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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Daumier the Painter

Honore Daumier Self-portrait, c. 1829
When we think of the work of Honore Daumier (pronounced AWN-o-ray DOE-me-yay), his brilliantly satirical drawings, etchings, and lithographs come to mind. Though not the first political cartoonist, he perfected the genre very nearly to that which we know today. In fact, so cutting were his efforts that his published caricature of Emperor Louis-Philippe once landed him jail for six months. Typically, he used the time in confinement to teach himself the gentle art of watercolor. Which serves to underscore the fact that if we only recall Daumier's political drawings, we miss an equally important segment of his work--his strikingly modern-looking paintings. It's difficult to say which of his two artistic endeavors may have been his preferred calling, but in either case, he appears to have been a man ahead of his time.

The Burden, 1853, Honore Daumier

There is a no-nonsense quality to Daumier's oil painting that is typically French. This attitude is reflect in French speech. In France, people don't "pass away", they die. Nor are the elderly referred to as "senior citizens", they're old men and old women. Daumier paints with this same bold, directness. His work is heavy, with high contrasts, few details, and eloquent, dark, painted outlines. It looks something like a 19th century version of Picasso during his classical period. Like Picasso, Daumier was no colorist. At best, his colors tend to be muddy and inconsequential. Used to the limitation of the print medium, he employed color only incidentally, almost as an afterthought. His 1860 painting, The Burden (left) is a typical example of this.

The Washerwoman, c.1863,
Honore Daumier

Daumier was born in 1808, the son of a glazier. At the age of eight, he went to work for a lithographer. This was to influence his work for most of his life. His first signed work was a published drawing in the satiric weekly La Silhouette. He was twenty-two. The same year, he went to work for the liberal opposition newspaper, La Caricature. It was here his work landed him in jail. Having taken on the emperor and paid the price, he went on to mercilessly caricature art experts, judges, actors, artists, and especially lawyers. But his paintings were always of a gentler sort, sympathetic to the quiet, sometimes desperate plight of the common people of his time. Like The Burden, his 1863 painting, The Washerwomen (right), perhaps depicting the same mother and child, is strong, eloquent, while at the same time, warm, with rich, yet typically subdued colors. Seeing it, one might easily mistake its massive figures for those of Picasso of perhaps fifty years later.

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