A rapier eye and brazen pen

A fascinating retrospective at Washington's Phillips gallery offers a portrait of Honore Daumier as caricaturist, painter, humanist.

February 20, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

There is art, there is craft and then there is the humble political cartoon, a species of inspired but brutal doodling that probably has caused more pure, apoplectic outrage than all the world's books and paintings combined.

Honore Daumier (1808-1879) was a master of the genre who also happened to be one of the great artists of the 19th century. His impassioned caricatures poking fun at the high and mighty -- politicians, lawyers and the pretentious bourgeoisie -- as well as his drawings, paintings and sculpture expressing profound empathy with the plight of ordinary people, are the subject of a rare and beautiful retrospective that opened yesterday at the Phillips Collection in Washington and runs through May 14.

Daumier lived during a turbulent era that pitted the forces of absolutist monarchy against republican idealism. The old ways of doing things were rapidly being swept aside by the revolutionary forces of industrialization and urbanization.

In this volatile social climate, all artists were suspect, and many a writer, painter and playwright risked imprisonment or worse if suspected of harboring subversive views.

Daumier, a prodigiously talented child born into a desperately poor household in Marseille, was a champion of popular sovereignty and a fearless defender of the urban working classes who earned his initial fame from a vast output of nearly 5,000 satirical prints on political and social themes.

A fervent believer that "one must be of one's own time," he was also one of the first artists to portray a panoramic view of the people and places of Paris, the city where he lived for most of his career.

As a young political satirist for the left-wing periodical La Caricature, Daumier had nothing but contempt for the anti-democratic forces in France, and was once sentenced to six months in prison for a brazenly scatological lithograph of the monarch Louis Philippe.

That cartoon, printed in 1830, depicts the rotund king as "Gargantua," a monstrously swollen glutton with a pear-shaped head who "swallows and thoroughly digests an unseasoned budget, and delivers it immediately in sweet-smelling secretions to the court in [the form of] crosses, ribbons, commissions, etc."

The work instantly established Daumier as the foremost political caricaturist of his day, and his subsequent trial for libel became one of the century's most famous examples of an artist's prosecution by the state.

In "The Legislative Belly: View of the Ministerial Benches in the Improstituted House of 1834," also published in La Caricature, Daumier skewered the members of France's rubber-stamp House of Deputies as a motley crew of pompous blowhards, lickspittles and do-nothings slumped behind their desks in varying attitudes of stupefying venality.

The work itself is at once a tour de force of minute observation and a undisputed masterpiece of the lithographer's art.

Brilliant draftsman

Yet there was more to Daumier's art than scalding ridicule and virtuoso technique. He was a brilliant draftsman whose pen penetrated to the heart of the human condition, whatever subject he chose. Daumier could be merciless toward his political adversaries, but he never lost sight of their essential humanity.

Of "The Legislative Belly" one contemporary viewer wrote: "Remove the picture's title and the word deputies; then we have before us nothing but an assembly of men, as our era and our race produce them... As we continue to observe, the initial comic shock disappears [and] a great current of truth is generated and flows toward us."

Daumier's greatness lay in his seemingly inexhaustible capacity for empathy with humanity's frailness and foibles, be they the avarice and pride of the rich or the stoic resignation of society's poor and dispossessed.

This ability is nowhere more apparent than in Daumier's paintings and drawings of ordinary people struggling to make their way in a nation that, by mid-century, was busily engaged in creating new wealth from manufacture and commerce but that had also produced a huge and impoverished urban proletariat.

In "A Third-Class Carriage," perhaps Daumier's most famous painting, the alienation and resignation of those left behind in France's economic boom are etched on the faces of the passengers in a third-class railway car.

More than one version of this work exists, and the Phillips show includes several of them in different media. Two are large, oil-on-canvas paintings, one from the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the other from the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. In addition, there's a slightly smaller oil-on-panel painting from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, and several drawings, including a superb crayon and wash version from the Walters Art Gallery whose two companion pieces, "First-Class Carriage" and "Second-Class Carriage," are also on display.

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