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.
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 His life became increasingly withdrawn, to such an extent that from 1855 on, there is hardly anything to be said about it.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.