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Daumier and Literature

Anthony T. Vaver
Humanities Librarian
Brandeis University Libraries, 2002

Note: To obtain more information about a particular lithograph, search in the Daumier database using its unique number (for example, LD328).

The historical events and circumstances of mid-nineteenth-century France affected the artistic and literary worlds in similar ways. The volatile political climate, the advent of new and improved technologies, and the development of new artistic and literary modes of production all created the conditions for both artistic and literary experimentation. Reacting to these social and cultural environments, Honoré Daumier and his literary peers adopted comparable artistic attitudes and approaches to their representation of French society as they pursued a similar audience for their works.

Mid-nineteenth-century France saw a succession of monarchical and republican governments, as the bourgeoisie struggled to discover which political form would best serve its interests given the many political factions with which it had to contend. While the bourgeoisie labored politically, its designs to displace old aristocratic norms and consolidate its social and cultural position in French society met with more success. This combination of political upheaval along with the bourgeoisie’s effort to secure its position socially and culturally created an environment that both liberated and limited artistic and literary expression. During this time, Romanticism and its emphasis on individual expression replaced Classicism, with its formal constraints and its association with the aristocratic past. This shift towards Romanticism opened up new possibilities for artistic forms with fairly rigid traditions, like poetry and painting. The novel, a literary form conducive to experimentation, flourished (see LD328). One of the leading figures of the French Romantic movement was the poet, novelist, dramatist, and artist, Victor Hugo, who established many of its doctrines early on in his career (see LD1004, LD1861, LD1940). Signaling the shift to Romanticism, Daumier satirized those artists and scholars who continued to hold onto the classical ideal through his caricatures of mythic and literary classical figures (see the series L’histoire ancienne LD925-974; the series Physionomies tragiques LD2175-2184; also see LD640 and LD1233).

While Romanticism liberated the formal expression of literary and artistic works, many of the governments that came to power during this period attempted to censor art and literature that criticized their policies by passing laws against such expression or simply suppressing vocal opponents through force. Daumier’s caricatures of King Louis-Philippe during the early thirties, where he often compared the King's physique to a pear, landed him in jail and served as a stimulus for the passage of the September Laws of 1835 (see LD34, LD47, LD76). The September Laws forced a number of artists and writers with a background in political satire out of politics. Some of these artists abandoned working for the press and filled literary books with illustrations.1 Other artists and writers used their background in political satire and started producing physiologies for the periodical press, where all aspects of bourgeois life became subject to intense scrutiny.2 Following this trend, Daumier abandoned political satire with the passage of the September Laws and focused his energy on the caricature of Parisian types (see the series Galerie physionomique LD326-350). This abrupt shift away from overt political satire towards a more subtle critique of French society through a close examination of bourgeois life paved the way for the Realist movement, which also emerged during the mid-nineteenth century.

New technologies significantly changed the artistic and literary scenes in France as well. The invention of photography led to an exploration of this medium as an artistic form. Lithography arose as a faster method for producing prints, allowing the artist to produce large numbers of prints in rapid succession and to react to current events quickly. Daumier was one of the first artists to employ lithography as his primary medium. In the literary world, cheaper paper, faster presses, and improved typography and bookbinding techniques made larger print runs for books possible, which served the massive expansion of literacy between 1820 and 1850. These technological developments in print also helped fuel a dramatic increase in the newspaper and periodical presses (see LD71). In 1824 there were 47,000 subscribers to newspapers in Paris; in 1836 there were 70,000; and in 1846 there were 200,000.3 These newspapers created a market for belles-lettres, which provided a lucrative supplement to authors’ incomes and formed new relationships between authors and publishers.4

Both the artistic and the literary modes of production went through major transformations during Daumier’s time. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Académie-Salon system, which had strictly governed artistic production according to principles that supported the interests of the aristocratic Court, no longer served as a mediator between the artist and the public, creating an increased reliance on exhibitions and critics to form artistic taste.5 Writers found that they needed to cultivate a more direct relationship with the reading public in order to boost sales of their books and secure positions writing articles for newspapers and periodicals. With aristocratic support for the production of art and literature no longer in place, artists and writers turned more to the general public, and especially the socially dominant bourgeoisie, to find audiences for their work. Literary and artistic innovation, rather than a reliance on traditional symbols of social and cultural prestige, became the norm, as artists and writers renegotiated their relations with the public.6 Throughout his career, Daumier found himself negotiating the changes in politics, publishing venues, and the public. His movement from early overt satire of public officials to a more oblique form of satire in his caricatures of French types to a cartoonish commentary on French life late in his career (see the series Croquis Parisiens LD3352-3361 and the series Les Plaisirs de la champagne LD3365-3370) reflects a chronology of shifting relations as the artistic mode of production changed over the course of the century.

More than any other literary figure, critics associate the work of Daumier with that of Honoré de Balzac. Balzac’s Comédie humaine, a massive series of some 90 novels and short stories published between 1829 and 1847, uses realist techniques to explore the underlying principles of French society. The professional work of Daumier and Balzac occasionally crossed: Daumier illustrated some of Balzac’s novels7 and Balzac spent a year working for La Caricature (1830-35), the same periodical for which Daumier produced his early satirical prints.8 Mostly, though, the two are compared because they employed similar stylistic principles in their works. The French critic and poet, Charles Baudelaire, who was a friend and admirer of Daumier and his work, was one of the first to point out the stylistic similarities between the two:

The works of Gavarni and Daumier have been justly described as complements to the Comédie Humaine. I am satisfied that Balzac himself would not have been averse from accepting this idea, which is all the more just in that the genius of the painter of manners is of a mixed nature, by which I mean that it contains a strong literary element.9

Daumier and Balzac both worked within the framework of journalism in their appeal to similar audiences and in their modes of representing modern experience.10 They showed an intense interest in the social signs of Parisian life, especially in people’s manners, reactions, and appearances. Balzac often described a character’s dress or the furnishings of a room in minute detail in order to get at the social essence of the individual he was portraying, while Daumier pulled out scenes of French life for caricature, often holding up the bourgeois class for scrutiny and critique (see LD1227). Realism, like caricature, provides a "bird’s-eye view" of the scene being represented for its readers, calling on them to cast judgment on that scene. At the same time, however, any recognition or identification evoked by the representation on the part of the reader implicates him or her in that judgment.11 The art of both Balzac and Daumier invites its audience to judge the character of French life as constituted in the details of everyday experience, while drawing attention to the audience’s own connection with the social environment being represented.

Like many writers of his day, Daumier’s commitment to French republicanism is expressed not only thematically in his work, but also through his participation in a progressive artistic mode of production that served a politically involved mass public. Just like technological improvements in printing aided an enormous jump in output on the part of writers like Balzac, lithography allowed Daumier to produce prints for publications at a rapid rate, resulting in a monumental body of works. Like his literary peers who wrote articles for widely circulated periodicals and newspapers, Daumier sought an audience for his works in the greater public rather than in a closed, elite class. And like the most innovative literary works of the time, Daumier’s prints positioned their viewers as critics of contemporary society, asking them to challenge social norms, especially those that did not serve the interests of the country as a whole.

1Ségolène Le Men, "Book Illustration," in Artistic Relations: Literature and the Visual Arts in Nineteenth-Century France, ed. Peter Collier and Robert Lethbridge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 105-6.
2Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: NLB, 1973), 36.
3Ibid., 27.
4See Michael Moriarty, "Structures of Cultural Production in Nineteenth-Century France" in Artistic Relations: Literature and the Visual Arts in Nineteenth-Century France, ed. Peter Collier and Robert Lethbridge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
5See Harrison C. White and Cynthia A. White, Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in French Painting World (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965); and Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, ed., The Triumph of Art for the Public: The Emerging Role of Exhibitions and Critics (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1979), especially the Introduction, pp. 1-11.
6Moriarty, "Structures of Cultural Production in Nineteenth-Century France," 25-26.
7Judith Wechsler, A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th Century Paris (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 134.
8Graeme Tytler, Physiognomy in the European Novel: Faces and Fortunes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), 179.
9Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life" in "The Painter of Modern Life" and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon Press, 1964), 4-5.
10Wechsler, A Human Comedy, 13.
11Michele Hannoosh, Baudelaire and Caricature: From the Comic to an Art of Modernity (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992), 117.

Link to Daumier and Literature bibliography

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