Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris at London's Royal Academy of Arts

By Ben Miller Published: 22 October 2013

Exhibition review: Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris, Royal Academy of Arts, London, October 26 2013 – January 26 2014

An image of a 19th century painting of men sitting around a table drinking tea
Honore Daumier, Lunch in the Country (circa 1867-1868). Oil on panel. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff© National Museum of Wales
Honoré Daumier’s dramatic expositions of turbulent mid-19th century France are often praised for their courage. But the artist’s wife was less bold when faced with a spindly clay sculpture of an authority figure as seen by her husband: in 1851, she is reputed to have stuffed the brown waif inside a straw bottle holder, then hidden it in a hard-to-reach bit of their bathroom.

That she would risk it being deemed subversive in the foreseeable event of a police raid says much about the times in which they lived. Daumier was a wry chronicler against often bleak backdrops – even artistically, when portraying the wide-eyed origins of photography in 1844, he did so knowing it might threaten his lithographic niche.

An image of a 19th century painting of a man being hung from a roof
Man on a Rope (circa 1858). Oil on canvas© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Tompkins Collection - Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund
This show is, puns pardoned, utterly arresting, moving from oppression and grimness to cheerful study scenes and poetic poignancy.

Politically, the threat of a riot never seems far away: see the women swaying dramatically above the crowds in alarmed protest over the potential denial of legislation allowing divorces to take place, Ecce Homo – in which public finger-pointing by the enemies of Jesus becomes a rowdy hurricane of violent outrage – and the grey discolour of The Destruction of a City, where deathly figures cram the narrowing streets of a burning metropolis.

Daumier’s incisive comedy stands out. That sculpture was of Ratapoil, a character Daumier dreamed up to symbolise anti-Republican revolts and the rise of the Bonaparte movement.

Daumier was a pithy visual commentator and one of the great early cartoonists: the satirical imagery of two public figures building a fire from which the bloated, sword-bearing ruffian of the Ottoman Empire rises is as deftly-chosen as the giant Gulliver figure being set upon by Lilliputians opposing election.

“Suffrage universal” is etched across the prone Gulliver’s spine, although, as the room covering Daumier’s final years in Valmondois (in a cottage provided by Corot) testifies, the accompanying words were often dictated by sub-editors and journalists.

At a third attempt, following two crossed-out suggestions, the skeletons exiting a moving steam train and heading towards cemeteries are given the caption Madame déménage.

An image of a 19th century painting of an artist standing in a studio surrounded by art
The Print Collector (circa 1857-63). Oil on cradled panel© The Art Institute, Chicago
The reason for this editorial caution was the critical nature of these works, which variously show Europe on the edge of a bayonet and as a sacred stone being chipped away at by a mythological political hammer bearer.

Daumier’s eyesight was failing at the time (he eventually fell blind), probably explaining the notably looser painterly techniques used in examining sitters such as a child who seems barely there, half-alive in thinned-down white paint, or the weird, alien-ish appearance of Don Quixote and his companion, riding skeletal donkeys beneath a great hairy brown mountain rising over a deep gorge.

The contrast between these and his earlier railway carriages, where every note is solid and vivid, is as broad as the chasm between donkeys and locomotives. Daumier would sell his railway paintings to investors, but he never glamourised them – these are almost exclusively depictions of third-class carriages, seen by a man who said art should be a window on the times.

He may not have cared for sentimentality, but he would have made a great film director, as two portraits – A Man Reading in a Garden and Lunch in the Country – demonstrate. In these, the sky forms a stage-managed empty space, giving an extra visual and psychological element to each scenario.

Daumier’s infatuation with Quixote illustrates the identification he felt with adventurers, wanderers and outsiders. He was invigorated by street entertainers around the working-class area of Paris he spent much of his career in.

An image of a 19th century painting of a street entertainer banging a drum
Clown Playing a Drum (circa 1865-7). Pen and black and grey ink, grey wash, watercolour, touches of gouache© The Trustees of the British Museum
One of his sideshows has a girl about to bang a drum and a boy on the brink of blowing a bugle. A woman in a ridiculous-looking blue dress shadows a circus leader type, who looks gruff and bored and slightly sad among the washed-out colours of the scene.

A melancholic humour and social history interlinks. Dormier wanted to be authentic, poking fun at painters and executing a commission to portray Nadar, the man who took the first aerial photo of Paris and was also a talented balloonist, with charming wit (“photographie”, reads the top of every building Nadal looks down upon, descending from the sky in his balloon).

Daumier was admired by Degas and Van Gogh, while Bacon considered the mountainside Quixote painting one of the greatest ever. Through Dormier’s eyes, the less well-known characters and everyday folk provide just as much pleasure.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday, 6pm December 20 and 27, closed December 24-26). Admission £6-£11 (free for under-12s). Book online. Follow the Academy on Twitter @royalacademy.

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More pictures:

An image of a darkened painting of 19th century parisians sitting inside a train carriage
The Third Class Railway Carriage (1862-64). Oil on canvas© The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence
An image of a 19th century painting of horses riding across the top of a mountain
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (circa 1855). Oil on oak© The National Gallery, London. Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917
An image of a 19th century etching of two figures talking inside a courtroom
The Defence (circa 1865). Pen and ink and watercolour© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
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