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 Honore Daumier  (1808 - 1879)

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Lived/Active: France      Known for: lithography, painting, sculpture

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Honore Daumier was born in Marseilles, France on February 26, 1808.  He was the son of a Marseille glazier who wrote a little poetry on the side and who thought so much of his own talent that in 1816 he decided to move himself and his family to Paris.  Over the next dozen years, the family lived in eight different apartments in Paris.  There was never enough money, and the experience of hard times would mark Daumier for life.

At the age of twelve, Honore became a messenger boy for a process server's office and then a clerk for a bookstore - jobs that opened up to him every corner of Paris. He sketched everything he saw and finally started studying art with an academician whose idea of instruction was to have his pupils copy plaster casts hour after hour. "This is not life," said Daumier, and he struck out on his own.

A year later, the boy enrolled in the Academy Suisse, an informal school where students could draw from the model in the mornings and still hold down jobs. Though Daumier was never a flamboyant bohemian, he was soon part of a group of young artists from the school, some of whom became lifelong friends.  If the teenager didn't have the money for oils or canvas (presumably why so little of his student work survives), in studios and cafes he drew the way other people talked.  Daumier was on his way to becoming one of the greatest draftsman who ever lived.

The lithograph was a comparatively new art in those days, but it quickly became Daumier's bread and butter.  He began turning out political cartoons for an ardently antiroyalist magazine called La Caricature.  One cartoon portrayed King Louis Philippe as Gargantua gobbling up every last sou in France.  For such indiscretions Daumier spent six months in prison.  He was the first French artist to get to the hall of fame because the people liked his little drawings, instead of the aristocracy liking his big salon paintings.

No sooner was he out again than he started producing more cartoons for another magazine.  In 1846, at the age of thirty-eight, he married a young seamstress called Didine and settled down in an apartment on the Quai d'Anjou.  There, in a bare attic studio, using crayons until they were so worn he could no longer hold them, and whistling the latest music-hall tunes, Daumier turned out lithographs of arrogant aristocrats, greedy landlords, sour-faced men and nagging wives, sinister lawyers and pompous judges.  Sometimes his humor was gentle; occasionally it was savage; it was always perceptive.

Daumier made lithographs, 3958 in all, until he went blind at sixty-five.  But all along he was painting, though no more than a handful of his canvases were shown in public before the last year of his life.  Compared with the more spectacular romantics, he seemed rough and unfinished.  Nor did he understand the work of the new impressionists.  He was a superlative draftsman whose brush drew spare and strong, and whose preoccupation was people.  No matter how ordinary their acts, Daumier gave drama and dignity to their lives.  He was ruthless in his candor, but his candor was born of concern.

The painter Daumier was a rotund gentle person who cared far more for others than for himself.  There were never any extras for Daumier.  A year before he died at seventy, a group of friends, led by Victor Hugo, arranged a show of his paintings.  It closed dismally with a deficit of 4000 francs.

Daumier's most celebrated work was a series of 'Robert Macaire' published in the 'Charivari'.  His graphic works are unsurpassed for clarity, expressiveness, truth to type and nervously rhythmic life.  He did not draw directly from nature, but from human nature, and this he did as fully as any artist who ever lived.  But he was thought for years unworthy to occupy a single foot of space at the official Salon's shows.  One Saturday night at Theodore Rousseau's barn in the village of Barbizon, a gathering that included Corot, Millet,Daubigny, Diaz and Bayre, along with Daumier himself, voted to form their own anti-Salon Independent Artists' Society.

No one ever represented with greater truth the varied type of Parisian character.  He became blind in 1877, then died suddenly in 1879 of a stroke at Valmondois (Seine-et-Oise) in a house given him by Corot, the landscape painter.

Compiled and submitted August 2004 by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California

Sources:
Time Magazine, July 7, 1961 and October 1, 1979
Peter Plagens in Newsweek, March 8, 1993
Pete Hamill in Art & Antiques Magazine, February 1993.

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