NO one could be more French than Honore Daumier (1808-79), with his Gallic wit and swift perception, yet many people, whether they are phlegmatic Northerners or people from Down Under, feel he belongs to them. He seems to define our impressions in a universal manner: His lawyers, most of them rogues, unfortunately appear in our world, as do his clowns and acrobats. Despite his swift and scathing pen, there is something immensely lovable about this artist. Daumier was never inhumane: His great sympathy for mankind is evident.
Daumier's father, Jean-Baptiste Daumier, was an artisan - a glazier, picturemaker, and a poet - working in Marseille, France, when his son was born. Working on the perimeter of the art world, he was sensitive to what was happening within it. When Honore was 7, Jean-Baptiste went to Paris, hoping to become a writer, but he had little success and was obliged to become a clerk so that he could raise the funds to send for and support his wife and family.
Once the family was reunited, they had to endure many precarious years. They were often so poor that they could not pay the rent, and hence were constantly moving. When Honore was 8, the family lived opposite the great stairs of the Palais de Justice, the very stairs we have come to know so well through his drawings.
Later in life, he was to portray them with lawyers and judges passing up and down, men whose pride, avarice, and corruption were evident to the Parisian public that saw them satirized over decades in two journals - Le Charivari and La Characature.
In 1820, at the age of 12, Daumier became a saute-ruisseau, or errand boy, to a bailiff, an experience that further enhanced his comprehension of the process of justice (or the lack of it). The following year he became an assistant in a bookshop, and when he was 14, his father managed to place him under the tutelage of the artist Alexandre Lenoir. Daumier was not actually instructed by Lenoir, but he did have the use of a studio where he learned to copy casts and classical figures. This was important to him, teaching him to see his subjects in a three-dimensional way.
Before Daumier was 20, he was apprenticed to a lithographer, but he stayed in that position less than a year. He mastered the lithographic process quickly, and he could already draw superbly - an uncommon ability in France at that time, where draftsmanship was not admired as extravagantly as in other European artistic milieus. His contemporaries, probably unknown to him at that time, were absorbed in the realistic and Barbizon schools, working with oils and watercolor.
It did not take long for Daumier to learn what was necessary, and he was then ready for his life work, his astonishing and productive career.
The world in which he came of age was hungry for his satires and caricatures. The revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and the restoration of the monarchy were topics he seized upon, and ones the papers were ready to address. His lithographs were awaited by the public and greatly admired.
But it was not long before he fell foul of the law, was judged to be in contempt, and was put in jail for six months. This turned out to be a fruitful period for Daumier. His editor was there, too, and together they continued to produce their paper. Afterwards, though the government was often furious with Daumier for the undisguised scorn he evinced in satirizing those in power, he was never interfered with again. Officials recognized that his popularity with the public was so great that it would be dangerous to stop him.
Daumier produced thousands of lithographs, sometimes working on eight stones at once. He had two sorts of admirers - the great masses of the public who delighted in his work and looked forward to it in the pages of Le Charivari, and the other smaller body of real connoisseurs who could see that there was a great artist behind the swift pencil and the bitter sarcasm.
First and foremost Daumier was a draftsman, absorbed in his career of journalistic lithography; it was the vitality of his drawings that were so spare, so pithy, so much to the point, that captivated the public. His visual images, before the days of photography, of course, figured in the development of French opinion in a unique way. In his lifetime, he produced some 6,000 lithographs, many of which were unfortunately lost because of the general indifference to these valuable items.
Eventually other artists came to see the significance of what Daumier was doing, and a few really appreciated him. Baudelaire said that he was a talent of the rank of Rubens and Ingres - a genius. What made his name, however, was his flair for caricature, his sketches of the officers of the court, of the poor people on the streets, of humble persons in waiting rooms, and of street entertainers.
The other medium he developed with great success, and handled with subtlety, was watercolor. When Le Charivari temporarily fell into difficulties after 1848, Daumier found time to paint and, because of his reputation, was commissioned for pictures.
BUT he always loved the black and white of sheer drawing, which he felt contained all that was necessary. As he continued working, his compositions became progressively abstract, and his figures, seen with a sculptor's eye, appeared fully rounded by means of a few swift essential lines. Baudelaire realized this and declared that Daumier was one of the three artists who could really draw, the other two being Delacroix and Ingres.
In painting he learned certain things from Corot and Daubigny, such as how to make fluid and transparent effects. But as he did in his drawings, he always seemed to catch a vivid moment and hold it in time, to portray the predominant feelings of the subjects, to convey action and rhythm.
His colors, in both watercolor and oils, were limited in range: brown, ocher, red, blue - emphasized with the pen.
In ``The Grand Staircase of the Palais de Justice,'' the illustration shown here, we see the immense pride of the lawyer, his vanity and self-consciousness, as he descends the great staircase. Daumier had drawn this same scene some 15 years earlier for a lithograph in Le Charivari; that sketch included the figure of a second lawyer.
In this later picture he deals with only one - a pompous man whom one instinctively mistrusts. How perfectly he recreated the whole environment and its implications, while giving us a living personage, real enough to dismay our sensibilities while honoring the perspicacity and genius of the artist.