Between the Revolution of 1830 and the fall of the Second Empire, writes Michael M. Biddiss, Daumier applied his vigorous ironic gifts to the social and political scene.
Honoré Daumier was a man of few words. He was by nature taciturn and suffered a slight impediment of speech. We have little knowledge of his correspondence or his conversation. Yet it is one of his few recorded remarks that best epitomizes him: ‘We have to be men of our own time.’
In capturing the essence of the age to which he himself belonged, Daumier manifested unrivalled verve and accuracy. But his medium was visual not verbal, for it is in some three hundred paintings, some eight hundred drawings and, above all, in nearly four thousand lithographs that he conveys his vivid social history of mid-nineteenth-century France. Much of this is history in today’s most fashionable sense—history conceived as the story of the conditions of everyday existence.
From Daumier’s pictures we gain a vivid appreciation of the real human fabric of French society in the last century. Moreover, from his pictorial protests against many of its values we may improve our own contemporary insights into the relationship between art and social protest.
It is Daumier’s work, rather than the other broadly uneventful aspects of his life-history, that testifies to his vigour and tenacity. To live in France during the last century was to be part of a society readily susceptible to frequent upheaval.
Within this context of social and political agitation, Daumier’s art manifests fully the excitements and uncertainties of the period of his own greatest activity, between the Revolution of 1830 and the downfall of the Second Napoleonic Empire in 1870. He had been born under the First Empire, in 1808, at Marseilles where his father, Jean-Baptiste, was a master-glazier by trade, a royalist by political conviction, and a poet by pretension.