Against Daumier. A Revision of Early French Caricature and Social Graphics

-abridged version-

L’imagination au pouvoir – Imagination to power  (Charles Fourier)

One has settled down comfortably with Honoré Daumier.  “There is hardly another artist who has become such an epitome of an entire art genre,” (1) Thomas Gaehtgens wrote in his text on the French illustrator published in 1979, and what he meant was the genre of political caricature and social graphics. By and large, this observation is still true. Even today, all that usually comes to mind regarding the extensive complex of caricature history is seldom more than this one person; for one believes to have found a kind of linchpin in his works, of which it counts as secured that they are high art, in the insecure terrain of press illustrations.

One would like to grant this artist, who throughout his life counted as very modest and reserved and was doubtlessly one of the most outstanding press illustrators of his time, this bizarre apotheosis, bestowed upon him in the last years of his life—if it weren’t linked to a total distortion of the genealogical lines of development in the history of caricature, and if this grotesque monumentalizing of his work didn’t impede the understanding of the connections between the experimental achievements of press illustration and variants of early artistic avant-garde movements.

“Daumier lacked one gift: imagination.” These are the words with which his publisher, Philipon, dismissed his long-standing employee in September 1861. (Whether it was actually a dismissal, as Baudelaire suggests, or instead a voluntary demission of the draughtsman, as Philipon claims, is not quite clear. It is however the case that the negative image that Philipon has in the reception of Daumier is mainly based on the assumption of his dismissal.) This shattering judgement by Philipon has repeatedly been met by a lack of understanding, or even outrage, by Daumier’s biographers. As a motive, one assumes either envy, wounded vanity or vindictiveness. But Philipon indeed put his finger on the central problem with which all attempts to canonize this caricaturist have seen themselves confronted from the very start, namely, that it is, paradoxically, precisely this artist who as far as inventiveness is concerned trailed far behind the possibilities of the medium, for which his name has now stood for one and a half centuries.

Edmond Morin: Honoré Daumier. Le Monde Illustré. 22.2. 1879 (Detail) (MePri-Collection)

The Caricature Soldier

In 1829 Charles Philipon won 21-year-old Daumier as the youngest employee of the entertainment magazine La Silouette, in which he was involved as editor and co-publisher. La Silouette was the first continental magazine that regularly published caricatures. Philipon was a journalist and draughtsman and apparently also functioned as an art director for the magazine. He had studied with Alexandre Abel de Pujol and Jean-Antoine Gros, two classical painters of battle scenes from the David school. It was also this context of Napoleonic history painting from which he recruited most of the artistic staff over the years for the caricature movement he initiated.

Jacques Louis David himself, the leader of the classical school, must be regarded as the hidden hypocentre of the movement, which was able to sustainedly shake the very foundations of the royalist constitutions in the first half of the century. During the reign of the Jacobites, he had employed political caricature equally alongside painting as a main instrument to convey the revolutionary ideology.

Jacques- Louis David: Gouvernement Anglais, 1794

Artistic resistance against the restorative regime of Charles X arose particularly around the studio of Baron Gros, in which the Bonapartist sentiment was employed in genre depictions as a pivotal means of subversion. It was Philipon who in April 1830 again opened the Pandora’s box of revolutionary illustrated journalism with an openly caricatural attack against Charles X, which thanks to its unusual placing in the editorial section of La Silouette remained unnoticed by the pre-censorship. In contrast to Jacobite times, the reproduction technique of lithography now offered entirely new possibilities to initiate complex picture campaigns, and Philipon subsequently proved to be a master strategist of pictorial warfare.

Shortly after the July Revolution of the same year, which swept away the absolutist Bourbon rulers and replaced them with an at first liberally acting monarchy of the so-called Citizen-King Louis Philippe. Philipon and a large part of the editorial staff left La Silouette due to internal political disputes and founded the weekly magazine La Caricature. As the editor, Philipon was now able to define the appearance and political orientation of the publication on his own. Even more so than La Silhouette, La Caricature was a graphically oriented magazine addressing an upper-class readership of collectors. Philipon gave his star draughtsmen—above all J.J. Grandville, Henry Monnier and Charles Joseph Traviés—free artistic rein, allowing them to develop their own series of lithographs.

Charles Philipon: Mousse de Juillet. 12.2.1831 (MePri-Collection)

Charles Philipon / Auguste Bouquet: Le Replâtrage. La Caricature, 30.6.1831 (MePri-Collection)

Charles Philipon / Auguste Desperret: Philipon himself as the Caricature-jester fighting against the prosecution authority. La Caricature, 28.3.1833

The artistic ambition that manifested itself in La Caricature was characterized less by the term in the magazine’s name than by a complex set of three central concepts that stood for the defiant intellectual climate in France following the July Revolution: Bohème – Socialisme – Realisme. Decades before Realisme began to assert itself as an attitude in painting, it was put to practice by Philipon’s avant-garde under the flag of Caricature. His friend Nadar, who had worked for him as an editor and caricaturist since the beginning of the 1840s, called Philipon “the great spirit from Lyon” who never showed fear. It is not known whether Philipon—as was the case with Nadar himself, as well as with Grandville and Travies—had sympathized for a while with the teachings of another courageous spirit from Lyon, Charles Fourier. (Many prints of Grandville, especially his volume of illustrations, Un autre monde published in 1844, were inspired by Fourier’s visions.) Fourier’s writings, which were first published in Lyon and began to gain influence during Philipon’s time as a student, covered precisely the range that was later to determine the program of La Caricature: the combination of bizarre fantasy and biting socio-critical analysis.

J.J.Grandville: La Meilleure Forme De Gouvernement – Fourier´s system. from: Un autre monde, 1844

Fourierism, as one of the most prominent movements in Bohemian circles in Paris of the 1830s, links this phase of new artistic departures and revolts with the anarchist caricature movement of the fin de siècle, as well as with the surrealist and situationist avant-gardes of the 20th century. It was foremost André Breton and Guy Debord who distinguished themselves as propagandists of this vision of the liberation of passions. The first avant-garde omniarch of this kind, however, seems to have been Charles Philipon. As the gérant directeur and strategic head of operations, he allowed all sorts of impossible things, in the vein of the creative diversity that Fourier had preached, while at the same time directing his phalanx with an iron hand. (The military nature of Philipon’s actions was often registered by his contemporaries. In his Paris Sketchbook from 1840, William Thackeray called the La Caricature team “Monsieur Philipon’s little army” or “Monsieur Philipon and his dauntless troop of malicious artists.”) It seems that he not only from time to time dictated the themes to his artists, he also actively intervened in their works occasionally, in the sense of minor détournements, turning the harmless content of a genre depiction into a harsh polemic by altering the caption. He degraded unreliable employees such as Grandville and promoted fighters of outstanding merit such as Daumier.

For Philipon’s soldiers, the “warlike” commitment bore little risk, however, since the printers and publishers were usually made responsible in case of actions for slander. And Philipon used his trials in the style of his big role model, the radical English publicist William Hone, for strikingly staged appearances. His addresses to the jury were then published in the magazines he owned. He pulled off the most legendary coup in the history of the illustrated press in November 1831, when the court gave him the opportunity to demonstrate coram publico how a portrait of Louis-Philippe could be transformed by drawing into a pear, a symbol that was both sexually and—through the caricatures of William Hone’s illustrator George Cruikshank—politically connoted. This ‘court drawing’, was also published in La Caricature afterwards. Philipon’s provocative appearances made him tremendously popular, especially in the circles of rebellious students. The English poet Frances Trollope could still make out a mass of evidence of the pear graffiti campaigns in the Quartier Latin, when she visited Paris years later.

George Cruikshank: “Ah! Sure. Such a pair..”(King George IV and Queen Caroline) (Detail). 23.6.1820

Charles Philipon:  The courtroom drawings. La Caricature, 26.1.1832

Charles Philipon: Typographic pear. Le Charivari. 27.2.1834 (MePri-Collection)

Auguste Bouquet: “Ah! petit drôle de Prince, je vous y prends cette fois …. on n’est jamais trahi que par les siens!”, Le Charivari. 24.11.1833 (MePri-Collection)

In three cases, Philipon was sentenced to a total of 13 months in prison. However, the casual conditions of detention allowed him to steer the course of the magazine from prison and initiate the foundation of a new illustrated periodical. Shortly after being released from prison, his illustrator Daumier was sentenced to six month in August 1832. The unexpected example that the judiciary made by prosecuting an artist for the first time laid the foundation stone of the Daumier legend and of his career as a leading press illustrator.

Charles Joseph Travies: “La fête a été magnifique et l’allègresse universelle.” La Caricature, 30.8.1832 (published during Philipon´s imprisonment) (MePri-Collection)

In terms of both style and content, Daumier’s early works were based on the model of Nicolas – Toussaint Charlet, the most popular French graphic artist of the time. Charlet had been a close friend and colleague of early deceased Gericault. In the early 1820s, he and Gericault had been in London and benefited enormously from the example given by English social graphics at the time. With his widely circulated depictions of social misery in the post-Napoleonic period, he became the leading artistic proponent of the anti-dynastic opposition during the years of restoration. Like Philipon, Charlet had studied in the studio of Baron Gros, and it was he who had made the future publisher familiar with the technique and the possibilities of lithography. Charlet’s trendsetting graphics combined both caricatural and social realistic elements and in this symbiotic structure, already in the early 1820s, indicated the dichotomous picture politics that were to distinguish La Caricature a decade later.

Theodore Gericault: “Pity the Sorrows of a Poor Man.” From: Various subjects  drawn from Life and on Stone. London 1821

N.-T. Charlet: “N´Abaondonnez pas cette pauvre veuve.- Do not abandon this poor widow.” Paris 1822 (MePri-Collection)

N.-T. Charlet: “C´est la fin du monde! – It´s the end of the world.” Paris 1824 (MePri-Collection)

N.-T. Charlet: “Le beau bras! C’est comme l’antique – What a beautiful arm. Just like antique!”, Paris 1823 (MePri-Collection)

If Daumier hadn’t moved to the Parisian Ile Saint-Louis in the mid-1840s, the centre of the Bohemians and a very influential neighbourhood at the time, his work would probably have suffered the same fate as that of most of his colleagues. He would have gradually fallen into oblivion. Among the circle of friends he made there were the leading critics Jules Champfleury and Charles Baudelaire, who in the end were both in a position to heave him from the status of a meanwhile unfashionable press illustrator to the ranks of the “illustrious family of great masters.”

Baudelaire’s Ranking

It was Charles Baudelaire, thirteen years his junior, who in 1857 triggered the apotheosis of Daumier with his essay Quelque caricaturistes francais.  This study is remarkable in that it ignores the path of development taken by caricature in the previous twenty years. The yardstick of his assessment comprised criteria he had derived from the critique of painting. The autonomy of the pictorial and the coherence of the picture composition were purist postulates hardly applicable to the fluid and hybrid medium of caricature. It therefore comes as no surprise that a planned chapter on the art of Rodolphe Töpffer was never completed. The pyramidal acumination of his essay toward the elevation of his artist-friend, with whom he had just worked on the publication of a catalogue raisonné, was at the price of a systematic degradation of the entire circle of colleagues.

What he finds outstanding in Daumier, who “certainly” draws “like the great masters”, is above all that he distinguishes himself from the “minor mastery” as he finds it represented by Grandville. While Daumier’s “genius” expresses itself in the pictorial formulation in an “undisguised and direct” way, he discerns in Grandville the closet homme de lettres, “a morbidly literal mind, always searching for bastard means of introducing his thought into the domain of plastic arts.” What remains surprising for a translator of Edgar Alan Poe’s Gothic Romanticism is the phobic “uneasiness” that the “systematic disorder” of Grandville’s fantastic visions aroused in him. Against this sick world of a “flight from images” and “dream faces”, the solid and orderly depictions of an artist like Daumier are set off in a pleasant way. He “carefully avoids everything that for the French audience is not an object of clear and immediate perception.” This down-to-earth attitude creates a work over which lies “a stock of honesty and bonhomie.”

J.J. Grandville: Etrennes au pouvoir. La Caricature 1833 (MePri-Collection)

According to Baudelaire’s line of argument, it is foremost the anatomic precision in Daumier’s drawings that upgrade him to the “special artists from the illustrious family of great masters.” This sublime quality of his drawings, through which he lifted caricature “to a serious art form”, is contrasted by the “vulgar scribbling” of Nicolas -Toussaint Charlet. The devastating harshness of his polemic—Baudelaire calls Charlet a slavish “casual labourer” and a “maker of national inanities”—contributed to marginalising in an almost incomprehensible way the extensive oeuvre of this artist, which was far more important for the development of social realism and lithographic culture in France than Daumier’s.

Edme Jean Pigal: Portrait N.-T. Charlet – “Qui voudra de Charlet expliquer les succès..”, Le Charivari 1842 (MePri-Collection)

A further pioneer of graphical social realism and political caricature, from whom young Daumier also profited by using him as a model, is judged far more leniently by Baudelaire. He deemed Charles Joseph Travies an “excellent artist” of “distinct idiosyncrasy”, who additionally possessed “a deep feeling for the joys and grief of the people.” However, he lacked artistic “security”. “He corrects, improves himself incessantly. He turns, he squirms and chases after an unattainable ideal. He is the prince of misfortune. His muse is a nymph of the faubourg, pale and melancholy.” As a political caricaturist, insecure Travies was far more inventive and powerful than Daumier, though. While Daumier’s social graphics focused on the bourgeoisie, Travies concentrated on the lower classes, on workers, the unemployed, enslaved women, beggars, and orphans. It was not, as it is so often peddled, Honoré Daumier who introduced the figure of the resistive proletarian into the graphic art of modernity but Charles Joseph Travies. Inspired by Jacobite revolutionary graphics, as well as by lithographic cycles of Gericault and Charlet, he had developed, in the bosom of caricature, an iconography of class struggle, in which the stereotypes of 20th-century socialist graphics were already prefigured. When towards the end of the century anarchist draughtsmen of the Montmartre scene, such as Theophile Steinlen, Jules Grandjouan and Frantisék Kupka, continued where Travies had ended, his name had long been forgotten.

Charles Joseph Travies: “Peuple affranchi, dont le bonheur commence..”, La Caricature 27.10.1831 (MePri-Collection)

Charles Joseph Travies: “Décidément! l’arbre est pourri, il n’y a pas une branche de bonne..”, La Caricature, 19.9.1833 (MePri-Collection)

Charles Joseph Travies: Le Chiffonnier, Physionomie de Paris. 1840 (MePri-Collection)

Charles Joseph Travies: “Celles qui deviennent lionnes”, L´artiste. 1844 (MePri-Collection)

J.J. Grandville / Forest: “Je séparerai l’ivraie du bon grain…”, La caricature, 6.10.1831 (MePri-Collection)

James Barre Turnbull: 10,000,000 Organized Workers against Appeasement. 1939 (MePri-Collection)


The Myth of “Rue Transnonain, le 15 avril 1834”

According to Baudelaire, the lithograph in which Daumier depicts the bloodbath that government troops had inflicted on the residents of a block of flats at the Parisian Rue Transnonain on April 15, 1834, is the work in which he proved himself as a “truly great artist”. In the assertion he then makes—that the sheet is “not really a caricature”, for it shows “the trivial and terrible reality of history”—he repeats, in part verbatim, the commentary that the publisher himself had placed in the issue of La Caricature from October 2, 1834, to advertise for this lithograph published as part of a series of expensive subscription editions.

Honoré Daumier: Rue Transnonain, le 15 avril 1834. Edition Association mensuelle. Blatt 24.October 1834

Daumier made the drawing of the massacre as late as five months after the events, in September 1834. He wasn’t on site, but instead reconstructed the occurrence according to eyewitness reports in the manner of historical painting. Particularly the comparison with Goya’s war graphics, to which this lithograph has repeatedly been related, exposes the weaknesses of Daumier’s composition. It appears staged, like the graphical version of an historical painting. Only with a bad grace could the classical ambitions of this print be harmonized with the claim to political topicality, applied to the sheet by the date in the caption.

It has become an established insight that Daumier—here and in many of his caricatures—operated less with facts than with art historical models and allusions. The realism of Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat has been recognised as a source of inspiration, as has the painting Lamentation of Christ by Peter Paul Rubens, in which the body of the crucified Christ is depicted in a foreshortened manner similar to that of the murdered father. But it would suggest itself more to take a look at influences from Daumeir’s direct surroundings. The name of his closest artist-friend Philipp Auguste Jeanron usually only appears in literature on Daumier as the addressee of a letter that Daumier wrote in prison. Gabriel P. Weisberg, who has several times made an effort to contribute to a rediscovery this artist, described Jeanron as “one of the more mysterious figures in the annals of early realism.” (2)  As a follower of the Italian professional revolutionary, Filippo Buonarroti, one of the main proponents of the early-communist Conjuration des égaux, the painter and graphic artist Jeanron ranked among the politically most radical employees at Philipon’s La caricature. Already in the early 1830s, he created programmatic pictures of a critical social realism depicting the impoverishment of the urban and rural proletariat.

Philippe-Auguste Jeanron: Une Scène de Paris. Paris 1833 (Chartres, Musée des Beaux-Arts)

Especially in regard to assessing the factuality of Daumier’s Rue Transnonain lithograph, it is worthwhile to take a look at Jeanron’s work. In a drawing from 1831, showing a group with a dying person wounded in the street fighting of the July Revolution, there are several indications of an adaptation of the mentioned Rubens painting. Daumier must have been familiar with the drawing, for it circulated among his friends, and it suggests itself that he must have spoken with his closest friend about this attempt to mythically idealize a current event from the republican struggle for freedom by modelling it on a sacred picture.

Philippe-Auguste Jeanron: Dying man. Paris 1831 (private coll.)

Peter Paul Rubens: Die Beweinung Christi. 1614 (Wien, Kunsthistorisches Museum)

The macabre lithograph La Republique a páli .., which Jeanron drew in January 1831 for La Caricature, belongs to the most uncompromising sheets this magazine ever published. It depicts the Citizen-King Louis-Philippe in a morgue, who in face of the deathly paleness of two republican victims shot during a revolt in July 1832 finds his saying of the “paling republic” confirmed. Totally unexpectedly, Jeanron has the fictional, caricatural mode of newspaper reality, which constitutes the viewer level of the Citizen-King, as well as that of the newspaper reader, clash with the raw, retinal reality that opens up behind the window pane of the pathological institute. Compared with the photographic reality shock with which Jeanron confronts the reader here, the view that Daumier gave to the death chamber of Rue Transnonain appears almost sedate.


Philippe-Auguste Jeanron: “La République a pâli…”, La Caricature, 31.1.1833 (MePri-Collection)

That Daumier’s lithograph has nevertheless taken on such an extraordinary position is mainly due to the fact that the depiction quite demonstratively did not want to be a caricature in the context of La Caricature. By deviating from the mode of caricature in this way, it appears as if Daumier did not follow an impulse of his own, but a well-conceived strategy of his publisher. Shortly after the workers’ revolt in his hometown Lyon, which preceded the unrest at Rue Transnonain in Paris, he had already responded in the May issue of Le Charivari with a series of graphical depictions of the devastations, which were extremely unusual on account of their objective, topographic style. He had commissioned a local artist to make these drawings, thus, in Davis S. Kerr’s view, already anticipating the graphical journalism of the illustrated press, which was to become established in the 1840s. (3)

Regarding the way in which he reacted to “the blood-soaked side of our modern history”, Philipon again followed the example of William Hone. The illustrated pamphlet, The Political House that Jack built, which he had published in December 1819 in collaboration with the caricaturist George Cruikshank, is a kind of matrix for Philipon’s caricature warfare of the 1830s. With a total edition of more than 100,000 copies and a host of related adaptations and ripostes by the opposing side, this very crude but highly inventive political travesty of a children’s poem was probably the most influential work in the history of political caricature. In a sequence of ten emblemata, the authors argue in favour of freedom of the press and universal suffrage, and against the corpulent pear figure of the incumbent prince regent and future monarch George IV.

William Hone / George Cruikshank: The Political House That Jack Built. (pl.5: The Thing -Pl.8: The Man), London 1819 (MePri-Collection)

The cause and central element of this pictorial pamphlet was the massacre that government troops had committed against protesters on St. Petersfield in Manchester on August 16, 1819. The depiction of this so-called Peterloo Massacre is the moment in which the picture sequence switches from a parodistic mode to a reportage-like illustration of events. What is depicted using the example of an injured and desperate family in the foreground is the suffering people, The People. The situation is captured in the style of an eye-witness report. The sketch-like composition of the drawing is meant to bear witness to the authenticity of the account and the shock felt by the author. Ten years after the disaster of Manchester, which had also caused unrest in Paris, Philipon wanted to make out the Waterloo of the French ‘Pear Regent’ in the weavers’ uprising in Lyon and the massacre at Rue Transnonain. The script for his retort had already been written.

William Hone / George Cruikshank: The Political House That Jack Built. (Pl.9: The People), London 1819 (MePri-Collection)

The momentousness of Philipon’s revolutionary image politics was revealed only at the end of the century, in the experimenting variants of press illustrations of the Montmartre scene. This is where the anarchic impulse of La Caricature again started to intensify, to subsequently branch out to the provoking spectacles and hermetic forms of the early avant-garde movements and the sheer heroism of socialist art employed as a weapon. The focus on Daumier had diverted the view from this momentousness to the profound, yet ephemeral insight that this artist, “by the way, first drew persons nude and clad them afterwards.” (4)


1)   Thomas Gaehtgens: Honore Daumier. in: Honore Daumier / Charles Philipon: Caricaturiana. Dortmund 1979 S.  208

2)   Gabriel P. Weisberg: Early Realism. in: Div.ed.: The Art of the July Monarchy: France 1830 to 1848. Columbia – London 1990. S.102 ff.

3) David S. Kerr: Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848. Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press. Oxford 2000. S.112

4) Roger Passeron: Honoré Daumier und seine Zeit, Würzburg 1979. S. 7

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