This past semester had the pleasure of teaching a class on the history of political cartoons at Lamar University. The old adage is that one never really knows a subject until one teaches it, and although I have been a professional editorial cartoonist for 27 years, I have been completely nerding out on research.
One of the pleasures is rediscovering Honoré Daumier. Every art history scholar knows the great Frenchman’s influence on the genre, but digging deeper into the body of work brings only more admiration. So, during a recent visit to north Texas I found myself at the Dallas Museum of Art for a small (13 pieces) exhibition of published cartoons — literally the pages from the original publications in the satirical newspaper Le Charivari, for whom Daumier contributed many of his best works.
“The sword of Damocles,” from 1842, features the lines:
“You aren’t sorry to miss on this day
a knife in order to dine,
said the amiable tyrant. I say
said Damocles, if this is a pun
I find the point is not fine.”
The original Greek myth features the courtier Damocles who, hungry for power, begs to switch places with King Dionysus. However, he realizes that above the throne is a sword hanging by a single hair. Damocles realizes that with power comes responsibility and danger. Daumier’s image is a commentary about censorship at a time when it hanged over artists and writers like the sword of Damocles. This ran in the satirical publication Le Charivari.
“Insurrection Against Husbands is Proclaimed as Being the Finest and Holiest Duty in Life!” from 1849, features three women, their hands placed over a man’s top hat as they make an oath. Daumier was not a fan of the feminist movement and the caption pokes fun at the women’s “primary duty” to rise up against their husbands. This also appeared in Le Charivari. Daumier tended to make fun of the movement’s leaders by presenting the as unattractive. This was a theme that was continued during the British and American suffrage movements of the early 20th century. As radical and influential as Daumier was in his attacks on oppressive government, he was, after all, also a man of his times.
One of my favorites is “The Abduction of Helen of Troy.” Daumier takes the classic myth and turns it in its head, depicting Helen as being neither beautiful nor particularly frail. In fact, she is carrying the fey Paris to the ships. The image was printed in Le Charivari in 1842 as a response to a heated debate between the painters of the classical and neoclassical schools. The conflict between the schools of thought was a theme to which Daumier returned several times. The piece also reflects current affairs, with Helen representing the Greek people and Paris looking similar to Count Antonios Kapodistrias, a Greek diplomat who served as foreign minister of the Russian empire and was the first leader of the modern independent Greek state.
“The Reading of the Will,” published in Le Charivari in 1853, is one of seven pieces that form “The Human Comedy” series. On the surface it is simply a collection of family members who are gathered at the solicitor’s office. The beauty of the work is the distinctive faces that capture the various levels of expectation. Only the bowed head of the young boy indicates grief.
When Daumier’s was a boy he clerked at a courthouse. The rest of his career he produced many works that expressed his distaste for the legal profession, most notably his “Lens de Justice” series of drawings and sculptures. “Old Scoundrel” continues this theme, showing two lawyers who look at each other knowingly, as if they have colluded for a deal that benefits themselves rather than their clients. This was published in La Caricatura in 1839.
“I Have Been Accepted … They Do Have Taste/I Have Been Rejected … What Cretins,” is one of Daumier’s commentaries on the art world. Daumier studied at the Paris Academy but ultimately rejected what he considered the elitism of academia in favor of art for the masses. Daumier fully expresses his rejection of the Salon mentality with a piece that shows a man pointing at a painting and saying, “Just look what a degenerated and corrupt universe we are living in! … all these people just look at more or less monstrous paintings and not one of them stops in front of a painting depicting the beauty and purity of nature!” The establishment that the Salon typified favored “history” paintings over landscapes. They were thought to be more intellectually skillful and educational.
Daumier was certainly a progressive who pushed social causes and poked fun at the establishment — he was even imprisoned for his cartoon “Gargantua,” which portrayed King Louis Phillippe.
Daumier the caricaturist is a pioneer of political cartooning — much admired and rarely bettered.