Honoré Daumier’s private life was quite unassuming: no passionate romance, no travel to exotic lands, no glamorous friends or luxurious life. His career, however, was far from ordinary. In fact, his courting of les classes ouvrières causes and commitment to political and social satire made him one of the most subversive and original artists of the 19th century.
His creativity was limitless and nourished with incredible political and social upheavals: he lived through six different governments – Monarchy, Republic, Empire -- and three revolutions, in 1830, 1848 and 1870.
Born in Marseille, Daumier was the son of an eccentric glazier, frame maker and restorer with high-flown poetic ambitions, who in 1816, took his family to Paris to pursue his doomed literary career. Honoré, who had to make a living as early as age12, worked as a book dealer's helper and later ran errands for a court bailiff. Though he showed early signs of a talent for drawing, his parents were unable to pay for a proper artistic training. Instead, a family friend, the antiquarian Alexandre Lenoir gave him informal drawing lessons. Daumier refined his skills on his own, sketching in the sculpture galleries of the Louvre. He also attended the Académie Suisse, an informal yet influential art school – Gustave Courbet and many others would attend the school in the 1840s-- that offered inexpensive model sessions. Daumier is said to have made his first experiments in lithography in 1822 at age 14. By 1825, he found employment with a commercial printer, where he perfected his technical skills. From 1829 onward, he produced his own lithographic caricatures.
It was from the time of the 1830 July Revolution that Daumier turned his creative energy to the biting social and political critique for which he is remembered today. This coincided with the relaxation of censorship by King Louis-Philippe, which opened the door to a flood of illustrated pamphlets and publications critiquing his government. In 1831, after working briefly for several short-lived journals, Daumier was hired as a cartoonist by the influential editor, Charles Philipon for a new journal of political satire, La Caricature. This launched his forty-year career as comic artist for the press and the making of about 3,958 lithographs.
At La Caricature, under the pseudonym Rogelin, the initial target of Daumier’s corrosive wit was the government of King Louis-Philippe. Notwithstanding the somewhat loosened censorship laws, Daumier was still condemned to six-months in prison in 1832 for his caricature Gargantua, portraying the King as Rabelais’s gluttonous giant.
In 1835, as new stricter censorship laws made political caricature impossible, Daumier turned his comic genius to social satire and invented the figure of Robert Macaire, the stereotypical parvenu he enjoyed mocking for Philipon's other journal, Le Charivari.
Also in the 1830s, as a result of a commission from Charles Philipon, he modelled and painted a series of small unbaked clay busts of politicians called Célébrités du Juste Milieu. Ruthlessly unadorned but always amusing, these portraits served as models for Daumier’s own lithographs for Philipon's newspapers.
Daumier’s works were the visual translation of Honoré de Balzac’s realism. In fact, at the Caricature, he probably met Balzac, who assisted Philipon in writing some of the magazine’s issues. Daumier’s depiction of the Père Goriot was later used as frontispiece in Balzac’s
Novel, La Comédie Humaine.
1848 marked the beginning of the Second Republic and Daumier’s foray into oils after the somewhat critical success of his allegorical painting, La Republique nourissant ses enfants et les instruisant. In 1849, taking advantage of the recent lax admission rules for entering the coveted Salon, Daumier exhibited Miller and His Son (The Burrell Collection, Glasgow), based on Jean de La Fontaine's fable. His Nymphs Pursued by a Satyr (Museum of Fine Arts, Montréal), Drunkenness of Silenus (Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle, Calais), and Don Quixote et Sancho se rendant aux noces de Gamac appeared at the Salon of 1850. Self-taught as a painter in oil and largely unknown in the realm of Fine Arts, Daumier’s exhibited works were largely ignored by the critics. He counted among his friends Daubigny, with whom he spent his holidays in Valmondois on the Oise and frequently visited Théodore Rousseau and Millet in Barbizon. The freedom associated with the Republic was unfortunately short-lived. Tight censorship rules were introduced with Napoleon III’s accession to power and Daumier was once again forced to limit himself to politically harmless social caricature for Le Charivari.
After 1853, Daumier ceased to exhibit at the Salon but continued to paint privately. Away from academic conventions, he considered himself an “amateur” and practiced experimentally and cautiously his sketch-like technique. Like Balzac in literature, Daumier meticulously recorded an unfiltered representation of society. Caricature and satire, central to his works on paper, are largely absent from his oils.
The final years of his life were darkened by poverty, illness, and growing blindness. In 1874, on the verge of eviction from the small house in Valmondois he had been renting, Daumier was saved by his friend Corot who bought the house for him. In 1878, his first solo exhibition was organized under the patronage of Victor Hugo at the Paris gallery of Durand-Ruel, but appreciation of Daumier as a painter has chiefly developed posthumously. He is now recognized as one of the 19th century’s most profoundly original and wide-ranging realists.