Daumier was particularly interested in the theme of Don Quixote and painted one iconic image of him riding off into the sunset. In 1878, a few months before his death, his friends rounded up a number of his paintings to be shown at Durand-Ruel’s gallery. However, these works did not meet with much critical reception until after his death.

Daumier worked in a number of styles, depending on the medium. He was equally adept at caricature, naturalistic drawing, painting and sculpting. He is best known for his caricature works and he used the classic caricature techniques of physical absurdity to lay bare the cruelty, unfairness and pretension of 19th century French society and politics.

The medium of lithography allows for quick, sketchy, images, which create a sense of movement - and also a sense of a candid moment. Critics described him as a master at recording the unrehearsed moments of daily life. Daumier came to painting (and naturalism) fairly late in life and he painted religious as well as historical themes. If it were not for this inclusion of historical material, he would be considered purely a Realist. The naturalist philosophy believes in man’s futility against nature and some of Daumier's religious paintings suggest this. He also used everyday subjects, such as The Laundress, to provoke discussion about wider social issues. He was also interested in exploring literary themes, in particular the ones contained in the popular novel Don Quixote, the fool who thinks he’s a hero as he, in the famous scene, battles windmills. Daumier also tried his hand at sculpting, which was not a popular form of art at the time. His sculptures are known for being remarkably life-like.

“Le Wagon de Troisième Classe” (The Third-Class Carriage) of 1864 seen above, is one of a three-part series commissioned by Walter Thompson Walters, the other two works being The First Class Carriage and The Second Class Carriage. The inspiration for this painting came from the railroad itself and Daumier’s preoccupation with themes of social justice.

Like with many of Daumier’s later paintings, the loose handling and calligraphic brush work that he employs in The Third-Class Carriage is extraordinary. The painting is left unfinished, however, it is still obvious that Daumier seeks to capture the plight of the working class by capturing the quiet moments of their everyday lives. The dark colours and the crowded surroundings help to focus the viewer’s attention to the figures in the foreground.

The family depicted here, grandmother, mother and children with the notable absence of their menfolk, suggests that these women are making their way in the world on their own. One gets a sense of the circumstances through the weariness of their posture and the shabbiness of their clothes. Although the mother’s face is sweet, the weariness present in the grandmother’s face suggests the hardships that she must have experienced in her long life. Her shrewd face confronts the viewer, while the sleeping grandson still clutching a box besides him tells us that quite possibly this child is already working to support the family.

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