Paul Gavarni

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 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).