Honore Daumier
Biography of French Realist Painter, Caricaturist, Lithographer.

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The Third Class Carriage (1863-4)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Among the greatest genre paintings
of the 19th century in France.

Honore Daumier (1808-79)


Reputation and Legacy

Don Quixote (1868)
Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

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Dubbed "the greatest 19th-century caricaturist" and "Moliere with a crayon", Honore Daumier was both admired and persecuted during his lifetime for his social and political cartoons, and remains better known for his graphic art - mainly drawing and lithography - rather than his realist painting. While his prints and works on paper (including 4,000 lithographs) were always regarded as valuable visual chronicles of the political and social history of his day, his oil painting - done in the style of French Realism was largely unappreciated, at least during his lifetime. Now, his paintings are held in high esteem - notably his genre painting for its affinity with the work of Gustave Courbet (1819-77) - see for example A Burial at Ornans (1850) - and critics consider him one of the key realist artists in France during the 19th century. His influence on later artists and on the development of French painting is illustrated by the admiration shown him by a variety of modern artists, including Picasso (1881-1973), Cezanne (1839-1906) and Francis Bacon (1909-92). His best known works include: Gargantua (1831, National Library of France), Lower the Curtain, The Farce is Over (1834, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), The Third Class Carriage (1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), The Washerwoman (1864, Louvre) and The Rescue (1870, Kunsthalle, Hamburg).

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Born in Marseilles, Daumier grew up in Paris where he (briefly) studied drawing and afterwards lithography: the latter being the latest technique of the time for the replication of drawn images. The Revolution of 1830 gave him the opportunity to express his republican sentiments in his caricature which he supplied to a variety of Parisian journals. During the 1830s these political cartoons - published in the newspapers La Caricature and Le Charivari - included Gargantua (1831), an earthy caricature of Louis-Philippe's corrupt government, and the famous Rue Transnonain 14 April 1834 (1834), in which he abandons the satirical manner to show the pathetic aftermath of a military slaughter of civilians. Gargantua earned him a spell in prison, after which as censorship tightened to turned more to social satire.


Thus, in 1836, he began a series of drawings based on an invented character Robert Macaire, personifying the chicanery of commercial society. He produced several great series of lithographs in the 1840s, for example Ancient History (1842), a lampoon of Neoclassical art. His targets were often pomposity and pretentiousness, as in the series Men of Justice (1845-8): here the flowing robes and black-and-white contrast of the legal costume allowed impressive pictorial effects. He invented the character of Ratapoil, of which he also made a statue in bronze (1850; Louvre) to satirize the unscrupulous police agents of Napoleon III.




In the mid 1840, Daumier became increasingly interested in fine art painting, while still producing lithographs for his livelihood. He entered the competition for an allegorical figure of the Republic in 1848: he was placed eleventh, but never completed the painting, the sketch for which is now in the Louvre, Paris. Although realist painter friends like Corot (1796-1875), Millet (1814-75) and Theodore Rousseau (1812-67) encouraged him to persevere, too much of his energy was spent on producing his lithographed drawings. Early allegorical paintings he did during this period owe some debt to Rubens, for example, The Miller, his Son, and the Ass (1848-9; Burrell Collection, Glasgow), after which most of his painting was inspired by contemporary events, for example The Uprising (1848; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) and everyday scenes, such as Third Class Carriage (1863-5; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). The sculptural nature of his drawing is seen in The Washerwoman (1863-4; Louvre, Paris).

Daumier often depicted clowns and acrobats in his paintings (for example, Saltimbanque, 1855-60; Louvre, Paris) as well as theatre scenes (Crispin and Scapin, 1858-60; Louvre, Paris). The picture Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (1870; Courtauld Institute Galleries, London) is one of a group of paintings on this subject, showing the loose handling and calligraphic brushwork of his late years. His paintings were not given the degree of finish expected by his contemporaries, but they have an evocative quality resulting from this sketchiness which gives them a particular appeal today. Daumier uses a tentative and broken line, so that the contours are made indefinite by the surrounding light, in an Impressionistic manner.

In his final years his eyesight failed and he was only saved from destitution by the generosity of friends, notably Corot.

Reputation and Legacy

Daumier's exceptional talent for satirical caricature rested upon two qualities: first, his outstanding draughtsmanship, which was strongly influenced by Rembrandt (1606-69); second, his acute observation of individuals and situations. In his powerful but unsentimental realism, he was close to the more famous figures of French painting, such as Gustave Courbet (1819-77), while Balzac once commented that there was something of Michelangelo in Daumier, due to the sculptural modelling of some of his paintings and his noted frieze of displaced persons. Despite his lack of commercial success as a fine artist, he was revered by younger artists like James Ensor (1860-1949) and by certain collectors, as well as a wide circle of friends which included Degas (1834-1917), Baudelaire, and Delacroix (1798-1863).


Drawings and paintings by Honore Daumier can be seen in many of the world's best art museums, including the Louvre, Paris.

• For more biographies of 19th century French artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more information about modern art in France, see: Homepage.

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