Daumier: Visions of Paris

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Honoré Daumier ('Lunch in the Country', c1867-1868)
'Lunch in the Country', c1867-1868© National Museum of Wales, Cardiff
Honoré Daumier (' Man on a Rope', c1858)
' Man on a Rope', c1858Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Tompkins Collection - Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund
Honoré Daumier (Gargantua, La Caricature, 16 December 1831)
Gargantua, La Caricature, 16 December 1831Private collection. Photo Peter McClennan
Honoré Daumier ( The Print Collector, c1857-63)
The Print Collector, c1857-63The Art Institute, Chicago
Honoré Daumier ( Clown Playing a Drum, c1865-7)
Clown Playing a Drum, c1865-7The British Museum, London. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum
Honoré Daumier (Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, c1855 )
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, c1855 The National Gallery, London. Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917
Honoré Daumier (Ecce Homo, c1849-52)
Ecce Homo, c1849-52© Museum Folkwang, Essen
Honoré Daumier (A zealous student practicing at home (Une élève zélée travaillant à domicile) 'Les Baigneuses', Le Charivari, 9 August 1847)
A zealous student practicing at home (Une élève zélée travaillant à domicile) 'Les Baigneuses', Le Charivari, 9 August 1847Private collection. Photo Peter McClennan
Honoré Daumier (A new aerial suspension (Nouvelle suspension aérienne) 'Actualités', Le Charivari, 7 February 1867)
A new aerial suspension (Nouvelle suspension aérienne) 'Actualités', Le Charivari, 7 February 1867Private collection. Photo Peter McClennan

Was Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) the greatest caricaturist that ever lived? That’s the question you start asking yourself about halfway through this enthralling exhibition. The political lampoonery of the French artist’s merciless cartoons established his reputation in the 1830s (and earned him six months in prison for his depictions of a pear-shaped Louis Philippe).

Yet until the mid-1840s his work wasn’t groundbreaking in any artistic sense. When his style starts to loosen up, his humour and subject matter also begin to broaden out, moving away from predominantly political satire towards topical sketches of Parisian life. The results are delicious social vignettes in which everything from rabble-rousing demagoguery to middle-class manners are affectionately sent up.

Daumier’s most persistent – and fascinating – subject was the very art world in which he made his living, with all its attendant vanities and follies. He parodied the latest sculptural fad for casting directly from the body, for instance, along with the gawping spectators at a salon exhibition – executed with such astonishing fluency that the characters seem to move and gesticulate before your eyes. There are also weirder, more fantastic drawings, such as his huge, apocalyptic depiction of writhing rioters.

This sense of strangeness extends to many of his paintings. Eschewing the typical, nineteenth-century route of grand historical themes, he represented neighbourhoods of working poor, or personal imaginings of scenes from ‘Don Quixote’, usually in a dark, liquid, roiling style, but towards the end of his life full of flurried brushwork and spectral contrasts of light and shadow. These canvases seem strikingly modern. But, when it comes to lasting, mindboggling impact, nothing can possibly beat his drawings.

Gabriel Coxhead


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Being French I knew about Daumier but mostly his caricatures rather than his paintings, so I was very pleased to discover his art on a bigger scale. He had a sense of light that feels very "impressonnist" , especially "the rope". His paintings of 19th century labour class are very much in phase with the literary style of the time, and his choice of subjects gives us a good "picture" of the everyday life of the Parisians. I hope that this exhibition will travel to France !