"Michelangelo of caricature" - Honoré Daumier

26 February 1808, the French printmaker, caricaturist, painter, and sculptor Honoré Daumier was born in Marseille.

“L'un des hommes les plus importants, je ne dirai pas seulement de la caricature, mais encore de l'art moderne. (One of the most important men, I will not say only of caricature, but also of modern art, Charles Baudelaire)

Honoré Daumier: "The Amateurs" - In this example, one of several set in a studio, the haughty, aloof artist, looking a bit like a collage of Breton, Decamps and Henner, awaits the presumably enthusiastic responses of his visitors (1865)

Old Egyptian papyri, Greek vases, Roman murals, images in medieval churches and cave paintings from the Stone Age as well, in all probability. Caricatures might be around since time immemorial. However, things really got underway, caricature-wise, around the time, when the Industrial Revolution began and reached full steam in the early 1800s with Hogarth acting as pointsman. Many features of actual caricatures were already part of his satirical, moralising and immensely popular pieces and caricaturists like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank, a generation after Hogarth’s death, lead the way ahead into modern political and socio-political caricature. The French, more often than not chief target of the British caricaturists’ scorn and ridicule, published the first full-fledged satirical magazines, though, out of spite, who knows, but especially “Le Charivari” with its first edition appearing in December 1832 in Paris, set the pace for all subsequent publications, including the better known British “Punch”. And since most of those in power in the France of the July Monarchy had the same underdeveloped sense of humour as their counterparts before and after elsewhere, one of their best caricaturists had already faced a spell in the tank when he joined the “Charivari’s” staff for poking fun on King Louis Philippe. Four years later, the whole thing was about to get transported to the Devil’s Island when the so-called Roi Citoyen and his court cringers banished political caricature in toto. “Charivari” focussed on the “socio” part of “socio-political caricature” and it became the sujet Honoré Daumier excelled in: holding up a mirror to the bourgeoisie. Starting with his series “Robert Macaire” in “Le Charivari” he began to work out the comic stereotypical exaggeration of a part to typify the sum in earnest. The good people of France were narrowed down to about 100 ridiculous archetypes and Daumier satirised political life on the eve of the Revolution of 1848 with a brilliant masquerade and without actually tackling the issues and principal political players of the day. Honoré Daumier was a master of his trade and the slave speech of satire.

Honoré Daumier: "Un Guerrier Electrise"
 - A public demonstration of the powers of electricity, with a French official as subject

painters with a big heart for social romantic motives usually sport at best only a hardly traceable sense of humour, quite along the lines of those who are responsible for the misery of their subjects. The Barbizon School and the rest of the French Realist movement did not put forth any exceptions to the rule. Daumier was, though, but somehow he sent his wonderful irony, open sarcasm and his biting talent for boiling down betraying details into satirical trademarks to bed early when he reached for his palette and brushes. What remains is satire’s finger-wagging without its considerable other charms. However, Daumier was a pioneer among the French Realists and on equal terms with Courbet, Millet and Corot. And, quite like his comrades, he gave the third estate travelling in third class coaches through a world turned upside down with the upheavals of the long 19th century, a silent dignity, endearing humanity and a longanimity in suffering like that of saints in a masterpiece of one of the Old Masters, a Christ-like “Ecce Homo” typical for the genre, depicted in a chiaroscuro à la Caravaggio. The strong contrasts of light and dark are indeed almost the only recognition effect between Daumier’s paintings and caricatures of the petite bourgeoisie, a self-imposed and probably only half conscious distinction between so-called High and Low Art Daumier shares with quite a few satirists. And, ironically enough, having the bourgeoisie capitalising on topics of High Art created for an audience consisting chiefly of aristos, Greek and Roman mythology chiefly, was one of his favourite themes. At least he did not paint, as he put it, “still more Venuses this year... always Venuses!”, ridiculing the Paris salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Honoré Daumier: "Le Wagon de troisième classe (The third-class carriage, 1864)

lived almost all his live in Paris and why should he leave, the world came to him and, more often than not, sprung into existence there. The artist was well supplied with topics for his high and low art, a mammoth work of over 500 paintings, 4000 lithographs, 1000 wood engravings, 1000 drawings along with 100 sculptures. Blind towards the rest of his life that he ended in the country, in 1879, when good Americans already went to Paris instead of going to heaven and they had at least the grace to bring him there as well and laid him to rest in a pauper’s grave, highly in debt as he was. The “Michelangelo of Caricature” wasn’t seen as a serious painter for decades, though, until well into the 20th century and, unfortunately never produced a work that encompassed at least most if not all of his considerable talents.

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