Paul Gavarni

Portrait of Paul Gavarni
Self-portrait by Paul Gavarni.

Paul Gavarni was born Guillaume-Sulpice Chevallier—He first signed his work Hippolyte Chevalier. A mere article would hardly be adequate to encompass the work and the life of the artist who depicted the mores of the nineteenth century. We’ll simply try to give here essential biographical information and to outline the three phases in the evolution of Gavarni’s talent. Anyone wishing to collect his work should own the catalogue by Messrs. Mahérault & Bocher.[1]

Gavarni came to light relatively late, when he was already in his thirties. He was a Parisian, born January 13, 1804, rue des Vieilles-Haudriettes of Sulpice Chevallier, born in 1745, and of Marie-Monique Thiémet, born in 1770. Marie-Monique was a sister of Guillaume Thiémet, painter, artist and merry humbug, who was Gavarni’s godfather. He started working with an architect while still a child, and later went to work at a precision instrument factory. In 1818, he studied mathematics and went to school at the École du conservatoire, to learn to draw machines. From this education, he retained a taste for mathematics and the speculation of pure theory on scientific issues. He retained it to such an extent that, at the end of his life, this taste turned into an obsession.

When he was twenty, he began to draw small lithographs for Miss Naudet and for Blaisot, to earn some money, in particular the album Récréations diabolicofantasmagoriques (Devilish and phantasmagorical recreations), released in 1825, and of which the copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale might be the only one left. He got a job with Adam, an engraver who, in 1824, offered to send him to Bordeaux to make an engraving of the bridge. The young man agreed to this assignment and to the twelve hundred francs salary that came with it. He left for Bordeaux, but he couldn’t adjust to office work and resigned in 1825.

With a child-like lack of foresight, he then set out on a trip, cane in hand, with a few drawings, a few clothes, a pipe and his pencils as sole luggage. He reached Tarbes in a state of absolute poverty and soon found himself in a most precarious situation. Fortunately, he was accommodated by Mr. Leleu, chief surveyor of the land registry. Under the guise of an occupation in his department, Mr. Leleu provided him with room and board, a secure and quiet existence, pleasant acquaintances and the opportunity to draw landscapes, to write his impressions and to go touring the Pyrenees. Struck by the beauty of the Cirque de Gavarnie, Chevallier remembered this name when he had to choose one for himself.

Back in Paris in 1828, Chevallier, who was only taught line drawing, started working on the human figure, driven by some kind of intuition. Without a teacher or any advice, he swore to himself that he would study from life only, and for two or three years he piled study upon study.

From 1830 to 1838, Gavarni was a fashion designer, drawing costumes, fancy dresses, album designs that were very much appreciated and giving fashion design a brand new charm and grace. Unique in designing clothes for women, he even discovered the secret of lending some elegance to men’s wear.

Illustration from the series “Les débardeurs”
Illustration from the series "Les débardeurs."

He supplied lithographs to some twenty different publications, such as L’Artiste, Émile de Girardin’s La Mode, and so on. He also published a series of Parisian types, featuring among others Physionomies de la population de Paris, which was the subject of a flattering article from Balzac, and delightful studies of children. This period in his life was very active. He worked and improved his drawing skills and he loved the carnival, he was crazy about masked balls, dances at the opera, at the Théatre de la Renaissance, bals Berthelemot, bals Chicard (Berthelemot and Chicard dances)… He launched costumes that became all the rage: the débardeur,[2] the patron de bateau (the shipowner).

He was also a keen womanizer although it is impossible to tell whether he ever really loved. Cold and convoluted in his love letters, which seemed to be just another stylish fencing exercise for him—if one is to judge from the fragments that have been passed on—he was a true 1830 dandy. Handsome with blond and curly hair, elegant, fashionable,[3] sophisticated and laying down the law on men’s wear, he wore rings over his gloves and was incomparable for the curve of his hat and the cut of his suit. He sought the company of writers (rather than artists), inviting his friends–both male and female–to his home to join private parties. These were true artists' parties, which he himself described as follows: “We mock everything, life, art, love, and the women who are there and don’t care about mockery.” The time had not come yet when Gavarni would have the rare good fortune–let’s speak the word: genius–to find a new literary form: his captions.

There came a time when he wanted to stand on his own two feet and have his own paper, the Journal des Gens du Monde, which was founded in 1833 and folded almost immediately, leaving Gavarni in a difficult financial situation. Finally, his ideas took shape and he found his style. His work was inside his head, all ready to come out and conquer. Gavarni, in his first guise as a fashion designer, with a charming yet slender talent, was followed by the great Gavarni of the second period, who broke out in the thousand lithographs delivered to the Charivari between 1837 and 1848.

Illustration from the series Les étudiants
Illustration from the series "Les étudiants"

"Miss Bienaimée, please."
"She’s not in. What did you want?"
"Oh nothing, just to talk to her… But will you please tell her that she’s awaited rue Neuve St. Georges? she’ll understand."
"I’m afraid I understand what that means too!"

He became the author of Les Fourberies des Femmes and Les Lorettes,[4] of La Boîte aux lettres and Les Enfants terribles, Les Actrices and Les Coulisses, Les Étudiants and La Vie De Jeune Homme, of Monsieur Loyal, and Clichy, of La Politique des Femmes, and Les Impressions de Ménage, of Paris le matin, and Paris le soir, Carnaval, and Les Débardeurs.

Gavarni, as Sainte-Beuve puts it, set to depicting and silhouetting society in all directions and from top to bottom: the high society, the not so high society—all sorts of societies, capturing the life of his time. He grabbed modern life by every available handhold, imitating no one, looking for nothing else, swimming in open water and taking us in his wake, amidst the stream of the manners of the time. He was Gavarni with an inexhaustible wit who, at the bottom of a graceful drawing, always interesting thanks to rational observation, would write a caption full of subtle humor.

It would sometimes unfold like a short comedy, or be condensed like a geometrical axiom. Amusing and light-hearted when taken separately, Gavarni’s captions showed their true color of skeptical melancholy and of deep and powerful meaning when considered as a whole. He could, through the accuracy of faces, careful rendering of clothes, and the precision of poses and bearing, unmistakably express the age, quality, occupation, habits, manners and ridiculous ways of the characters he depicted. He made them speak a language that was stunning with original exactness, feeling, and novelty.

Gavarni—and that's why he is great—created two genres at once: the pencil-drawn comedy of manners and the caption. His reputation became huge. True enough, much of his audience only saw the funny aspect of the genre, and called his drawings “caricatures”, without noticing any difference with those of Daumier. But all sensitive souls were seduced by their elegance and subtlety, and easily perceived their uniqueness.

Those were the days of masked balls, says Mr. de Chennevières. At the Opéra and at the Théatre de la Renaissance, Gavarni’s débardeurs and chicards were all the rage. We were all crazy about Gavarni then, crazy about his pencil, crazy about his captions, just like we would soon become crazy about Musset. At that time, Gavarni was also very busy with various works for book publishers, illustrating Les Français peints par eux-mêmes (Pictures of the French), The Wandering Jew, Physiologies, and Le Diable à Paris. But there is more to this latter work than just book illustration: it is the continuation of his endeavor, of the contemporary comedy, with the only difference that the pieces were engraved on wood instead of being lithographed.

From the series Carnaval, from Le Diable à Paris
From the series "Carnaval," from "Le Diable à Paris."

He gave to the Revue musicale his series Musiciens comiques and Physionomies de chanteurs, which are so funny. He drew one hundred pieces for La Correctionnelle. He didn’t give up fashion drawing. In the Charivari, he persistently advertised clothes from the famous tailor Humann. And Humann, for his part, told anyone who would listen that only one man in the world could design a black suit and that this man was Gavarni. This blending of art, literature and dandyism was the unique aspect of Gavarni’s personality. He was the epitome of distinction, lending distinction to everything that went through his pencil or his pen.

If ever a man seemed to be made to live indefinitely the life of a bachelor, it was Gavarni: yet he got married (in December 1844, to Mademoiselle de Bonabry). The arrangement of the garden became his passion. Ah! this garden, this amazing garden at Auteuil, a bottomless pit designed and redesigned twenty times, where he planted and dug up and planted again the rarest and most ruinously expensive species of trees. The garden that he would start reworking at one end, and, when he thought he was done with it, at the other, where mounds turned to hollows and hollows to mounds through constant whims, and everyone knows the cost of laborers’ sweat and of the comings and goings of their wheelbarrows. It is those shovels full of earth, dug over and over, that buried all of Gavarni’s earnings during the long period of his stay at Auteuil; that was his true joy, but did he pay for it.[5] In December 1847, Gavarni left for England, with darkness in his thoughts and business worries that turned his journey into an exile from France, at least for a while. He thought that he would stay in England only a few weeks. He remained almost four years.

Gavarni made a singularly awkward entry in London. He had left France with the declared intention to take high society and the court as subjects for his observation and drawings. The English aristocracy, for its part, thought of Gavarni exclusively as “the painter of French elegance” and expected him to become the painter of British elegance. Gavarni must have seen at first glance, immediately upon his arrival, that the mistake was on both sides, and that the role of quasi-official artist of fashion did not suit him at all. He evaded this situation much more abruptly than was necessary to the point that he refused to do the portraits of the Queen and of Prince Albert. Here’s what Sainte-Beuve reports on this matter:

The Casino, from Gavarni in London
The Casino, from "Gavarni in London."

Gavarni arrived preceded by his reputation as a witty painter of Parisian society life and elegance. The British aristocracy thought that it had found in him an artist to its liking, but soon realized that it had taken too much for granted.

When he first arrived, he had the intention to put to good use the opportunities that were kindly offered to him. The duc de Montpensier provided him with an introduction to Prince Albert. Mr. Antoine de Latour, in the name of the duc de Montpensier wrote to Gavarni on January 25, 1848: His Royal Highness has been informed that Queen Victoria was surprised to have not seen you yet. If you are anxious to do Her Majesty’s portrait, know that Her Majesty is just as impatient to pose for you. It is a propitious moment from which you’ll benefit, and I hope to please you by letting you know.

Mr. Meyer invited Gavarni to come to Windsor on February 2, on behalf of Prince Albert. You’ll find, he said, that Her Royal Highness is quite willing to pose for you. Gavarni was granted the audience and didn’t follow up. The amiable Comte d’Orsay, who supported him at the court and in high society circles, might just as well have spared himself the trouble.

There is something strange and unexplained about this long exile of Gavarni in London, far away from his family, from his home, in this secluded, contemplative and isolated existence, devoted to thought and meditation, and to misanthropy. This was the time when Gavarni began to be absorbed in his fantasies of mathematics, of celestial mechanics and scientific inventions, and to fill the margins of his drawings with equations.

The time spent by Gavarni in London is an interval between the two main parts of his work. This is not to say that he didn’t draw in London: he made superb watercolors, and drawings on wood for Gavarni in London, the Illustrated London News, the French magazine L’Illustration, etc… As regards lithographs, we must mention an outstanding piece, the famous Piper, a remembrance of a trip to Scotland.

Gavarni returned to France in late 1851 and for two years he produced an extraordinary amount of drawings. His ideas were renewed; his manner had changed. As soon as 1851, he started working on a new lithographic series, which he soon had the opportunity to develop. In 1852, the young comte de Villedeuil set up a daily newspaper, Paris, and offered Gavarni twenty-four thousand francs a year to be its only illustrator. That is, one lithograph—and one caption—per day. Gavarni accepted the deal, and proved reliable. Paris was banned by administrative action after a year, but most of the three hundred and twenty-nine lithographs could be published, under the collective title of Masques et visages, which included eighteen series of drawings. But it didn’t stop at that: while working on hundreds of lithographs, he did hundreds of watercolors.

Illustration from Masques et Visages (Masks and Faces)
Illustration from the series "Masques et visages."

With Masques et Visages, we are introduced to the third of Gavarni’s change in style. He modified the way he drew and adopted a new approach: the characters are no longer represented in full length, but invariably from the waist up, and in bigger dimensions. The characteristic of these drawings, and their flaw in the long run, was that they were done from memory. Gavarni was no longer the cheerful young man who roamed the world, the workshops, the theaters, the dance halls, always immersing himself in direct observation: he was already an aging man, who lived in seclusion, overwhelmed with work, master of his trade, and whose prodigiously stocked memory provided any human type he needed at first request. As for the technical side, he was better than ever.

Captions, as a whole, had lost enthusiasm and cheerfulness to take a sad, more sophisticated turn, more philosophical and deeper too. Les Invalides du Sentiment, Les Lorettes Vieillies, this is where Gavarni’s new style was to be found, his new moralistic style. But did he seriously intend to become a moralist? Those who knew him answer: he couldn’t have been bothered, he had too much wit and sense to come off as the gentleman who insists on “rubbing salt in our wounds” and “cauterizing society.”

His Vireloque, who chases with bitter irony the great absurdity of the nineteenth century, is not a declaration of principles or a misanthrope’s manifesto of skepticism. It is an artist’s find. Gavarni in 1851 didn’t rage against his day and age. Apart from some dark and bitter moments, he was kindly, amiable and charming, and he loved telling stories. He was amusing and amused by his own tales. Moderation was his distinctive feature. Equally powerful at writing and drawing, he never wrote or drew any personal attack. As regards to politics, we know that he hated not the people, but the politicians who deceived the people, the people lovers, as he called them. As for religion, he had as little faith as was possible, yet there was no hint of aggressiveness on this matter in his work: it wouldn’t have been in the manner of a man comme il faut

Around 1857, Gavarni added one hundred new lithographs to Masques et Visages, in two series: Par-ci, Par-là and Physionomies Parisiennes. In 1858, he drew four series of ten drawings for D’Après Nature: this was the end, not of his work, but of his Œuvre, and like a farewell to the audience. Coming to the last lithograph of the last series, he seemed to cast a melancholy gaze upon his past, and for one last time to catch a glimpse of youth, dances, and women: it is a débardeur that turns up at the tip of his pencil. Below, he wrote this thought, worthy of the earlier Gavarni, these last words–his last caption: Il lui sera beaucoup pardonné, par ce qu'elle a beaucoup dansé (Her many sins will be forgiven, for she danced much).

Was it a mistake to stay four years away from Paris? Or not to resume his collaboration with the Charivari, as it was the newspaper in which his audience was accustomed to find him? or to adopt this new approach to drawing characters, representing them down to the waist? The fact remains that at the time, he was unable to repeat his past success. The audience had lost the thread: used to laughing with Gavarni’s students and lorettes, it was disoriented and baffled by the sadness of Les Invalides du sentiment and Les Lorettes vieillies.

her many sins will be forgiven, for she danced much
Her many sins will be forgiven, for she danced much.

But what does the opinion of the moment matter? The reaction was swift: as soon as it became possible to take a step back and to encompass with a single glance the whole of this work–one of the most extraordinary that history of printmaking has to offer–of this contemporary Comédie in seven or eight thousand figures, Gavarni’s name raised in universal opinion to the rank that it would hold forever: the parallel with Balzac was obvious.

Gavarni was awarded the Légion d'honneur in 1852. To the Goncourt brothers, who came to congratulate him, Gavarni replied: "I greatly desired the cross when I used to dress up, but now…" and he indicated with his eyes the blue smock that he used to wear in his garden. His life became increasingly withdrawn, to such an extent that from 1855 on, there is hardly anything to be said about it. None of the men of this generation have known him, most haven’t even seen him walk by.

A great misfortune came upon him and left him overwhelmed: the loss of his son Jean was a staggering blow. In 1863, he got one more reason to grieve: the expropriation of part of his garden at Auteuil on behalf of the railway belt around Paris. Let us hear about his last years from Mr. Yriarte:

He moved temporarily to the avenue de l’Impératrice, but he never completely settled. At that time, he was already ill: tormented by asthma and nerve irritation that made speaking very painful, he could be seen to halt suddenly and catch his breath with difficulty, and if he was walking, he would lean on a piece of furniture or a chimney, stooped, with a pale face. But he otherwise remained handsome, still upright and firm. His beard was gray, his hair, still thick, surrounded his powerful head. He was no longer the fair and elegant gentleman of the famous portrait with the cigarette, he was the old scientist who remembered the dandy.

He lived as little as possible, he had cut out every effort and all spontaneity, other than those involved in reasoning and studying, and he had developed a relentless passion for the indisputable truth, the mathematical truth… He had become a pure spirit, never hungry, never thirsty, never succumbing to sleep, desiring nothing, indifferent to all things of this world. The sight of his son (Pierre) was his only tie with this earth, he was the one who tried to take him away from the mathematical studies in which Gavarni indulged with a sort of intoxication. He hardly ate anymore, he had ceased to sleep and remained as though immersed in a state of somnambulism, imbued with the most amazing lucidity.

From his window, Gavarni could have seen all the crowd of the Bois de Boulogne pass by, these stylish men and lorettes he had painted and created, but he never raised the green curtain that dimmed the daylight, and he only looked within himself. He once went eight months without leaving home, although he wasn’t sick. Soon he ceased to draw, but he would still paint beautiful watercolors with lovely silvery hues, which he enhanced with gouache that he dexterously applied with the tip of his palette knife… He left the Avenue de l’Impératrice in 1866 and rented a rather sad little house in a hamlet near Auteuil, where he moved temporarily. This is where death took him, in the middle of a choking fit, November 24, 1866.

Translation by OBI

This article is based on Les graveurs du XIXe siècle, Vol. 7 written by Henri Béraldi and published in Paris by Librairie L. Conquet, 1888.

  1. ^ François Mahérault wrote under the pen name of Armelhault.
  2. ^ Gavarni’s débardeurs are characters wearing a kind of costume loosely inspired by the outfit of workers unloading logs.
  3. ^ In English in the original.
  4. ^ The definition of lorette given by Émile Littré is as follows: Name given to some women of pleasure who hold the middle ground between the grisettes and the kept women, not having a trade in hand, like the grisettes*, but not depending on a man, like the kept women. (Littré, Émile. Dictionnaire de la langue française. Paris: L. Hachette, 1873-1874. Electronic version created by François Gannaz.
    * Who were often dressmakers or embroiderers (Translator’s note).
  5. ^ Chennevières, Philippe de (1820-1899). Souvenirs d’un directeur des Beaux-Arts. Paris: Aux Bureaux de L'Artiste, 1883.
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