The Daumier Retrospective: More Than a Caricaturist

There are retrospective exhibitions of well-known artists that ought to be accompanied by a warning label that would read: Do not understand this artist too quickly! In other words, what you know, or think you know, may not be all there is to know. The French painter, sculptor and caricaturist Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), whose work is currently the subject of a large and wonderful exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is an artist who would certainly benefit from such a cautionary injunction, especially on this occasion. For this is, astonishingly, the first ever retrospective to give the public a comprehensive account of the entire range of Daumier’s achievements.

Famous he is, of course, and rightly so, for Daumier is an immensely appealing and accomplished artist. In every aspect of his work, he brings us closer to the life of his time at every level of society and culture than any other visual artist of his period, which was one of the greatest periods in the history of French culture. It is for this reason that his oeuvre has often been compared to Balzac’s. Yet, Daumier’s fame mainly derives from but one aspect of his copious and many-sided endeavors: the pungent and abundant caricatures of contemporary social and political life that made him something of a culture hero in the middle and later decades of 19th-century France. That he might also have been a painter of considerable consequence, a sculptor of distinction and a draftsman of genius are not matters that, until now, anyway, the public has been in much of a position to appreciate.

It is one of the many virtues of this Daumier retrospective that it accords to all of the artist’s accomplishments the kind of concentrated attention they merit. The caricatures that made him famous are by no means neglected or diminished. They did indeed occupy a very large part of Daumier’s life. He produced nearly 5,000 of these satirical prints over the course of a 50-year period, and for one of them–his horrific and hilarious Gargantua (1831), a scatological caricature of the French monarch Louis-Philippe–he was arrested and even served a brief prison term. The labor of study and selection that enabled the curators of the exhibition to reduce this enormous corpus of prints to a representative sampling of 74 lithographs for this show is impressive, to say the least, and does much to explain why such a retrospective had not been attempted before.

Even in this aspect of Daumier’s oeuvre , which is the most familiar to most of us, there are many revelations to be savored. For they contain a range of subjects and sympathies, of irony and indignation, comedy and pathos, that is not customarily associated with the art of caricature. There is also a technical virtuosity that confers on each of its subjects, from the most repulsive to the most sympathetic, a finely judged emotion that is totally devoid of cant or sentimentality. No profession or social class is exempted from Daumier’s undeceived comprehension of the human comedy, and every comic touch is accompanied by a mordancy that can make us shudder even before we have stopped laughing. It is no wonder that Baudelaire compared Daumier’s caricatures to the plays of Moliere.

In this exhibition, however, this classic corpus of caricatures shares attention with no less than 75 paintings, 57 drawings and watercolors, and 39 sculptures. It is the paintings that are likely to be the greatest revelation in this retrospective, for we have never before seen so many of them assembled in a single exhibition. Painting was anything but a sideline for Daumier. It was in fact the medium in which he made his most profound contribution to the art of his time. That he appears to have been entirely self-taught as a painter makes his achievement in this medium all the more remarkable

As a painter he is usually classified as a Realist, but with a contemporary Realist like Courbet he had little in common. Daumier’s is a much darker sensibility than Courbet’s, a sensibility that is closer to that of the “black” paintings of Goya than to the sunlit world evoked in Courbet’s landscapes. Daumier’s is also a more urban, more cosmopolitan vision than Courbet’s. The solitude that is Daumier’s most powerful subject in his paintings is an urban solitude. The virtuosic attention to detail that is one of the glories of the artist’s lithographs is often abandoned in the paintings in favor of a pictorial drama of light and shadow, with shadow the dominant element. Not always, to be sure. In a painting like A Third-Class Carriage (circa 1862-64), in which a subject explored in the artist’s lithographs is carried over into painting, certain details remain. But even there they are enclosed in a pictorial structure of shadow and silhouette. And in the later masterpieces like Two Sculptors (circa 1872-75) and the first version of The Painter at His Easel (circa 1870-75), detail is radically occluded as we are plunged into a maelstrom of painterly dusk.

With these late paintings, which were produced when Daumier had abandoned caricature and was living in impoverished circumstances, it hardly makes any sense to consider him a Realist. He had in fact become a kind of Expressionist avant la lettre , and this was what he was seen to be by the very few connoisseurs of modern painting in the early decades of the 20th century who were drawn to his work in this medium. One of the most perceptive of these connoisseurs was indeed Duncan Phillips, who, in founding the Phillips Collection in 1921, created the first museum of modern art in the United States. Phillips understood better than most that Daumier had created something distinctly modern in his painting. Which is why some of the greatest of Daumier’s paintings, including the two late paintings already mentioned, were acquired early on for this distinguished collection of modern art.

No doubt this is also why the Phillips Collection is the only American venue for this marvelous Daumier retrospective, which has been organized by the Phillips in collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in France. It remains on view in Washington, D.C., through May 14.