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France in Transformation: The Caricature of Honoré Daumier, 1833–1870

Hood Quarterly, spring/summer 2009
Abigail Weir, Curatorial Assistant

The French painter and graphic artist Honoré Daumier (1808– 1879) was described by his contemporary, the influential poet Charles Baudelaire, as “one of the most important men, not only of caricature but in the whole of modern art.” Daumier’s formative years as an artist coincided with the first daily journals that incorporated illustration, and he made his name with political prints in such popular French publications as La Caricature and Le Charivari. The Hood Museum of Art’s holding of more than fifty Daumier prints offers a rich overview of the artist’s satirical career, presenting a cavalcade of contemporary stereotypes that range from bourgeois city-dweller to sophisticated con man.

Daumier’s lithographs in France in Transformation will be studied by students taking French courses taught by Professors Vivian Kogan and Roxana Verona. The seed for the exhibition was planted several years ago when Professor Verona, a visiting Andrew W. Mellon scholar at the museum, studied the Hood’s Daumier holdings for the purpose of including these prints in her courses.

Born into a lower-class family in Marseilles in 1808, Daumier left an early job as an errand boy to pursue a career in art and supported himself through his published caricatures. Almost immediately, he turned his pen to a critique of the newly established July Monarchy (1830–48), which succeeded the failed Bourbon restoration that had in turn followed Napoleon’s defeat. In 1832, Daumier was sent to prison for six months as a result of his highly critical caricature of the citizen-king Louis-Philippe as Gargantua, the character from François Rabelais’s sixteenth-century satire. Seated on a toilet-like throne, the king is shown swallowing bags of money from the lower classes and excreting favors for his court favorites. Once he was released, Daumier returned to work, and as the censorship laws grew stricter he moved away from the monarchy in particular to focus upon Parisian life in general. His work provides a comprehensive picture of France in the mid-nineteenth century as it moved toward modernity.

In his caricature Daumier developed several stock characters, the most famous of which was Robert Macaire. A character created by a well-known actor of Daumier’s time, Macaire was portrayed by the artist in a variety of professional guises. Dressed like an elegant dandy, Macaire satirically expresses the abuses occurring throughout society. Whether doctor, lawyer, or merchant, Macaire is at heart nothing but a con man. Mr. Daumier, your series . . . is . . . charming suggests the self-consciousness of Daumier’s position at the newspaper Le Charivari. In the caption Macaire commends Daumier, seated on the left, for his portrayal of the “bunch of thieves” constantly tricking the honest Parisian citizenry, when he himself is one of them.

Daumier also turned his gaze to intellectual women who advocated for parity with men in What! Another caricature of us in this mornings Charivari! The Blue Stockings had been a women’s discussion group in England, and Daumier appropriated the term for a series in which he ridiculed the social and literary aspirations of intellectual women of the time. Daumier’s derision is emphasized through the women’s physical traits: with pinched faces and unkempt hair, his “bluestockings” are the antithesis of contemporaneous depictions of the desirable female.

While this exhibition focuses on Daumier’s satirical lithographs, they represent only one aspect of his wide-ranging career. The Ass and the Two Thieves reveals another side of his work. A rare impression, this print is based on a Daumier painting exhibited in the Salon of 1849. The subject is from the writing of La Fontaine, one of the artist’s favorite authors. An allegory of opportunity, Daumier shows two thieves in the foreground fighting over a stolen donkey, unaware that a third has taken the animal and is galloping away. The artist’s remarkable caricatures offer lessons guaranteed to resonate in perpetuity.

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