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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Sketch by Daumier

Perhaps Michelangelo's The Drunkeness of Noah
reminded Picasso of this drawing by Daumier
titled  Rue Transnonain from 1834.
When Pablo Picasso obtained enough wealth from his work to allow him to travel widely, like any self-respecting artist, he found that all roads led to Rome. And though not in fact, in Rome, for the artist at least, all roads led to the Vatican. And once in the Vatican, in spite of the looming power of the magnificent cathedral, for the artist, all roads (corridors?) led to the Sistine Chapel next door.  Picasso, as artists and tourist alike have done for five centuries, strained his neck and gazed upward in awe at what Michelangelo and Pope Julius II hath wrought. "It's like a vast sketch by Daumier."  He said.  Not the reaction one might expect, even from Picasso. Who was this sketcher extraordinaire that Picasso should admire him so?

Gargantua, 1831, Honore Daumier
Honore Daumier (pronounced UN-or-AY DOME-yay) was born in 1808. He started drawing at age thirteen and his first job as an artist was in the role of what we would call today a political cartoonist, though at the time one couldn't much think of such a calling as an occupation.  But he was good at it.  In fact, too good for his own good.  His first drawing landed him in jail for six months. He had the audacity to portray the king, Louis-Phillipe, as Gargantua, the gluttonous ogre in a French storybook.  Daumier was in good company--his publisher was jailed too. And while the cartooning business didn't pay much (nothing, actually), he did earn his first fees as an artist about the same time--as a sign painter. The king eventually banned all political cartoons so Daumier took to drawing insightful, amusing pictures of the French bourgeoisie instead. One depicted a lady in a blizzard, her "bustle" (a cosmetic device made of springs hidden beneath a lady's skirts to accentuate her derrière) hosting quite an accumulation of snow. A shopkeeper asks, "Would you like a touch of the broom, madam?"  With these he was able to earn a modest living.

The Print Lover, 1857-60, Honore Daumier
Daumier painted too, though like his cartoons, his efforts with a brush were so highly individual as to constitute a style unto themselves. Technically, one would have to class him with the Realists though his style was in no way realistic. However his choice of subjects was very much in line with those of Realism's Corot and Courbet in depicting the humble, modest, lower classes as they struggled with the daily grind of 19th century existence. Politically, Daumier was a life-long republican, not to be confused with the American creatures by the same name. Quite the  opposite, Daumier was very much a liberal. Being a republican in France at that time meant he opposed autocratic rule, which made him a target for the ruling governments of all but eight years of his life. And it wasn't just autocrats he like to skewer with is steel pen--lawyers and judges took it on the chin too. Only in the last years of his life did his paintings and engravings begin to bring respectable prices; and even then his work appealed more to artists and collectors than to the middle-classes he delighted in lampooning. He died in 1879 and enjoyed a state funeral staged by a friendly republican government (costing all of twelve francs). And from that time on, his reputation began to rise. He was an artist's artist, and thus it should come as little surprise that Picasso, another artist's artist, should compare the great Michelangelo to him.
The Legislative Belly, 1834, Honore Daumier, a cartoon appropriate even today.

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