Happy Birthday Honoré!

Today we celebrate the birthday of the lithographer Honoré Daumier, born on 26th February, 1808. A staunch republican, he produced over 4000 lithographs in his lifetime, chronicling, commenting on, and, most importantly, sartirising the tumultuous nineteenth century French politics and society he lived and worked through. His exposure to four different political regimes, namely the July Monarchy, the Second Republic, the Second Empire under Napoleon III and the Third Republic gave him a wealth of material to work with. The V&A holds an enormous collection of Daumier’s work, some of which I will share with you today.

Robert Macaire Dentiste, Honoré Daumier, 1837. Museum no. E.831-2002. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This print illustrates one of Daumier’s earlier creations, the character of Robert Macaire. Macaire was an immoral swindler, who ruthlessly pursued personal gain, victimising the rich and poor alike, symbolising the mood of France in the 1830s, as wealthy financiers and company owners dominated politics, and looked after their own interests at the expense of others. One of Daumier’s most popular characters, he is here portrayed as an incompetent dentist, his bourgeois patient in pain, whilst he looks on.

Une Cause Criminelle, Honoré Daumier, 1865. Museum no. CAI.125. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Another series which Daumier produced for the magazine Le Chiravari satirised the legal system, of which Daumier had first hand experience, having been imprisoned in 1932 for a caricature of Louis-Philippe entitled ‘Gargantua’. He had little faith in the legal system, making the irony in the series title ‘Le Gens de Justice’ (The People of Justice) biting. He felt that pomposity and corruption were endemic to the profession, as this print illustrates. A client corrects his lawyer, after he has gotten a fact incorrect, illustrating his inadequacy at his job.

Les Saltimbanques; The Mountebank, Honoré Daumier, 1866-1867. Museum no. CAI.120. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Daumier’s endless sympathy with the common man is apparent in many of his prints. Rather than a lithograph, this is actually a watercolour drawing, from later in his career. It depicts an ageing clown, balancing a drum on his chair, trying to entice an uninterested crowd. His acrobat son looks over at the crowd, whilst the mother dejectedly holds her head in her hands, illustrating emotions we still feel today, giving the picture a timeless quality.

Épouvantée De L’Héritage, Honoré Daumier, 1871. Museum no. E.568-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

On a similar note, the simplicity of this print what makes it utterly haunting. Daumier did not think his lithographs should need textual explanation. This makes each picture an enticing mystery, waiting to be unravelled.  This outspoken lithograph first published on 11 January 1871, during the midst of the Franco-Prussian war, and shows a woman, representing France, weeping over a field of dead bodies. The title, meaning ‘Terrified of her Inheritance,’ shows the devastation he sees befalling France should the current political system continue.

Le nouveau costume des cochers turcs à Constantinople. Ni hommes, ni femmes, tous eunuques! (Extrait de la nouvelle ordonnance), Honoré Daumier, 1860. Museum no. SP.187. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Daumier did not confine himself to commentary on French life and politics. In the above print we see his thoughts on the fast declining Ottoman Empire, after the Crimean War.  Through the dress of the coachman in the foreground of the print, it is inferred that they are eunuchs, neither male nor female.

In a much quoted article of 1851, Charles Baudelaire called Daumier one of the greatest modern artists of the day. The variety and wit in his work is truly stunning, from his fierce attacks on the monarchy, to his humorous depictions of the bourgeoisie. We have many more examples of Daumier’s work in the Prints & Drawings Study Room, so please do come and see us!

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