Daumier: Visions of Paris (Royal Academy of Arts)

DaumierposterSince its founding in 1768, the Royal Academy of Arts intended to create a venue to promote the exhibition and education of visual art. The Academy continues to teach the public with their new exhibition, Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris.

Honoré Daumier is displayed as a documenter of everyday life in nineteenth century Paris. He observed the people on the streets and the changing reception of art around him. Amidst the political and social climate, Daumier picked up his pen and created comical caricatures of the bourgeoisie for newspapers. Censorship was particularly adamant at this point, and while his images were continually published, it was not without consequence. His depiction of King Louis Philippe as Gargantua (1831) placed him in jail for six months. This dedication to art, despite public or authoritative opinion reflects Daumier’s pursuit for artistic expression. Visions of Paris enables the viewer to explore Daumier’s Paris in various media.

Man on a Rope, c. 1858 Oil on canvas Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Man on a Rope, c. 1858
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Even though Daumier didn’t create pictures from direct observation, his keen attention to human expression and behavior is readily apparent in his oeuvre. Each line, whether painted or etched is filled with such emotion that it begs the viewer for a second glance. At close range, the lithographs’ lines overlap and crisscross to create realistic, but also expressive, subjects. The technique used to shade every dip and curve transform a subject into an expressive gesture, like a string of letters that are linked to create a descriptive word. Each mark has its purpose, and even in his paintings, Daumier’s attention to line is clear.

In The Miller, His Son and the Ass (1849), Daumier’s brush strokes are deliberate.  The use of pigments starts to parallel the cross-hatching of lines in Daumier’s lithographs. This is especially seen in figures’ flesh, which creates a landscape of shapes on the forearms. The flesh of the laborers begins to shimmer and become more than just a record of everyday life. As the exhibition notes in its pamphlets, Daumier makes memorable pictures of ordinary moments.

Salon de 1857, Triste Contenance de la Sculpture Lithograph, second state, album impression, hand-coloured Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Salon of 1857, Sad expression of sculpture
Lithograph, second state, album impression, hand-coloured
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The lithographs are show-stoppers in the gallery despite the fact that they might be the reason why Daumier wasn’t considered a fine artist during his life time. A particular lithograph, Salon of 1857…Sad Expression, printed in Le Charivari, 1857, can serve as a metaphor for Daumier’s place among his contemporaries. In the image, the crowds at the Paris Salon are so overwhelmed with the paintings on display that they ignore the sculpture even though that it is coming to life. Sculpture, was placed lower on art’s totem pole, like Daumier’s caricatures. At last, Daumier receives the attention his caricatures in the Royal Academy.

Daumier’s wide-ranging talent is recognized in the display of 130 works. Two hundred years later, Daumier’s caricatures still seem relevant to contemporary viewers (I continually found myself silencing a few chuckles throughout the exhibition). The opportunity to see this didactic survey that emphasizes the artist Daumier as a painter, draughtsman and caricaturist for the first time in more than fifty years is not to be delayed.


Aimee Rubensteen is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Daumier: Visions of Paris is at the Royal Academy of Arts until 26th January 2014.