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

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

The development of public transportation in the nineteenth century facilitated the rapid growth of large cities into present-day metropolises, fostered one of the greatest eras of emigration and mass movement in human history, and affected the ancient concept of the attachment of the family and the individual to a particular place. It also furnished a new theme for the artist.

A number of painters, both in England and in France, were attracted to the subject matter offered by newly developed trains and omnibuses; the bulk of works exploiting this theme were created in or near the 1860's. In Britain there had been apprehension about the new technological marvels, and the railroad, which was developed there in the early nineteenth century, was, for several decades, subjected to the sarcasm of comic songs, humorous lithographs and caricatures, as well as to the fulminations of the critic John Ruskin. In the 1830's, prints were issued to celebrate and to mark the opening of pioneer railways in Great Britain and Ireland, and commemorative mugs were produced as popular souvenirs. (1) Shortly after the middle of the nineteenth-century most of the satiric fun-making seems to have subsided and popular imagery had cleared the way for the respectability the theme achieved with serious artists.

Of all the approaches public transportation suggested - the narrative, the emotional, sociological, technological, political, and the purely pictorial - only the narrative possibilities appealed to British Victorian painters. Egley, in 1859, provided a Dickensian view of the interior of an omnibus, anecdotally recording with the greatest precision the pretty people and the fine fabrics (plate 1). Rossiter did basically the same thing, also in 1859, in his painting of middle-class Britons on their way to or from an outing at Brighton (plate 2). These superficial statements say nothing about public travel except that it could be crowded at times.

Victorian conceptions of the activities of the terminal show a similar narrative orientation. F. B. Barwell, in 1859, in a painting sentimentally titled Parting Words, curiously refrained from any real drama by retaining a stilted propriety while accurately transcribing every aspect of the waiting-room and the transients. Frith's 1862 view of the interior of the Paddington Station train shed (plate 3) differs only in its panoramic conception. Typically crammed to the limits with activity, it remains an agglomeration of anecdotes with the total no more moving or momentous than any single incident by itself.

Unlike the English, the French seem to have always regarded trains as wonderland contrivances or overgrown toys, and except for Thiers, who thought they were suitable only for the transportation of non-human freight, no Frenchman seems to have taken up Ruskin's plaint. (2)

The two new means of public transportation - the train and the omnibus - began operating at the same time in France. In October 1828, the first twenty-one kilometres of track were laid, (3) and in the same year the first omnibus appeared on the streets of Paris. (4) Both in England and in France great terminals, designed in a variety of picturesque historical styles, began to rise in the late 1830's and early 1840's. In these grandiose new palaces dedicated to the new technology, total strangers came together for brief periods of time to take trains in which they shared the limited space of a railroad car and, for varying lengths of time, certain common conditions of existence while en route to separate destinations. The same conditions characterized the omnibuses; people with little in common shared for a brief time the questionable comfort of an enclosed wagon.

The omnibuses and trains had that great modern virtue of providing a relatively comfortable, relatively easy, and relatively fast way of getting to a place; but at the same time they also provided an easy means of getting away. To the vast improvements in transportation, both land and marine, must certainly be attributed some of the reasons for the great migration during the nineteenth century. It was relatively easy to detach oneself from the place one's family had occupied for generations and to seek one's fortune elsewhere, in the New World or in the big city. The idea of place, that is, of having a fixed place where one feels secure, seems to have begun to crumble.

In France the influx of provincials into Paris, coupled with the regular rate of growth, increased the population of the French capital more that threefold in the first six decades of the century. (6) This wave of migration, in 1816, brought the Daumier family of Marseilles, to Paris. Young Honoré was then eight years old.

Honoré Daumier, whose most significant paintings and drawings dealing with public conveyances were done in the 1860's, had begun to use this theme in caricatures for Paris newspapers as early as 1839, and for twenty years had exploited it in his cartoons of the bourgeoisie, many of whom were, like himself, displaced provincials. In 1839, in an Intérieur d'un Omnibus (Interior of an Omnibus) (plate 4) Daumier showed one of the less pleasant aspects of the chance juxtaposition of strangers in public conveyances. In 1846, he gently poked fun at an old lady's apprehensiveness during her first train ride (plate 5). In the context of the train or omnibus, various other human foibles and quirks come under the searching scrutiny of the artist's crayon: marital infidelity, shoplifting, the giddy fascination with exotic types, the cattle-like behaviour of people rushing for seats, inconsiderate smoking, or the vanity of a fat lady who heads for a narrow seat. Daumier also ridicules such vagaries of travel as the missing of a train or omnibus, or the exposure to cinders, smoke and the elements while riding in the upper seats which surmounted the roofs of the early trains.

Next PageDaumier's humour

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