Honoré Daumier: satirist, chronicler

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Honoré Daumier was 19th-century France’s leading political and social satirist. Fifty examples from his output of nearly 4,000 lithographs will get a fresh look thanks to a new exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Daumier Lithographs: Characters and Caricatures, which opens Dec. 23 in the museum’s Pleasant T. Rowland Galleries, draws on the Chazen’s collection of nearly 900 of the satirist’s lithographs, many originally published in popular periodicals of the day.

Few were spared the artist’s witty barbs and sometimes-brutal depictions of society after the French Revolution. Daumier became one of the era’s foremost social chroniclers and critics, according to exhibition curator Andrews Stevens.

“The main source of Daumier’s satire is the French and their peculiarities,” Stevens says. “He had his fun aiming at the upper-middle class, its aspirations and petty defeats. He alternates between this and more political topics.”

Birth of a nation

Daumier emerged on the social scene in the 1830s, at a time when France was experiencing the growing pains of a newly-minted republic. Publications were enjoying new, albeit tentative, levels of freedom of expression that had only been previously seen in England, and Daumier and his publishers took advantage of those freedoms in criticizing government officials, the monarchy and the social mores of the day.

That is not to say there weren’t consequences to be paid when the satirist crossed what those in power thought to be the line of propriety.

Daumier initially had a great deal of fun mocking King Louis Philippe I, picturing him in an 1831 lithograph as Gargantua, a vulgar giant from French literature. The satirist ultimately served six months in prison for that particular depiction, after which it became illegal to satirize the monarchy in the French press.

“It’s clear both he and his publishers were sent to jail,” Stevens says, “but most of the time it was the publisher because it would be his job to vet such things before they went to press.”

Chronicler of Parisian life

Honoré Daumier’s “A child who has fun with little: the ‘Constitutionnel’ will keep him busy for the whole evening. No. 11” from the series Les Papas, 1847, lithograph, 11 1/4 x 8 5/16 inches. Photo: Courtesy Helen Wurdemann/ Chazen Museum of Art

Daumier later turned his attention to criticizing society, particularly the bourgeois — lawyers and judges and other social leaders.

Another favorite target was what was then called “The Blue Stockings,” which referred to early feminists, Stevens says.

“The Blue Stockings were French intellectual women who were always pictured as earnest and hardworking, but strangely irritating to their male counterparts,” Stevens explains.

Following the political uprisings of 1834, Daumier produced Rue Transnonian, which showed a tableau of dead family members dressed in their nightclothes who had been mistakenly killed by the French Home Guard in its attempt to root out and contain the rioters.

The image, artistically imagined by Daumier but historically accurate, earned the artist more unwanted attention. It also strengthened his position as a chronicler of Parisian life, both good and bad.

Daumier also produced about 500 paintings, 1,000 wood engravings, 1,000 drawings and 100 clay sculptures, but it is the lithographs for which he is best remembered.

“We’re conditioned by our experience of art to understand that paintings are art and everything else is not,” Stevens says. “But if we consider art the way the people of the time looked at it, we can learn a lot about Paris is the first half of the 19th century, when Daumier was creating these prints — learning things we would never have learned from paintings.”

Freedom of the press

In addition to lessons in French culture, Stevens says the exhibit offers a lot of lessons about the freedom of the press.

“France during this period had a kind of free press and a not-so-free press,” Stevens explains. “(Creating the exhibit) gave me a deep appreciation for the freedoms of the press we enjoy today because they are so rare in human history.”

Satirists of Daumier’s time had a lot of grist for their mills, especially when it came to politics. Had he been alive today, Daumier would have plenty of pointed barbs to sling in all different directions, Stevens believes.

“Daumier was a liberal guy, but that didn’t keep him from being critical of those who didn’t live up to the highest standards,” Stevens says. “I can’t imagine anyone who participated in the nearly information-free presidential campaign that just finished would be spared.”

On Exhibit

Daumier Lithographs: Characters and Caricatures runs Dec. 23–Feb. 19 in the Pleasant T. Rowland Galleries at Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave., Madison, on the University of Wisconsin campus. Admission is free and open to the public. For more, go online to chazen.wisc.edu.