Paul Gavarni

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 talk to her… But will you please tell her that she’s awaited rue Neuve St. George? she’ll understand.”
“I’m afraid I understand what that means too!”

He became the author of Les Fourberies des Femmes and Les Lorettes[1], 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.

    1. ^ 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. https://www.littre.org)
    • * Who were often dressmakers or embroiderers (Translator’s Note).