Honoré Daumier was a French lithographer, draftsman, painter, and sculptor, best known for his social and political caricatures. Born in 1808, he was largely self-taught. He studied briefly with Alexandre Lenoir at the Academy in 1828, but quickly rebelled against its doctrinaire methods. He learned most from his study of the classical sculpture and Dutch and Flemish painting in the Louvre in Paris. In 1831, after learning the still fairly new process of lithography, he became a contributor to the anti-government weekly La Caricature. He was imprisoned for six months in 1832 for his anti-monarchical satire of Louis-Philippe as Gargantua swallowing bags of gold extorted from the people. When political satire was censored by the regime in 1835, he joined the staff of Le Charivari where he turned to satire of social life, but returned to political subjects at the time of the 1848 revolution. The main subjects of Daumier’s satirical cartoons were the corrupt regime, the injustice of the law courts, and the hypocrisy of the middle class. He created universal types and characters personifying all aspects of the “human condition”; his scenes of the low, the humble, the commonplace, and the banal recall the world reflected in the novels by Honore de Balzac. Daumier’s best-known caricatures include the monumental and popular political drawings The Legislative Paunch and Rue Transnonain, and two lithographic series introducing his famous embodiments of all human vices, Robert Macaire, representing the corrupt and money-obsessed bourgeois, and Ratapoil (skinned rat), the sinister government agent.
In the mid-1840s, Daumier turned to painting, producing his famous series Lawyers and Third Class Carriage as well as several oils on the theme of Don Quixote as a larger-than-life hero. After 1848, he produced watercolors which parodied the Courts of Justice and depicted the existence of the poor. Many of his paintings remained unfinished and were loosely handled, thickly impasto works of strong chiaroscuro. Although he was accepted four times by the Salon, he never exhibited his paintings otherwise and they remained practically unknown up to the time of an exhibition held at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in 1878, the year of his death. As a sculptor he specialized in caricature heads and figures, and these too are in a very spontaneous style. All of the paintings and sculpture are generally considered inferior to his more than 5,000 extant lithographs which display a great mastery of line and highly refined tonalities. It was said that he wished each time that the one he had just made could be his last.
He became blind in old age, and was rescued from poverty by Corot, who was one of his many artistic admirers. He was also greatly admired by the 20th century Expressionists, who applauded both his radical stance and the freedom with which he used materials. As a caricaturist he was perhaps best of the 19th-century. He had the gift of expressing the whole character of a man through physiognomy, and the essence of his satire lay in his power to interpret mental folly in terms of physical absurdity. Although he never made a commercial success of his art, he was appreciated by the discriminating and numbered among his friends and admirers Delacroix, Corot, Forain, and Baudelaire. Degas was among the artists who collected his works.