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Honoré Daumier

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Country: France

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The Art of Cartoons and Caricatures

About: Honoré Daumier

Honoré Daumier’s career was one of the most unusual in the history of nineteenth-century art. Famous in his time as France’s best-known caricaturist, he remained unrecognized in his actual stature–as one of the period’s most profoundly original and wide-ranging realists. Even today, his essential quality may not be fully understood; the marvels of his pictorial inventions are half-hidden in the profusion of his enormous lithographic work, the sharp truths of his observation overshadowed by his comic genius and penchant for monumental stylization. Honoré Balzac’s remark, “There is a lot of Michelangelo in that fellow,” was perceptive, though probably made in a spirit of friendly condescension.

Daumier was born in Marseille in 1808, the son of an eccentric glazier and frame maker with highflown poetic ambitions. In 1816 the elder Daumier took his family to Paris in pursuit of his doomed literary projects. Young Honoré, obliged to earn a living from the age of twelve, started as a book dealer’s helper and later ran errands for a firm of attorneys. Though he showed signs of a talent for drawing, his parents, perhaps fortunately, were unable to pay his way through the course of regular art training. A family friend, the antiquarian Alexandre Lenoir, who had assembled fragments from churches vandalized during the Revolution in a Musée des Monuments Français, gave him early, informal drawing lessons. On his own, he took his sketching pad to the sculpture galleries of the Louvre and attended the Académie Suisse, a teacherless establishment that offered inexpensive model sessions. He is said to have made his first experiments in lithography in 1822, aged fourteen; by 1825, at any rate, he had found employment with a commercial printer in whose shop he gained the technical skills he needed. From 1829 onward he was able to produce lithographic caricatures of his own, imitating the styles of such popular artists as Nicholas-Toussaint Charlet (1792-1845), Charles-Joseph Traviès (1804-1859), and Henry Monnier (1799-1877).

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