Honoré Daumier – Lithographs and Caricatures

1830 issue of La Caricature
1830 issue of La Caricature

In my blog today I want to look at some of Honoré Daumier’s political and satirical caricatures and lithographs.  To get some idea as to why he came to satirise the ruling classes of his day I think it is worthwhile looking at the French history of Daumier’s time to find the answers.

The French Revolution began almost twenty years before Daumier’s birth in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille and the fall of the French monarchy.  The majority of upper-class and bourgeoisie Parisians who had managed to survive the slaughter, found themselves imprisoned.  In September 1792 the ruling body known as the National Convention had declared France a republic and took control of the country.  This ruling group was split into two major factions: the Moderates known as the Girondins and the Radicals known as the Jacobins but in Paris itself there was third and far more dangerous faction known as the sans-culottes, (those without breeches).  This group of radical left-wing partisans came from the lower classes and were typically urban labourers.  They were easily identifiable as they wore full-length working-class pants rather than the knee-length culottes which was the French name given to silk knee-length breeches worn by the moderate bourgeois revolutionaries of the National Convention.  The sans-culottes strove for popular democracy, affordable food but most of all they wanted to ensure that a counter-revolution would never come to fruition.  This fear of a counter-revolution was to have a bloody consequence as the sans-culottes were aware that there were a large number of political prisoners in gaols, the number of which they believed was greater than the free Parisians, and, in their mind, they viewed them as counter revolutionaries and a threat to the spirit of the Revolution.  Their decision to rid themselves of this threat was precipitated by rumours that the Prussian army was going to invade the country and when it got to Paris would be sympathetic to the imprisoned counter-revolutionaries.   The sans-culottes were now desperate to prevent the freeing of the prisoners and so on September 3rd and 4th of 1792 they stormed the prisons and within a few days had killed thousands of them.  Men and women, aristocrats and clergy were butchered.  The bloodbath became known as the September Massacre.  A year later, Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were beheaded.

As is often the case violence begets violence and in 1794 the leaders of the sans-culottes had themselves been executed by the Jacobins under Robespierre.  Robespierre was now a leader of the Convention and ruled through terror but by 1794 he was considered by many to have gone too far and eventually fell from grace.  He was arrested by the deputies in the National Convention and was executed in July 1794.  A new grouping known as The Directory was formed in 1795 with the intention of making France a republic.  For four years the Directory tried to please all the people but they themselves were still divided between those who wanted life to go back to the Pre-Revolution days and those who still wanted the bloodshed to continue and rid the country of the upper classes.

In October 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte arrived back in Paris from his battlefield heroics in Egypt.   The time was right for change.  Popular opinion was divided but all seemed to hate the Directory and so Bonaparte struck and his successful coup in November 1799 led him to become the new French ruler.  In December 1804 he was crowned Napoleon I, Emperor of the French by Pope Pius VII.   Bonaparte reign as leader lasted until his defeat at Waterloo in June 1815, after which he was exiled to St Helena where he died six years later.

On Bonaparte’s departure, France was once again under monarchist rule – this time it was the House of Bourbon and Louis XVIII.  On Louis death in 1824 his younger brother Charles X, who had been living in exile in London, returned to France and took up the reins of power.   Soon after coming to power Charles’ government passed a series of laws which strengthened the power of both the nobility and clergy.

Charles’ rule was of a dictatorial nature.  His was an absolute monarchy in which he exercised ultimate governing authority as the head of the country and his powers could not be limited by the country’s constitution or law. As an absolute monarch he was the supreme judicial authority and as such he could condemn men to death without the right of appeal.   Charles wielded his unlimited authority to reassert the power of the Catholic Church in the country.  He also sought to restrict the freedom of the press but most contentiously he passed laws which would compensate the families of the nobles who had had their property destroyed during the Revolution.  His popularity slowly but surely waned with the French people.  The “straw that broke the camel’s back” came about when Charles set forth what is now known as the July Ordinances which laid down a raft of new laws, one of which was to exclude the commercial middle-class from future elections.   Furthermore most businessmen were banned from running as candidates for the Chamber of Deputies, membership of which for many was a position that afforded them the ultimate in social prestige. Bankers were far from happy with this Ordinance and took their revenge by refusing to lend money, and business owners shuttered their factories and work places, which culminated in workers being callously turned out onto the streets where they were left to fend for themselves.   Naturally, the unemployed felt badly done by and decided that the only course of action left to them was to take to the streets in protest.  The July Revolution of 1830 had started.  It lasted three days and eventually forced Charles to flee to exile in England.  However rule by a monarch survived and Louis-Philippe became king of the French.   The downfall of Charles came to fruition, not only because of the workers protesting on the streets but because of the power wielded by the upper middle class society, the bourgeoisie, the bankers, railroad barons, mine and forest owners as well as wealthy merchants and so during Louis-Philippe’s eighteen year reign the power of the French bourgeoisie grew more powerful and became very close to the king.

However as years passed it was clear that not everybody was happy with Louis-Philippe’s monarchy and his government and many reform movements came in to being wanting more equality for the working classes.  In 1846 France suffered a financial crisis and it was also a year when the harvest was disappointing.  In 1847 the country descended into an economic depression and the peasant farmer workers began to rebel against their poor living standard.  It was not just the rural areas that were suffering as a third of Parisians were out of work.  Louis-Philippe and his government sought to silence the masses by banning political rallies but this only served to further incense the populace and the people took to the streets of Paris.  The military fired on the angry crowd and over fifty were killed.  Barricades were erected and shops, cars and omnibuses were set alight.  It was over for Louis Philipe and so, like his predecessor Charles X, the people had ousted him, forcing him to flee to exile in England.  The monarchy had once again fallen and the Second Republic of France was born.

It was in the middle of all this that Honoré Daumier was born in Marseille in February 1808.   He came from a working-class household.   When he was twelve years old the family moved to Paris.  His father was a glazier and picture-framer but gave it all up in his quest to become a successful playwright, alas to no avail.  The family was now short of money and Honoré had to supplement the family income by working as an errand boy at the law courts and as a clerk in a bookshop.  He had developed a love of sketching and would often spend time at the Louvre copying the Masters.   He secured some informal artistic training from a friend of his father, the painter, Alexandre Lenoir.  Later he attended life-classes and at the age of seventeen he became an apprentice at the studio of Zepherin Belliard, the lithographer and portraitist and it was his love and skill at lithography which would shape Daumier’s future.

Daumier being from a working-class background was a staunch republican and so was delighted with the July Revolution of 1830 and the overthrow of Charles X but was bitterly disappointed to find that instead of the formation of a Republic, the monarchy would continue with the arrival of King Louis-Philippe as the successor to Charles X.  His hope of a Republic had been dashed.   Daumier decided to fight the monarchy in the only way he could.  He would use the power of the political and satirical caricature to criticise the monarchy.  This was quite a dangerous form of dissent and many artists shied away from such a blatant form of criticism.  Daumier joined the newly founded Parisian satirical, anti-monarchist, illustrated newspaper Le Caricature.  The four-page weekly journal, with two or three lithographs usually in the form of political caricatures, was one of the first French satirical newspapers and was founded in November 1830 by the anti-royalist, Charles Philipon, five months after the July Revolution.

Gargantua by Honoré Daumier (1831)
Gargantua by Honoré Daumier (1831)

Probably the most famous of Daumier’s caricatures was one he completed in 1831, entitled Gargantua.   The name Gargantua derives from Rabelais’ 16th century series of novels, which tells of the adventures of two giants, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel.   It was one of the first major political lithographs completed by Daumier. In the work, we see King Louis-Philippe seated on his high throne, which is actually a giant commode!  It is an unflattering caricature of the monarch but this pear-shaped head was Daumier’s constant caricature depiction of Louis-Philippe.  From the king’s mouth runs a stepping board to the ground on which the servants carry the sacks of money which, on reaching the top, tip into the king’s mouth.  Daumier is portraying the king as a devourer of his subjects’ hard-earned money.

In the bottom right of the work we see taxpayers who have been rounded up and told to empty their pockets into the baskets.  Look at the man who is just putting his money into the basket.  He is dressed in rags.  Sitting on the floor in the very right of the foreground is an emaciated-looking woman clutching her baby.  By depicting such people Daumier is highlighting that it is the lower class poor people who are giving money to the already-rich king.  Above the heads of the poor tax-givers we see the windmills and buildings of a port.  The sun is shining on this landscape and presumably Daumier is reminding his viewers that the economy was on track despite the way the king had an ever-demanding tax regime.

Look at the secondary scene by the feet of the king where we see well-dressed men with their tricorn hats.  They are standing under the steep walkway and are availing themselves of any coins which may fall from the servants’ baskets as they stagger upwards towards the king’s mouth.  Under the king’s commode/throne we see papers fluttering down and its is Daumier’s somewhat unsavoury way of showing the king “issuing” documents granting honours and privileges to the chosen few below, who are carrying their symbol of their status – their tricorn hats and who eagerly await to collect their privileges.  In the left of the painting we see these people from upper-middle class who have collected their documents of privileges running off towards the National Assembly.

The caricature appeared in the December 15th 1831 edition of La Caricature and was displayed in the window of La Caricature office in the Gallery Vero – Dodat to attract onlookers.  The ruling powers were horrified with this pictorial assault on royal power.  Louis-Philippe immediately reintroduced press censorship. Orders were given by the king’s government via the courts that all the copies of the caricature were to be seized and the lithographic stone broken.   The proprietor of the journal, Charles Philipon, was fined and Daumier was gaoled in August 1832 and not released until February 1833.  To raise money to pay the fines, Philipon, in August 1832,  immediately retaliated by launching the L’Association Mensuelle Liphographique, sometimes referred to as L’Association pour la Liberté de la Presse which published a monthly large format supplement which was distributed to regular subscribers.

The Legislative Belly by Honoré Daumier (1834)
The Legislative Belly by Honoré Daumier (1834)

Many of the issue would include a number of Daumier’s caricatures.  The first of these was entitled:

Le Ventre législatif

Aspects des bancs ministériels de la chamber improstituée de 1834

 The Legislative Belly

(Aspects of the Ministerial Benches of the Improstituted Chamber of 1834)

In it we see a meeting of some of the National Legislature.  There are thirty-five members shown in the work, all of who, at some time, had been unflatteringly caricatured separately by Daumier. These were members of the Centre Right faction of Louis-Philippe’s legislature.  One can see by the way Daumier has portrayed them that he has an extreme dislike of them and what they stand for.  He has depicted them as bloated and uninspiring, figures who struggle to keep awake.   Daumier is wishing to portray them as the embodiment of idleness, conceit and corruption as this was how he viewed the monarchy and its supporters.

Rue Transnonain le 15 avril 1834 by Honoré Daumier (1834)
Rue Transnonain le 15 avril 1834 by Honoré Daumier (1834)

The third and final Daumier work I am looking at is not a caricature but a lithograph which he completed in 1834 and once again highlights the artist’s interest in politics and the cause of the ordinary people as they struggled to survive.   It is entitled Rue Transnonain le 15 avril 1834.  This work was like many of his others in as much as Daumier wanted to put across, through his art his discontentment with what he believed was social injustice. Through his art work he wanted to remind people, if it was needed, that they should not have to put up with their lot in life.  The background story to this work was that Louis-Philippe’s government had just passed a law which would seriously curtail the power of the unions.  Louis-Philippe, although outwardly indicating that he would maintain the ideals which were held dearly by those revolutionists at the end of the eighteenth century, said that he would look after the lower classes.  Despite this promise his government still favoured the wealthy classes when it came to offering business contracts.  This we saw was highlighted in Daumier’s Gargantua caricature.  The rich got richer and these wealthy businessmen treated their workers badly and for these downtrodden people, their union was their only hope of improved conditions.  The workers could see that the curtailment of the union powers by this new proposed legislation was going to have dire consequences on their working life and living conditions and so they rose up against it.

In April 1834 the insurrections and public disorder began in Paris, part of which was centred around Rue Transnonain in the Parisian working class district of St. Martin,.  The house at number 12 Rue Transnonain was close to a barricade set up by the protesters and, according to the soldiers of the civil guard, who were trying to quell the uprising, a shot was fired at them from a window in that building and a civil guard was killed  The civil guard reacted swiftly and murderously.  They forced their way into the building and indiscriminately fired on the inhabitants. Nineteen people, men, women and children, were slaughtered.

If we look at the lithograph we are aware that there is a somewhat restrained brutality about this work.  We are not shown the actual killings but just witnessing the bloody aftermath.  It is as if we have just opened the door of the bedroom and are greeted with this dreadful sight.  There is a deathly stillness of what we see before us.  The main focal point of this lithograph is a man slumped against his bed, tangled up in the sheets of his bed.  He is dressed in his white night shirt which is stained with blood and he still has his nightcap on his head.  His attire gives us the impression that he had been asleep when the civil guard burst into the room, all guns blazing.  It is not until you look more closely at the slumped figure that you realise his inert body is lying on top of a dead child.  Blood is coming from a wound in the child’s head.  Cast your eyes to the left of the lithograph and in the shadows you can just make out another body of a woman lying on the ground and in the right foreground, on the floor by the bed, we see the head of an elderly man, yet another victim.  From the choice of bodies, Daumier has depicted he is highlighting the fact that neither the elderly, nor a child nor a woman escaped the massacre.

We have to admire Daumier’s skill in the way he has made us search the lithograph for more victims of this massacre.  Each one we find adds to the horror.  There is a matter-of-fact element to Daumier’s depiction.  Daumier had been quite clever with this lithograph.  The king and the government were not alluded to nor openly blamed in the work.  It was just a pictorial statement of facts of what happened on the night of April 14th 1834.   It was simply a piece of journalism.  People who looked upon the work were then allowed to make up their minds about what they saw before them and decide who to blame.  Baron Haussmann in his radical remodelling of Paris in the 1860’s and 1870’s merged Rue Transnonain with the larger Rue Beaubourg and the street name Rue Transnonain was deleted and with it the reminder of the atrocities which occurred on the night of April 14th 1834.

My apologies for the length of the blog but I thought it was important to give you a feel for what was happening in France which lead to the staunch Republican views of Honoré Daumier.  To all historians I just hope I have presented the French history facts correctly !!!

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

3 thoughts on “Honoré Daumier – Lithographs and Caricatures”

  1. Hi, Jonathan, I love this posting on Daumier. No wonder Pissarro like Daumier’s work so much. Your capsule of French history cuts through a lot of the confusion and helps us understand Daumier’s work so well. And it helps me understand why Pissarro had strong anarchist leanings.
    Many thanks,
    Ann Saul
    annsaul@pissarrosplaces.com

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