by Brooke Chilvers
For reasons I will never quite understand, my charming 26-year-old Florida niece set her heart on getting married in our (then) backyard in a little town in France along the l’Oise River in the Vallée des Impressionnistes. The dozen guests occupied the entire B&B in leafy Valmondois that faced the monument to its most famous inhabitant, artist and political satirist Honoré Daumier (1808–1879).
Among the town’s time-worn manors stands the surprisingly modest dwelling where Daumier lived out the last 15 years of his penurious life. For despite his extraordinary output over 50 years—thousands of lithographs, woodcuts, sculptures, drawings, and oil and watercolor paintings—he could never afford a proper home along the gurgling Sausseron River.
Daumier lived through many upheavals: Napoléon I’s overthrow of the French Directory and self-declaration as Emperor; the restoration of King Charles XVIII; the 1830 Revolution that ushered in King Louis-Philippe’s July Monarchy; the 1848 February Revolution that saw Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis-Napoléon, elected the first president of the French Republic, only to proclaim himself Emperor Napoléon III; the Franco-Prussian War; the Paris Commune; and the shaky beginnings of the Third Republic.
He skewered them all, as well as almost every aspect of Gallic life, including its newly minted urban anglers and huntsmen.
The father of France’s most esteemed caricaturist was a glazier and picture-framer in Marseille, whose yearnings for poetry and playwriting plunged his fragile family into poverty in Paris. At age 12, Daumier worked as an errand boy to the court bailiff, which formed his impressions of lawyers, judges, and the justice system, for life.
At 14, he received his first formal art training from the elderly academic, Alexandre Lenoir (1761–1839), who is mostly remembered for rescuing great works of art from destruction during the French Revolution. Still, Daumier basically taught himself by copying Rubens, Titian, and Rembrandt at the Louvre. His job of preparing the lithographic limestones for portraits commissioned by the emerging bourgeoisie helped the young artist develop his keen eye and energetic style and stroke, which did not rely on human models or preliminary sketches.
Notoriety first arrived through his “cartoons” in various political weeklies, including La Caricature and Le Charivari. His 1832 depiction of King Louis-Philippe as an obese, pear-headed Gargantua gorging on baskets of poor taxpayer’s money while shitting honors on his sycophants, landed Daumier in jail. His work would also be printed in albums with titles such as Men of Justice, Marital Customs, and Chasse et Pêche, which was published in English as Hunting and Fishing in 1946 and 1975.
In the 1830s, lithography was popular with Paris’s new art-buying classes. But it’s important to remember that for his hundreds of lithographs, Daumier only produced the artwork; he did not write the captions. Thus, his actual convictions remain unknown, as this man of few words left no diaries or declarations.
During periods of crackdowns on political satire, Daumier switched from politics to human behavior with all its arrogance, mannerisms, and eccentricities, especially sportsmen whose hobbies he never shared. One relishes, Ne Tirez Pas! – Don’t shoot!!! of the hunter crouching in the bushes. And “Hello! My good man! How much for your hare? Four francs? I will give you five francs, but hold it up like that so I can shoot it.” In works like Hunting in Autumn, he pans drenched sportsmen feigning pleasure.
For 15 years, Daumier resided on the Quai d’Anjou on Paris’s île Saint-Louis, where he could observe the city’s anglers along the Seine. Interestingly, the tone of these lithographs is more wry than caustic. Compared to his courtroom caricatures, his touch is lighter, with simpler compositions stripped of details. He evokes summer light with a few suggestive strokes on a white sky, or pouring rain with scratches of white parallel lines against darkened heavens.
If outlandishly outfitted nouveau-aristocratic hunters mistaking dogs for ducks and sparrows for partridge make easy targets, Daumier’s Sunday fishermen are more petite bourgeoisie. His voice is just slightly more forgiving of Parisian anglers topping off their catch at the fishmongers before returning home, of self-absorbed fishermen oblivious to the man drowning next to his boat or smooching with his wife.
Daumier never spares marriage. Holding an umbrella in one hand and his rod in the other, the breadwinner announces to his soaked wife, So we’re not leaving after all! Hortense, I think I’m going to get a bite… just a little half-hour more.The expectant husband scolds his yawning wife, You’re always in a hurry! We arrived at noon and it’s only a quarter past five… give me some time – I’m sure I’ll end up catching one.
But Daumier could never ignore politics for long. After the French defeated the Austrians at Solferino, the artist shows a baggy-trousered Zouave remarking to the Teutonic officer fishing from the opposite bank, Tell me, camarade… you agree that life is peculiar… yesterday we were hunting each other and today we are fishing together.
Balzac declared that Daumier “has some Michelangelo under the skin!” And Delacroix wrote to him, “There are few men I admire more than you.” Van Gogh appreciated the “strong and manly” energy of his brushstroke, and Degas collected his works. Daubigny first brought him to Valmondois, and Corot gave him the money to purchase his humble abode there. Yet the artist died at home, broke and nearly blind after three days of great suffering.
Brooke Chilvers is happy to report that five years later, the young couple from Florida is still married.