Known as the “Michelango of Caricature,” Honore Daumier was a prolific painter, printmaker, sculptor, and caricaturist. He was born on 26 February 1808 in the south of France, in Marseille, to Jean-Baptiste Louis Daumier and Cécile Catherine Philippe. His father was a glazier, a poet and a minor playwright whose literary aspirations led him to move to Paris in 1814, followed by his wife and the young Daumier in 1816. In Paris Daumier’s father succeeded in publishing his book of verse and managed an amateur troupe of actors to perform his play, but all of it failed to provide enough financial support and his family lived in poverty.
Daumier showed an inclination towards art at an early age but his father’s financial condition forced him to work as an usher. Later he found employment at a well established bookstore at the Palais-Royal, which was a hub of Parisian life, and where he met with various artists and his interest in art developed further, he began to draw and spent much of his free time in the Louvre. In 1822 Daumier became an employ to Alexandre Lenoir, a friend of Daumier’s father and the founder of the Musée des Monuments Francais, who trained Daumier in the fundamentals of art. The following year he entered the Académie Suisse where he was able to draw from live models and develop friendships with other budding artists of that time. Daumier learned lithography from Charles Ramelet and found work with Zéphirin Belliard producing (often anonymously), miscellaneous illustrations, advertisements, street scenes, portraits, and caricatures.
Daumier’s first notable works appeared in ‘La Silhouette’, the first illustrated weekly satirical paper in France which ran from December 1829 to 2 January 1831. Daumier eagerly threw in his support and and expressed his political convictions as a working class republican in opposition to the new monarchy, its bureaucracy, and the bourgeoisie that supported and profited from it. The editors of La Silhouette were prosecuted and jailed for a time during the short run of the paper. Charles Philipon and Gabriel Aubert, founded another satirical paper, La Caricature in 1830, starting up just as La Silhouette was folding under pressure from the monarchy. La Caricature invited Daumier to join its staff, a formidable group including Achille Devéria, Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (J. J. Grandville), Auguste Raffet. and a young Honoré de Balzac as a literary editor, who is reported to have said of Daumier’s lithographs “Why, this fellow’s got Michelangelo in his blood !
During his time at ‘La Caricature’ Daumier produced many politically charged caricatures unraveling the incompetence and corruption of the government. It was at this time that he published a satire of the king as Gargantua. A lithograph which depicts King Louis Philippe sitting on his throne (a close stool), consuming a continuous diet of tribute fed to him by various bureaucrats, dignitaries, and bourgeoisie, while defecating a steady stream of titles, awards, and medals in return. Gargantua which was a particularly offensive and discourteous depiction of King Louis-Philippe landed him in jail. He was brought to court and charged with “inciting to hatred and contempt of the government and insulting the king” and sentenced to six months imprisonment with a fine of 500 francs. However, his sentence was suspended at that time and Daumier returned to work and continued to produce provocative and antagonistic lithographs for the papers.
In 1832 after the publication of another controversial cartoon ‘The Court of King Pétaud’, Daumier was arrested at his parent’s apartment and placed in the prison of Sainte-Pélagie to serve his six months. Daumier remained defiant in prison and wrote a number of letters indicating that he was producing lots of drawings “just to annoy the government.” The publication of his politically charged and controversial cartoons and his imprisonment brought Daumier considerable notoriety, and great popularity among some segments of the public, but little financial gain.
After his release from prison on February 14, 1833, Daumier, who had been living with his parents up that time, moved into an artist phalanstery on Rue Saint-Denis, and resumed work at La Caricature and continued to publish critical and uncompromising lithographs including Rue Trensnonain, Freedom of the Press, and Past, Present, Future and spent long hours in the Louvre. The founder and editor of La Caricature, Charles Philipon, also endured a number of convictions and spent more time in prison than in his office during its run, as did many editors, authors, and illustrators of the opposition papers of the period. In 1834 La Caricature followed La Silhouette and collapsed after relentless prosecutions and fines from the monarchy. However, Philipon had already started another journal, Le Charivari in December of 1832, which continued on with much the same content, and even many of the same staff members, including Daumier. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt on King Louis Philippe the “September Laws” were passed, which imposed drastically higher fines and longer, oppressive prison sentences for publications criticizing the king and his regime. Under the new laws limiting the freedom of the press, criticisms and caricature of the monarchy had to be indirect, veiled, and oblique. Louis Philippe was often represented as a pear or with a pear for head. The new laws forced Le Charivari to change the tone and its subjects and Daumier’s lithographs began to turn away from direct political affronts, to lighter and humorous cartoons satirizing broader aspects of society, the bourgeoisie, at times scathingly, at other times affectionately.
As a painter, Daumier occasionally exhibited his paintings at the Parisian Salons, his work was largely overlooked and ignored by the French public and most of the critics of the day. Yet the poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire and Daumier’s peers (painters) noticed and greatly admired his paintings. In one of the painting competition Daumier was abstained, and encouraged by his friend Gustave Courbet to submit a piece. About one hundred artists submitted sketches and designs anonymously to a jury that included Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, Eugène Delacroix, Paul Delaroche, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Philippe Auguste Jeanron, Alphonse de Lamartine, Ernest Meissonier, and Théophile Thoré-Burger. Daumier presented an oil sketch, ‘The Republic’ that was very well received, and included among the 20 finalists. The finalists were expected to enlarge and articulate their submissions into more finalized designs. However Daumier, who was notorious for failing deadlines and poor punctuality, never followed through with an advanced painting. The following year, he received a commission for a painting from the Ministry of the Interior, via the Académie des Beau-Arts, requesting a sketch for approval, for a sum of 1,000 francs. Five months later the sum was raised to 1,500 francs. The Académie des Beau-Arts pursued the issue for 14 years, yet Daumier never produced a sketch or a painting, although he had accepted advances in payment. Ultimately he gave the government a gouache in 1863, The Drunkenness of Silenus , that had been exhibited in the solon of 1850.
Although he was living a humble life away from Paris, in poverty and debt, and with failing eyesight, some belated recognition of his life’s work begin to appear in the last years and months of his life. The Second French Empire intended to award Daumier the Legion of Honor; however, he discreetly declined, feeling it was inconsistent with his political ideals and oeuvre. The French Third Republic again offered Daumier the Legion of Honor and again he declined, although he was later granted a pension of 200 francs a month (2,400 annually) in 1877, which was increased to 400 a month (4,800 annually) in 1878. A circle of his friends and admirers arranged a large exhibition of his paintings at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris. Although the public had seen an occasional canvas in the salons, this was the first time the full scope and range of Daumier’s work was exhibited. It was not the financial success his friends had hoped for, but it was very well received by both the public and critics, and a decisive turning point in the perception of Daumier as an important painter. He died several months later, on 11 February 1879.
Daumier was a tireless and prolific artist and produced more than 100 sculptures, 500 paintings, 1000 drawings, 1000 wood engravings, and 4000 lithographs. His paintings influenced younger generation of impressionist and postimpressionist painters. Later generations have come to recognize Daumier as one of the great French artists of the 19th century.Vincent van Gogh was also a great admirer of Daumier’s work. His work is found in many of the world’s leading art museums, including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum.