Honore Daumier

Honore Daumier

Honore Daumier was a famous French graphic artist, painter and sculptor, one of the major masters of political caricature of the 19th cent., prominent representative of Realism.

Early years

Honore Victorin Daumier was born on February 26, 1808 in Marseilles in a family of a glazier. His father had a literary gift and moved to Paris with his family, hoping to realize them. Unfortunately, he lacked in money and little Honore had to start working, first as a errand boy, and later, in bookseller’s shop. He would never be able to complete his training in painting.

Since 1822, Daumier studied in snatches under the guidance of Alexandre Lenoir and then practiced in drawing from nature in the Academie Suisse. He spent a lot of time in Louvre, copying famous masters, Titian and Rubens particularly.

It’s doubtful, if Daumier would have succeeded in his artistic career if not one circumstance that allowed him to unite his “artistic entertainment” with the gains of artisan – that’s popularity of lithography. Enrolling training in the workshop of a little-known master Ramelet, Honore at first wanted to support his family financially. So, he started with making small pictures, note-headings, children ABC for publishers Belliard and Ricourt. But very soon he found a better possibility for application of his talent. Since 1830 Honore started cooperating with Charles Philipon’s comic journal, “La Caricature”, best graphic artists were working with – Monnier, Grandville, Charlet, Decamps. From that moment Daumier connected his destiny with political press, signing first with pseudonym, then – “H.D.” and finally with his full name. He quikly became famous as master of scathing satirical graphics.

Satirical prints

Daumier worked for “La Caricature” in 1831 – 1843 and for “Le Charivari”, also established by Philipon in 1835 – 1874 (except 1860 – 1863), giving up the job only after losing his sight. During those years he created 4000 litho prints and 900 woodcuts, apart from 400 oil painting, watercolors and sketches.

The artist’s “Gargantua” (1831) is one of his best-known early lithographs. Honore depicted stout Louis Philippe, eating gold bureaucrats withdraw from the exhausted people. The work was displayed in the window of the Aubert’s company and gathered a huge crowd. The government punished Daumier with six months of imprisonment and 500 franks of fine.

Master wasn’t satisfied with his first achievements and kept on actively working in the sphere of caricature portrait, making it even more grotesque. Figures on his prints of 1830s are defined by extreme volume and plasticity. For instance, his “Legislative belly” (1834) showed ministers and deputies of the July Monarchy, representing their portrait resemblance and moral squalor with relentless accuracy. Daumier made portrait-types, where each individual feature turned in condemning social generalization. The same power he reached in his pieces, dedicated to the class struggle and role of the laborers in it “He isn’t dangerous anymore”, “Don’t meddle with it”, “Rue Transnonain, on April 15, 1834”.

After so-called “September laws”, aimed against press, it was impossible to work in the field of political satire. Honore inspired himself with every-day life scenes, touching major social problems. Digests with caricature on the way of life and morals were popular then, so Daumier in cooperation with Travies published “French types” (1835 – 1836).

The artist reacted on the minister Guizot’s motto “Enrich yourself” with an image of Robert Macaire – fraud and speculator – dying and arising again (from “Caricaturana”, 1836 – 1838). In other lito prints he unmasked corruptibility of the court (“Les Gens de Justice”, 1845 – 1849) and bourgeois charity (“Today’s philanthropist”, 1844). In 1841 – 1843 Daumier finished series “Ancient history”, where he mocked subjects and personages of antique mythology, placing then-contemporary bourgeoisie instead of ancient heroes and gods.

Honore’s drawing manner changed. Strokes become more expressive. As Theodore Banville recalled, Daumier had never used new sharp pencils, preferring using their debrises, so the line had been more vivid. His works became more graphical; plasticity gradually disappeared.


In 1830s – early 1850s Honore Daumier tried his hand in sculpture. Today we know fifty clay models, the earliest of which are caricatural portrait busts of politicians, ordered by Philipon and date back to 1832. Another pieces that belong to the artist’s authorship is a “Ratapoil” (1851) – satire on bonapartists, and “Fugitives” of the same period. Attribution of many genre figures and portrait heads to Daumier is still discussed. Most of his sculpture represents life of the 19th cent., except for “Fugitives” –a bas-relief with nude figures.


Master always wanted to paint. It comes as no surprise: he had a passionate artistic temper and had a lot of painters among his friends – Corot, Daubigny, Diaz, Delacroix. But permanent hardships and all-consuming work for magazines hadn’t allowed him to approach to his dream until Daumier was forty. Honore took the paintbrush for the first time at that age, when with the victory of the February revolution all his accusatory mission seemed to be ended.

He depicts “The last cabinet meeting of the ex ministers” on March 9, 1848, glorifying the decay of the July Monarchy, and an allegoric image of the Republic for an official contest. Unfortunately, those canvases remained unnoticed and the artist still lived poorly. Honore tried to work over lithographs for magazines at night to dedicate day-time to painting. Then in 1860 he attempted to break up with “Le Charivari”.

The artist was often lyrical and pensive in his canvases. His characters were full of nobleness and dignity. Light played special role in Daumier’s paintings from both emotional and compositional aspects. His favorite effect was contre-jour one can find in “Bathers” (1854), “Passers-by in front of a print shop” (1860). Yet, sometimes Honore applied another effect, making a half-obscure background lighter closer to the first plan with intensive white, blue and yellow colors (“Leaving School”, 1848, “Third-class carriage”, 1862).

The painter preferred muted coloring with numerous hues and reflections that added significance an every-day life scene. Interest to the lighting effect that exaggerated dramatism, prompted Daumier to depict theater. He’s attracted by the atmosphere of public, exited by a play (“Melodrama”, 1865 – 1860) or actors with vivid mimics (“Crispin and Scapin”, 1858-1860).

Daumier-painter played not less significant part in history of culture than Daumier-graphic artist. He introduced new characters in art and rendered them with unbelievable expressiveness. No master before him painted such deliberation and generalization. In certain sense, Honore forestalled further development of painting.

In his series dedicated to “Don Quixote” the artist symbolically captured two opposite poles of a human’s sole, showing permanently rushing forward Don Quixote and always backward Sancho Panza. And if that series underlined a tragic contradiction inside a person, his “Mountebanks resting” (1870) demonstrate a striking contrast. Meanwhile, “Advocates” series revealed false pathos of mimics and gestures of the “Demosthenes of contemporaneity” with captivating power observation and irony.

A whole number of Honore Daumier’s pieces was dedicated to creating magnificent images of working class, defined particular monumentality. Blacksmiths, laundresses with kids, water carriers and haulers were the only Parisian “types” the artist’s irony was mercy with. His “Laundresses” cycle was the major one. Living on Ile Sent-Louis, the artist kept watching their hard work.

Late period

In the period of the Second Empire Daumier’s situation, which had been unenviable before, got worst. He received refusal from “Le Charivari” editors, who claimed his pieces discourage the magazine’s subscribers. At the same time, “Le monde illustre”, which had started publishing engraving from the artist’s drawings, stopped partnering with him. It was only in 1863, when “Le Charivari” set up a new contract with Honore and he returned to political caricature.

On one of the prints the master placed Constitution, preoccupied with shortening Liberty’s dress, on the other he showed Thiers (famous politician and historian) as a prompter, who directs actions and words of the public officials. He would also elaborate anti-military subject in his satires (“The council of war’”, 1872, for example). In gravure “This has killed that” Daumier points out election of Napoleon III as the beginning of all disasters.

Daumier’s pieces are very eloquent – despite of being full of symbols, those symbols are conceptually convincing. In one of the litographies of 1871 we see a splintered and damaged trunk of once mighty tree with only one branch left on it against the troubled sky. The sign under the picture says “Poor France!… The trunk is blasted, but the roots hold!”, referring to then-recent tragedy the country went through. Honore managed to give an impressive image that embodied the vital power of France and its people, using sharp contrast of lights and shades, vigorous line.

The artist’s life was life of privation. His friends tried to help him in finding customers. However, in most of the cases, Daumier couldn’t effected a sale. There is one episode from his biography that witnesses unbelievable modesty and impracticality of the author. Daubigny recommended Honore to one wealthy American, who collected works of European masters. He had asked Daumier to dress-up properly and set the price no lower then 5000 franks in advanced and arrived with the customer to the studio. American was satisfied with the required sum and he wanted to see other pieces. The artist showed another, more significant one, for which he, despite all Daubigny’s instructions, hesitatingly asked 600 franks. The customer rejected the painting and stopped pain attention to the master, who was selling his creations for cheap”.

No financial hardships could broke up Daumier’s pride or made him refuse from his republican principles. When the Napoleon Minor’s ministry proposed him the order of Legion of Honor, Honore was brave enough to decline that “Greek gift”, humorously motivating it with the desire to look at himself in the mirror without laugh in his old age.
In 1873, Honore Daumier stopped working because of the poor sight. Almost blind and old, he could have ended in absolute poverty, if not a support of Corot, who bought him a little house in a town of Valmondois. The artist died there on February 10, 1879.