Pages of History: Daumier’s Political Eye

Peter J. Beck describes the work of Honoré Daumier, born 200 years ago this month, which provided an early visual documentary newsreel and commentary on the key political and social movements in mid-nineteenth century France.

Lithography, the art of printing from stone, was developed from the innovative work of Aloys Senefelder during the final years of the eighteenth century, and offered artists a low-cost reproduction process capable of producing multiple copies of an original drawing. Importantly, lithographs enabled relatively immediate responses to events. As such, Senefelder’s invention opened up new audiences and sources of income for artists. In France, lithographs dealing with political and other topics were published in illustrated newspapers such as La Silhouette, La Caricature and Le Charivari, or sold over the counter in the growing number of lithograph shops, where they were frequently displayed for sale in shop windows. In this way, though beyond the means of most, lithographs provided a means of communicating ideas to the man or woman in the street, as well as to more traditional audiences. In spite of the tradition for caricature pioneered by Gillray, Hogarth and others in Georgian Britain, Thackeray opined that the lower classes in France displayed a much greater responsiveness to art in the mid-nineteenth century than did their English counterparts. Certainly Daumier benefited from, and promoted, the appreciation of lithographs as an art form. During the 1850s Charles Baudelaire, the poet and art critic, recalled how: ‘Each morning (Daumier) keeps the population of our city amused ... the bourgeoisie, the businessman, the urchin and the housewife all laugh and pass on their way’.

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