Les Baigneurs
Les Baigneurs

Honoré Daumier was a French painter, wood engraver and sculptor, who is nevertheless most famous as a political cartoonist and caricaturist. He worked in an elegant, virtuose style and experimented with different techniques. Many of his artworks provide a genuine time capsule of 19th-century daily life and politics, but with satirical commentary. Several of his cartoons caused scandals at the time, including the infamous 'Les Poires' (1831) and 'Gargantua' (1831), which ridiculed French king Louis-Philippe so mercilessly that Daumier was fined and jailed for several months as a result. Daumier remains one of the most influential artists and cartoonists of all time and one of the all-time champions of free speech. He also holds significance in comic history by drawing people in a comical, expressive way and making some sequential drawings which can be considered as early pantomime comics.

Masques de 1851

Early life
Honoré Daumier was born in 1808 in Marseille as the son of a glazier who drew in his spare time. Daumier showed early talent as an artist. He admired caricaturist Nicolas Toussaint Charlet, but also studied painters such as Peter-Paul Rubens, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Titian, Frans Hals, Francisco de Goya and Eugène Délacroix. At the age of eight he moved to Paris, where he later studied at the Académie Suisse. He educated himself in the new medium of lithography and created more than 4.000 pictures in this style.

Les Poires by Honoré Daumier

Insulting the French king
In 1829 Daumier met Charles Philipon, editor of the magazine La Silhouette, where he published his first drawings. A year later Philipon founded the satirical magazine La Caricature, in which cartoonists such as J.J. Grandville, Jules David, Victor Adam and Daumier found a place to publish their work. Daumier became well known for his sarcastic portrayals of French society, satirizing politicians, clergymen, judges, the bourgeoisie and even king Louis-Philippe himself. In 1831 he drew a caricature of the king, depicting him as a pear. This lead to an official complaint from the French government. Daumier defended himself by drawing another cartoon, 'Les Poires' (1831), in which he "proved" the monarch's resemblance to a pear by portraying it in a gradual transformation. This only made it worse, both for him as well as the pear-faced king. Republican activists quickly adapted the image in their struggle to depose the tyrant. The sequence was drawn on many walls, making the monarch the laughing stock of the country. 'Les Poires' has become one of the most iconic political cartoons of all time and a classic text book example of "Lèse-majesté" ("offending His Majesty"). The idea of transforming a politician's face into something else has been copied and homaged by numerous cartoonists since. A notable example was German cartoonist Hans Traxler's caricature of German chancellor Helmut Kohl as a pear on the cover of the German satirical magazine Titanic in February 1982. It even gave Kohl his nickname "the Pear". Daumier's cartoon is also interesting for comics historians, since Daumier makes use of a four-panel sequence to achieve his effect.

Gargantua by Honoré Daumier

Another cartoon, 'Gargantua' (1831), depicted the obese monarch as the giant Gargantua from François Rabelais' novel 'Gargantua' (1534). The looming king is seen sitting on his throne, while his loyal subjects feed him tax money. On closer inspection the throne is revealed to be a toilet, from which he shits out political nominations and retributions which keep the rich and powerful people in his country obedient. The caricature achieved its goal brilliantly. King Louis-Philippe was so offended by this simple drawing that Daumier was once again sued. On 23 February 1832 he was sentenced to six months in jail, which he spent between 31 August 1832 and February 1833. La Caricature was forced to shut down, but Philipon founded a new magazine, Le Charivari, where many of his former illustrators, including Daumier, found a new haven. To avoid further trouble they refrained from mocking the king.

Still, in 1834 Daumier had yet another run-in with the law. His lithograph 'Massacre de la Rue Transnonain, 15 April 1834' referred to street riots in Paris earlier that month when police officers bloodily surpressed the demonstration. Many hunted the activists down, even going so far to break in their houses and murder them. Daumier's work depicts several men killed in their own bedroom. They all still wear their evening gowns. Even a little baby wasn't spared and is seen lying underneath the corpse central to the image. 'Massacre de la Rue Transnonain, 15 April 1834' was a powerful work and attracted a lot of criticial attention. The police immediately tried to confiscate it and tracked down as many prints they could find, even taking the original lithographic stone on which the image was drawn. Only one year later press freedom in France was abolished and La Caricature banned.

Le Défenseur, by Honoré Daumier 1860
La Defenseur (1860)

Socially conscious work
While Daumier managed to escape further legal troubles he remained a controversial artist. He created numerous paintings, lithographs and drawings which ridiculed the upper classes. One of these series was 'Les Gens de Justice', a critique of the corrupt legal system. Made in a series of 39 albums they lampoon pompous judges and silver-tongued lawyers. These classic drawings are still popular today and decorate many justice halls, as well as apartments of actual lawyers and judges. Other cartoons show Daumier's sympathy for the common man. One of the most famous is 'Le Wagon de Troisième Classe' (1864), depicting a group of poor people travelling in a third class train wagon. A series of cartoons named 'Les Baigneurs' (1847) mocks swimmers in bath houses and beaches. The use of dialogue underneath the images and humoristic depictions of clumsy and awkward people in swimming costumes makes the work an early example of a text comic. Daumier also illustrated many novels by Honoré De Balzac. He collaborated with J.J. Grandville and Henry Le Monnier on the illustration of Balzac's 'La Chronique de Paris' (1836).

Le Wagon de Troisième Classe (1864)
Le Wagon de Troisième Classe (1864)

Final years and death
After 1865 Daumier succombed into financial difficulties. He left Paris to live in Valmondois, where painter and admirer Camille Corot helped him out. During the 1870s he lost his eyesight and was practically blind by 1873. While his work was popular during his lifetime the elite wasn't very keen on him, first and foremost because he ridiculed them so viciously. Critics dismissed him as an ordinary caricaturist and failed to see the artistic value of his paintings and sculptures. Daumier didn't care much about this criticism. In 1870 he refused to be honored in the Légion d'Honneur. In 1878, a year before he died, an exhibition brought him under new attention and the appreciation he so justly deserved. He nevertheless died in poverty a year later, leaving an enormous legacy behind of more than 4.000 lithographs.

Legacy and influence
Honoré Daumier was a huge influence on generations of graphic artists, including Cham, Félicien Rops, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Feng Zikai, David Levine, Bob van den Born, Alphonse Lévy, Jean-Pierre Girerd, Jan Kruis, Gerald Scarfe, Pat Oliphant, Jack Davis, Tomi Ungerer, Rick Tulka, Emil Ferris and Robert Crumb. Famous novelist Charles Baudelaire named Daumier "one of the most important men, not only of caricature, but also of modern art." His colleague Henry James said: "It attained a certain simplification of the attitude or gesture which has an almost symbolic intensity. His persons represent only one thing, but they insist tremendously on that, and their expression of it abides with us."

Nadar, by Honoré Daumier
Daumier's depiction of photographer and fellow caricaturist Nadar


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