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: Bas-Relief by Daumier


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The recent acquisition of a bronze relief entitled The Fugitives by Honoré Daumier is of dual significance in the Institute's collection. Not only is it closely related to the oil painting of the same title belonging to the Institute, but it is also an impressive addition to the group of bronzes by modern painters announced last May. Like the works by Degas, Renoir, and Picasso acquired at that time, the new relief by Daumier is an outstanding example of a creative use of the potentialities of sculpture by an artist known primarily for his paintings, drawings, and prints.The bronze, executed in moderately high relief, is a long narrow panel 14 1/2" high and 30" wide. Although it cannot be exactly dated, it was most probably modelled about 1848.1 Actually, the artist made two versions of the subject in clay, both of which were then cast in plaster by his friend, Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume who owned them for many years. Four more plaster casts were made later, after Daumier's death in 1879, and in 1893 Victor's son, Adolphe Geoffroy-Dechaume gave one cast of the second version to Armand Dayot who had five numbered bronzed made from it by the foundry of Siot-Decauville. Our bronze is Number 4 of the group and was formerly in the collection of Armand Dayot.2Within the somewhat narrow limitations imposed by the medium, Daumier accomplished an expressive power and technical skill to be envied by any full-time professional sculptor. Across the surface of the panel, moving from right to left, it a procession of refugees, unclothed and carrying the smaller children and their few remaining possessions in their arms and on their shoulders. The arrangement of the figures in such a way that they are seen from the front in the right half of the relief and from the back in the left half together with the indistinct modelling of the figures on the extreme ends, creates the sense of a great sweeping curve moving forward from the right toward the viewer, then turning and disappearing into the distance on the left. Thus, the group we see is but a small section of a compressed mass that flows by with an endless continuity. While only about a dozen figures are defined with adequate clarity to be seen as individuals, the shadowy forms in the background and along the edges imply an almost limitless horde moving forward in slow and steady progress.Although the atmosphere of the work is clearly somber, there is the implication, however subtle, of a certain progress and hope. This is suggested by several compositional devices worth noting, and by the use of fairly obvious symbols. Although the figures generally overlap each other to form an interwoven mass, in actuality the composition is broken down into two groups of equal weight, each occupying one half of the panel and joined by the female figure in the center. The right group is characterized by pathos and destitution; their heads are uniformly bent, their shoulders sag, the woman covers her eyes as she staggers forward in dejection, and the only face that is clearly defined in the whole relief-that of the figure at extreme right-wears the expression of the destitute, the defeated. At the very center of the composition, however, there is a break, an open space that cleaves the mass into separate sections and even divides the ground beneath. The central figure, a mother carrying a child in one arm and holding the hand of another, bridges the gap both physically, by stepping over the empty space, and compositionally, as a strong diagonal mass. This figure, incidentally, is also the most heavily modelled and is in the highest relief-the relief grows progressively lower and flatter on either side of her.While she is primarily a connecting figure, the mother is both physically and psychologically a part of the left hand group. Not only her left arm, which holds onto the running child, connects her with the others, but the strength of her forward stride and her erect posture are compatible with the straighter backs and raised heads of the mass moving onward into the distance. Although there are no signs of elation or encouragement in the figures of this left group, the predominant upward movement of the lines and forward push of the forms is suggestive of a greater vitality, and implies a future that is brighter than the past from which these refugees have escaped. The progression from right to left is, then, more than simply a passing parade of homeless people; rather, it becomes a positive expression of a strong and basic faith in man and in his future.A comparison of the bronze relief with the Institute's painting of the same title reveals certain similarities and contrasts in conception as well as execution. The painting, thought to have been done in the 1860s, is one of the same format and approximately the same size as the relief. It too depicts a large, anonymous mass of refugees or fugitives pushing forward in headlong flight from an unknown, turbulent destruction, but with a greater urgency and haste than the dejected mass of the bronze. However, unlike the relief, the painting relies more on purely sensory stimulation for its expression than on a precise organization of component elements. Again the composition is divided into two halves, but diagonally rather than vertically with the mob of people tightly unified and contrasted not with each other but with the dark and empty sky. Individuals, except for the horse and rider, have less significance in the painting and exist more as spots of light and color than as richly modelled, well-defined forms. Drama and excitement, as well as the destitution of the scene are to be red immediately from the relationship between the empty landscape, the smoky sky, and turbulent mass rather than by a more methodical study of form, as in the relief.In the last analysis, although these two works have the same subject, one is conceived and executed as sculpture, the other as a painting. Because of this, they utilize wholly different artistic means, produce different visual and tactile responses, and thus necessarily represent wholly different forms of expression with different emotional results. The ideas expressed in the bronze could be stated with such power only in that medium and not in paint, and similarly, the artistic and expressive qualities of the painting would be almost wholly lost if the work had been executed in a three dimensional medium. To have available for comparison and study these two works on the same theme but expressive of different ideas provides the means to a deeper understanding of the artistic process and the creative mind. For these reasons, the Institute is especially happy to announce the acquisition of this bronze and to offer the opportunity for a deeper penetration of the creative skill of this great modern French artist.Endnotes
  1. Jean Adhémar, Honoré Daumier, Paris, 1954, p. 39. The evidence offered here makes such a date much more likely than that of 1871, as suggested by Maurice Gobin in Daumier Sculpteur, Genève, 1952, p. 66.
  2. The history of the work is thoroughly discussed by Gobin, ibid, p. 308-9. The five bronzes were originally owned as follows: M. Paul Bureau (later in the collection of P. M. Turner); Adolphe Geoffroy-Dechaume; Armand Dayot; Professor Hartmann; Mme. Siot-Decauville (later in the collection of M. Maroni).
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Honoré Daumier, French, 1808-1879, The Fugitives. Bronze, height 14 1/2" width 30". Miscellaneous Purchase Fund, 1956.
  2. Honoré Daumier, French, 1808-1879, The Fugitives. Oil on canvas, height 15 3/8" ; width 27 1/8". Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 1955.
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Source: Merrill C. Rueppel, "Bas-Relief by Daumier," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 56, no. 1, part I (Spring, 1957): 9-12.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009