Sad Clowns Meet Satyrs as Daumier Show Dazzles in London

When Vincent van Gogh was furnishing his little yellow house in Arles, he asked his brother Theo to send him some prints by Daumier.

Vincent was by no means the only illustrious artist to be an ardent Daumier fan. Cezanne, Pissarro, Francis Bacon and Picasso all shared the same opinion. A new show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London explains why.

Often, the problem with exhibitions is that they are too big. The Royal Academy’s own “Australia” is a case in point.

The only issue with “Daumier: Visions of Paris” is that there isn’t enough of it. It leaves you wanting more, especially of his extraordinary sculptures. That, of course, is a fault on the right side. This is a marvelous examination of a great draughtsman, painter and sculptor.

Honore Daumier (1808-79) was a shy man who was also fearless; a friend described him as a “kindly lion.” In 1832 he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for a caricature attacking the unpopular Louis Philippe.

There are almost 4,000 Daumier lithographs. In 1835, the newspaper for which he worked, Le Charivari, was advertising “a new drawing daily... when the censor permits.”

Many of them are still funny; a swimming craze of the 1840s inspired an image of an enthusiastic beginner practicing at home balanced on a chair, arms and legs waggling in empty air.

Late Starter

For most of his life, Daumier earned his living from this visual journalism. In painting he was a reticent late starter, not beginning in the medium until he was approaching 40.

His cartoons and caricatures are naturally sharply pointed -- comic, grim or angry as the case may be. His private drawings and paintings are often, as the co-curator of the exhibition Catherine Lampert puts it, of “hardly about anything.”

A lot of them are of people gazing, lost in thought. A man stares out of a third-class railway carriage; another leafs through a portfolio of prints. Three judges -- grim, bored, spectral -- sit on the bench. Many paintings are unfinished.

“I start everything 25 times over,” Daumier said.

These incomplete works sometimes seem to represent not the surfaces of his subjects, more their flickering life force.

Presumably, that’s why Francis Bacon thought that Daumier’s “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,” from the Courtauld Gallery’s collection, was one of the greatest pictures ever painted.

It depicts what Bacon himself tried for: not photographic verisimilitude, the effect that people and animals have on your nervous system.

Daumier’s astonishing statue of his character “Ratapoil” -- a shady entrepreneur who appears as a 3D incarnation of bristle and swagger -- looks forward to Giacometti.

In other respects he looked back. One image has a Rubenesque woman pursued by satyrs. His images of melancholy circus performers are Watteau subjects transposed into a grubby contemporary setting. That’s the point.

Daumier insisted, “One must be of one’s own time.”

This exhibition makes clear he was a towering figure in 19th-century art.

“Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris” is at the Royal Academy of Arts through Jan. 26, 2014. Information:

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater, John Mariani on wine, Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater, Lance Esplund on U.S. art and Craig Seligman on books.

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