Honoré Daumier

I used just now the term pessimism; but that was doubtless in a great measure because I have been turning over a collection of the extraordinarily vivid drawings of Honoré Daumier. The same impression would remain with me, no doubt, if I had been consulting an equal quantity of the work of Gavarni, the wittiest, the most literary and most acutely profane of all chartered mockers with the pencil. The feeling of disrespect abides in all these things, the expression of the spirit for which humanity is definable primarily by its weaknesses.

They’re good friends
But I keep telling you they’re good friends… Let them sort it out!
For Daumier these weaknesses are altogether ugly and grotesque, while for Gavarni they are either basely graceful or touchingly miserable; but the vision of them in both cases is close and direct. If, on the other hand, we look through a dozen volumes of the collection of Punch we get an equal impression of hilarity, but we by no means get an equal impression of irony. Certainly the pages of Punch do not reek with pessimism; their “criticism of life” is gentle and forbearing. Leech is positively optimistic; there is at any rate nothing infinite in his irreverence; it touches bottom as soon as it approaches the pretty woman or the nice girl. It is such an apparition as this that really, in Gavarni, awakes the scoffer. Du Maurier is as graceful as Gavarni, but his sense of beauty conjures away almost everything save our minor vices. It is in the exploration of our major ones that Gavarni makes his principal discoveries of charm or of absurdity of attitude. None the less, of course, the general inspiration of both artists is the same: the desire to try the innumerable different ways in which the human subject may not be taken seriously.

If this view of that subject, in its plastic manifestations, makes history of a sort, it will not in general be of a kind to convert those persons who find history sad reading. The writer of the present lines remained unconverted, lately, on an occasion on which many cheerful influences were mingled with his impression. They were of a nature to which he usually does full justice, even overestimating perhaps their charm of suggestion; but, at the hour I speak of, the old Parisian quay, the belittered print shop, the pleasant afternoon, the glimpse of the great Louvre on the other side of the Seine, in the interstices of the sallow estampes suspended in window and doorway—all these elements of a rich actuality availed only to mitigate, without transmuting, that general vision of a high, cruel pillory which pieced itself together as I drew specimen after specimen from musty portfolios.

Never laughed so much
I never laughed so much as at the funeral of Bourdin’s daughter…
I had been passing the shop when I noticed in a small vitrine, let into the embrasure of the doorway, half a dozen soiled, striking lithographs, which it took no more than a first glance to recognize as the work of Daumier. They were only old pages of the Charivari, torn away from the text and rescued from the injury of time; and they were accompanied with an inscription to the effect that many similar examples of the artist were to be seen within. To become aware of this circumstance was to enter the shop and to find myself promptly surrounded with bulging cartons and tattered relics. These relics crumpled leaves of the old comic journals of the period from 1830 to 1855 are neither rare nor expensive; but I happened to have lighted on a particularly copious collection, and I made the most of my small good fortune, in order to transmute it, if possible, into a sort of compensation for my having missed unavoidably, a few months before, the curious exhibition de la Caricature Moderne held for several weeks just at hand, in the École des Beaux-Arts. Daumier was said to have appeared there in considerable force; and it was a loss not to have had that particular opportunity of filling one’s mind with him.

Image source:
Daumier, peintre et lithographe by Raymond Escholier, Paris, 1923.
Brooklyn Museum.