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: Daumier’s Three Fugitives: Republican Idealism and Independence of Form

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Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
One of the legacies of 19th-century art to the contemporary world might be called the explicit right of the artist to relay on his own experience and his personal perceptions of artistic value as a basis of style. Such as standard had existed in embryo in Western art since the end of the Middle Ages but conscious awareness of it was limited and the range of its application was compromised—looking at the issue from a modern point of view—by the narrow and often rigid conditions imposed by academies and official standards of taste.In the long effort to win this right—an effort which paralleled the 19th-century struggle to realize republican principles in government—the French artist, Honoré Daumier, played a unique double role: on the one hand as the most influential political caricaturist of France for nearly half a century he was a champion of human rights; and, on the other, in his work as a painter he developed a freedom of expression which we look upon today as one of the most significant forerunners of 20th-century art.To the French 19th-century public, which regarded Daumier as a national institution, his genius as a caricaturist was widely acknowledged. But if this was true it was certainly less due to an understanding of his artistic faculties than to the topical issues with which he was dealing and his ability to find trenchant meaning in a welter of confusing circumstance which had a direct bearing upon its everyday life. Today, with the perspective of a century, we can better perceive some of the artistic qualities which assure him a permanent place among the great figures of the era of Western art that began with the French Revolution.One observes an amazing consistency of style throughout the half century of Daumier's activity both as painter and printmaker. Yet there is a wide range of original formal variation to be found almost at any point in his work. This inventiveness merges to imperceptibly with the main outlines of his style that it suggests a pattern followed in learning a language. Vocabulary and construction, steadily enlarged by experience, is recalled and applied to discourse as need and impulse may dictate. Following this parallel, Daumier's growth is assimilative, with innovations and stages of change obscured in an organic complex of interweaving, accumulating formal tendencies. This condition, however, conceals the brilliant character of his pictorial calligraphy and original combination of graphic means, which are responsible for the formal and representational power of his style.In the Institute's new Daumier work, The Fugitives, based upon a theme of a procession of destitute refugees, we can see important phases of Daumier's mastery of these elements in their most developed expression. Most striking is the sculpturesque quality of the three central figures. This effect is produced by presenting the main figures by strongly contrasting planes of light and shade. Although detail is lost in the shade-gloom or erased by the spectral light from the left of the composition, one feels the individual character of dress, action, and even facial expression within the overlapping, twisting brush strokes and in the tracery of lines accenting profiles. The sculpturesque quality of figures was something which Daumier consistently sought and early in his career he adapted the chiaroscuro technique, probably from Rembrandt, both to achieve a sense of three-dimensional mass and to heighten dramatic interest. His trait of building up figures by a rhythmical interweaving of lines, rather than by blocking them out and filling them in, is also noticeable at an early date, but after the great lithograph of the Rue Transnonain of 1834 it becomes freer and more imaginative. One of the extremes to which he carried his use of line for purposes of imaginative suggestion may be found in The Fugitives where, in the contours tracing the profiles of the horseman and the child on foot, the lines are interrupted or hang loose and seem to be there almost by whimsy, like scattered ends of tiny threads. Yet these lines define powerful figures, convincing in action and mood.Daumier's ability to achieve with restricted means an equally powerful feeling of mass action and movement is seldom better seen than in the composition of The Fugitives. An extraordinary activity is packed into the narrow horizontal area reserved for the procession of fleeing figures. The surface plane of the procession moves to and from the observer through the legs and around the hunched shoulders of striding figures in looming projections and deep gullies. At the same time the massed crowd automatically separates itself into clusters of men and women in spite of the even line of the horizon. Beginning with the distant figures at the extreme left, these variations in grouping reach their climax in the central horse and rider and then fall off abruptly in a dim and confused agitation of figures at the right—a pictorial parallel to the crescendo of the 19th-century romantic symphony.As The Fugitives immediately suggests, these formal qualities in Daumier's work cannot be divorced from his subject matter, and, specifically, his interest in man. It was the human being that released his spirit, evoked his sense of humor or tragedy, or stirred his indignation. Both in his painting and his work for journals his sympathies went out first to people generally and most of all little people: their daily lives, their occupations, their trials, their suffering, the atmosphere of their meeting places. His greatest solicitude was reserved for children and the oppressed. He hated self interest, had no pity for practices that warped man's character regardless of circumstance or provocation. He loved clowns and actors and the play on stage—especially the roles of Crispin and Scapin and the parts of the Commedia dell'Arte and he studied with deep sympathy the reactions of the audience, whether in the boxes, orchestra or topmost balcony. For him the artist at work in his studio, the serious art lover and the collector were objects of reverence as profound as were the starved civilian insurgents committing their lives on the Parisian barricades. Although his freedom of style, republican idealism, and the majority of his symbolic subjects place him intellectually in the “Romantic” tradition, the affinity of the period for classical themes is reflected from time to time in his serious treatment of such subjects as “Oedipus and the Shepherd,” “The Bathers,” and his grandiose female symbol of the Republic, painted in 1848, the only work he submitted to competition, which in its scale and serenity recalls the civic goddesses of Greek antiquity.A review of the 4,000 lithographs which he executed for Philipon and other publishers between 1830 and 1878 reveals Daumier's unsurpassed genius for finding and expressing the quintessence of meaning and motive behind events of the moment. It is omnipresent, whether in the startled reaction of a timid Parisian to his first sight of snow in twenty years, in his political symbols, such as the ineffable “Etienne Cupidon Zéphir Le Constitutionelle,” prototype of Colonel Blimp, or again in his interpretation of an official military communique's reporting the troops retiring “in good order” as a headlong rout of terrified soldiers with the battlefield strewn with abandoned arms and material.With the evidence of these caricatures one can well believe that 19th-century violence on the continent, appalling as it was, would have been worse if it had not been for the public safety valve which Daumier's true sense of dignity and proportion provided. Certainly France's body politic and probably its art were never to be quite the same again. Can we imagine La Goulue of Toulouse-Lautrec or Rouault's lawyers and henchmen, or the street scenes of the early Bonnard without him?Yet Daumier's awareness of the man's inherent frailties, his zest in calling attention to them through extreme parody and his relentless campaign against political chicanery are but expressions of his convictions in man's fundamental dignity. The positive expression of this conviction is to be found chiefly in his work as a painter, and in the theme of The Fugitives we find one of the noblest expressions of sympathy for man's suffering and his refusal to be crushed by defeat.Measured in terms that make for interesting biography, Daumier's life was singularly uneventful. He was born in 1808 in Marseilles, was taken by his parents to Paris when he was 15 and remained there until shortly before his death in 1879. About 1830 he became associated with the publisher Philipon to whose journals, La Caricature and Charivari, he contributed the brilliant caricatures of political events, personalities, and middle class life which brought him perhaps greater fame in this field than anyone else. At the beginning of his forty years of work under contract to Philipon he was charged with offenses to the person of the king for his caricature, “Gargantua,” showing Louis Philippe being fed sacks of coins taken from the poor, and was sentenced to prison for six months. The rest of his life was devoted to the arduous and little changing routine of producing cartoons for his journals, a work which forced him to give second place to painting, his chief love.Whatever the specific cause, almost none of Daumier's work as a painter is dated. The Fugitives is no exception. Stylistic comparison inclines one to place it in the late 1860s, such characteristics as the twisting lines of the fluid brushwork, the strong contrasts between lights and shadows, the sketch-like treatment of the hands and lack of definition in the feet, and, especially, the presence of children, shrouded under flowing capes or trudging forward behind their elders, all appearing in a similar manner in lithographs of the late period.Whatever the exact position of this painting in his work, however, and to whatever degree his interest in the procession of human figures may have captured his imagination for the solution of formal problems, we may be sure that this theme of dispossessed refugees moving away from the scene of a destroyed homeland yet sustained by the hope that they may find a place to rebuild their lives elsewhere, was one of the chief symbols of his belief in the justice and respect due all men. Approached from an esthetic point of view, the coming of Daumier's Fugitives to the Institute makes possible renewed appreciation of the fact that art can find its vital subject material in man's social relationships as much as in nature, in personal introspection, or in the metaphorical play of forms, subjects which have been of special interest to artists of our own century. One instinctively does not talk about the abstract qualities in Daumier's oeuvre simply because they do not stop there. They lead us instead directly to a comprehension of a whole view, a mind and a heart that embraces a society, and of man's condition within it.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Honoré Daumier at 65.
  2. The Emigrants. Plaster bas-relief by Honoré Daumier. Museu de Arte, São Paulo. One of several plaster casts of the two clay versions which Daumier made on the “Fugitives” theme.
  3. The Fugitives (detail). Strong contrasts of light and shadow, fluid brushwork and figures outlined by threadlike contours combine in Daumier's idiom to define vigorous movement and suggest plastic form.
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Source: Stanton L. Catlin, "Daumier's Three Fugitives: Republican Idealism and Independence of Form," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 44, no. 2 (March, 1955): 12-15.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009