National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 9-10 (V:1-2), 1967

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Daumier's Travellers

by Willard E. Misfeldt, Instructor, School of Art
Bowling Green University, Bowling Green, Ohio

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

In these lithographs, Daumier's humour is never bitter. He sees these situations as sometimes amusing, sometimes even a little disgusting, but, since these are cartoons, never as poignant or dramatic. His concern is empathic: while he satirizes the passengers he sympathizes with them. He is, after all, one of them. It is important to realize this in order to understand how he arrived at such a compassionate understanding of the insignificant, anonymous travellers in his paintings after two decades of gently ridiculing them in his cartoons.

Around 1860 Daumier seems to have renewed an acquaintance that had apparently lapsed for a few years. This was his friendship with the writer and caricaturist, Henri Monnier, whom Daumier had caricatured in 1852 in the role of Joseph Prud'homme, one of Monnier's own fictional creations. (7) In the French language the name Prud'homme would in time come to denote someone who utters the silliest banalities with the most smug solemnity. Daumier paid Monnier- who himself had dealt with the theme of public conveyances in his caricatures of the late 1850's -  the backhanded compliment of portraying him in an 1884 lithograph as Prud'homme in a  third class carriage (plate 6). This composition is useful in dating the carriage paintings. Just as Monnier had come to resemble Prud'homme over the years, Daumier had come to identify himself with the drab, lower-class people he had been portraying in his cartoons for two decades.

In the early 1860's when Daumier was able, because of forced unemployment, to turn at last to painting in oil, he used as one of his major themes people travelling in carriages (plate 7) and waiting in depots. It is interesting to note that this theme now disappeared from his cartoons; whether this was because of public satiety or because the theme had assumed a more personal significance for Daumier himself, is not certain. Nevertheless his paintings and drawings of travellers grew directly out of his work as a caricaturist and were perhaps stimulated by his friendship with Monnier. The paintings, unlike the cartoons, are without captions, and as they do not deal with specific situations, they transcend the limits of the particular and assume a generic or universal quality. They are generally interpreted as being incisive statements about the modern predicament of the lonely crowd or as showing Daumier's compassionate concern for the anonymous nobodies of Paris,
these qualities making them just as relevant today. While accepting these interpretations I should like to suggest that these paintings have a far broader meaning which makes them significant not only for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but for the whole range of human history.

In these paintings Daumier reports no incidents; there is no dramatic action. The people sit, dull and withdrawn, in the constricted and characterless interior of a lowly railway carriage. Daumier sees them as fellow passengers and paints them in a broad, powerful and impulsive manner belying the detachment that might be inferred from the quiet, stoic poses. The landscape in Daumier's paintings, unlike that in the Travelling Companions (plate 8) by his British contemporary, Augustus Egg, is of no significance; there is neither point of origin nor of destination, neither arrivals nor departures. People are being carried somewhere - it does not matter where - by an engineering marvel, a product of the new age of science and technology.

While one of the aspects of this new travel was the possibility of freeing people from a fixed place where their families had lived for generations, and allowing them to move some - where else, quite often that "somewhere else" was the impersonal world of the big city where they would find the same kind of isolation as they would within the microcosm of the third-class carriage.

In Daumier's waiting-rooms (plate 9) as in the carriages, there is in fact no setting, or the setting is generalized into something not tied to a particular time or place. There is nothing of the sense of an occasion, although at this time the great terminals were sometimes used for such impressive ceremonies as a reception of visiting royalty by Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie, or the obsequies in 1864 of the composer Meyerbeer, held at the Gare du Nord which was draped in elaborate mourning. Characteristically, Daumier's focus within the terminals is not on arrivals or departures, or even on encounters between individuals, but on an unchanging state where neither beginning nor end has any meaning.

Can one justify an interpretation of these people as nomadic symbols? Daumier himself was no stranger to displacement: the Daumier family moved at least twelve times within the city of Paris between their arrival in 1816 and Honoré's incarceration at Sainte-Pélagie in 1832. (8) And a number of his other works, many of them painted during this decade, support this interpretation. In a general way, we may observe that the artist does not paint Second Empire Paris per se: he does not show any of the impressive features or activities of the world's grandest capital. He avoids institutional focal points. But more important than what he avoids is what he paints. About 1848 he painted a series of fugitives and emigrants, probably people displaced by the political upheavals of that year and forced to flee to Algeria. Anonymous and oppressed, they trudge forlornly through the bleak world, whipped on by an uncompromising fate. In one sense, they are the real ancestors of the people in the third-class carriage paintings.

But even more significant is the fact that at the same time he was painting railroad travellers, Daumier was taking up another theme involving people without a fixed place. These are the saltimbanques or itinerant street entertainers in the drawing from the Wadsworth Atheneum. They are not gay, laughing entertainers but forlorn wanderers cast forever adrift in the impersonal world of the large city. In the 1860's Daumier also turned to the Don Ouixote theme. (9) Generally he set its narrative against bleak surroundings with no other sign of human activity and very little action. It has been suggested that Daumier felt that he was like Gervantes' hero - a buffoon, a non-hero and a wanderer - whose journeys were usually in futile efforts to right wrongs.

Daumier's travellers are non-heroes also, but unlike the clownish knight, they have no mission. These uprooted people, dislodged from a place of their own and going nowhere, exist simply and undramatically; they are not players in a drama that has a beginning, a climax and a resolution. Generalized and monumental, these homely people transcend the specific situation of their pointless journey and become universal symbols for the exile in the world, for the nomad throughout history.

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