When Pablo Picasso obtained enough wealth from his work to allow him to travel widely, like any self-respecting artist, he found that all roads lead to Rome. And though not in fact, in Rome, for the artist at least, all roads lead to the Vatican. And once in the Vatican, in spite of the looming power of the magnificent cathedral, for the artist, all roads (corridors?) lead to the Sistine Chapel next door. Picasso, as artists and tourist alike have done for five centuries, strained his neck and gazed upward in awe at what Michelangelo and Pope Julius II hath wrought. "It's like a vast sketch by Daumier." He said. Not the reaction one might expect, even from Picasso. Who was this sketcher extraordinaire that Picasso should admire him so? The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, for the next three months, seeks to shed some light on this question with a major exhibit of the 245 works by one of the most admired French artists of the nineteenth century.
Honore Daumier (pronounced UN-or-AY DOME-yay) was born in 1808. He started drawing at age thirteen and his first job as an artist was in the role of what we would call today a political cartoonist, though at the time one couldn't much think of such a calling as an occupation. But he was good at it. In fact, too good for his own good. His first drawing landed him in JAIL for six months. He had the audacity to portray the king, Louis-Phillipe, as Gargantua, the gluttonous ogre in a French storybook. Daumier was in good company--his publisher was jailed too. And while the cartooning business didn't pay much (nothing, actually), he did earn his first fees as an artist about the same time--as a sign painter. The king eventually banned all political cartoons so Daumier took to drawing insightful, amusing pictures of the French bourgeoisie instead. One depicted a lady in a blizzard, her "bustle" (a cosmetic device made of springs hidden beneath a lady's skirts to accentuate her derrière) hosting quite an accumulation of snow. A shopkeeper asks, "Would you like a touch of the broom, madam?" With these he was able to earn a modest living.
Daumier painted too, though like his cartoons, his efforts with a brush were so highly individual as to constitute a style unto themselves. Technically, one would have to class him with the Realists though his style was in no way realistic. However his choice of subjects was very much in line with those of Realism's Corot and Courbet in depicting the humble, modest, lower classes as they struggled with the daily grind of nineteenth century existence. Politically, Daumier was a life-long republican, not to be confused with the American creatures by the same name. Daumier was very much a liberal. Being a republican in France at that time meant he opposed autocratic rule, which made him a target for the ruling governments of all but eight years of his life. And it wasn't just autocrats he like to skewer with is steel pen--lawyers and judges took it on the chin too. Only in the last years of his life did his paintings and engravings begin to bring respectable prices; and even then his work appealed more to artists and collectors than to the middle-classes he delighted in lampooning. He died in 1879 and enjoyed a state funeral staged by a friendly republican government (costing all of twelve francs). And from that time on, his reputation began to rise. He was an artist's artist, and thus it should come as little surprise that Picasso, another artist's artist, should compare him to the great Michelangelo.