Daumier, mixed Visions of Paris

When I think of Daumier, I think of uprisings and strikes. And my memories were not far off. The Royal Academy hosts a show of Honoré Daumier, a 19th century French artist, fierce Republican and caricaturist. The RA gives a large space to Daumier’s lithographs and satirical caricatures, as Daumier was a cartoonist for political satire journals La Caricature and Le Charivari. Daumier felt sympathy with the working class of Paris and suspicion about its ruling class, as accurately described in the RA-provided audio guide.

Daumier must have stood out at the time, working from memory whereas his friends and contemporaries (such as Corot and Daubigny from the Barbizon school, the French landscape school that preceded Impressionism) painted en plein air. He even mocked landscape artists in his lithograph ‘Landscape artists. The first copies nature, the second copies the first.’

Another particularity of Daumier was that he did not depict faces in detail. Instead he focused on the group mass effect and represented action and movement via strong brushstrokes. He was also keen to portray physical struggles of women such as his ‘Laundress and Her Child Crossing a Bridge’, my exhibition favourite.

Daumier was torn between his political ideas and state commissions, true for most artists and even more so for him, in my view. He liked to represent the working class and in particular street entertainers, as I believe he felt close to them, self identifying as a bohemian artist. Apart from notable exceptions (‘Lunch in the Country’), Daumier painted few “leisure” paintings but he concentrated on caricatures, mocking, or observing melancholia.

The RA show ended up being a mix of interesting (political satire, historic depictions of working class), and uninspiring (same themes repeated over). The layout of the Sackler Wing, little changed throughout the different RA exhibitions, didn’t help to offset Daumier monotonous colours. Though it ended appropriately with the melancholic ‘Artist Facing his Work’.

The exhibition ends on January 26th.

20140120-210704.jpgHonoré Daumier, ‘The Laundress (La Sortie du bateau à lessive)’, 1861-63. Oil on wood. 48.9 x 33 cm. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Lillie P. Bliss, 1931. Photo © 2012. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence.

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