By nature I am lazy," said Honore Daumier (1880-79). Yet he ground out art. For 40 years, as newsmen say, Daumier fed the goat -- the newspapers of Paris -- two rich prints a week. When pressed, he could produce eight of them in a night. He made 4,000 lithographs (drawn directly on the stone) and 1,000 wood engravings (most drawn on the block). He made oil paintings, clay sculptures, and wonderfully free drawings. All told, he produced some 5 million works of art.
The French artists before him filled their pretty, prissy pictures with woodland nymphs and nonsense, but Daumier's work was tart. While others chose to fawn, Daumier liked a fight. Warmly and with verve he zinged the powerful, the pompous, the church, the law, the king. In 1832, insulted by his satires, the government of France sent the 24-year-old Daumier to prison. But they did not cramp his art.
Daumier kept on drawing. He enjoyed the quiet life, drinking with his friends, wandering through Paris, boating on the Seine. "I care more about my pipe," he said, "than about fame and honors.; Yet he changed French art, this deadline-meeting working stiff whose mastery of light and shade, whose lithe and lovely line influenced Toulouse Lautrec, Degas and Manet.
What made him truly special was that his art was funny. Art hiltory records other major masters who drew as well as he did, but Daumier was the first who tried to make us laugh.
He died 100 years ago, and to honor his centenary two Daumier exhibitions are now on view in Washington. One is at the Corcoran; the other opens today at the National Gallery of Art. The two shows nicely overlap. Both of them remind us how effectively Daumier erased the line that once separated High Art and the cartoon.
Artists had been painting somberly and seriously for 30,000 years, and though some of them, at least, must have had a sense of humor, they hid it in their art. Aristophanes wrote comedies; so did William Shakespeare; but the visual artists of their day never kidded princes, patrons or the gods. We do not joke in church. It was not until the printmakers of Europe began mass-producing art -- art that could be cheaply bought, laughed at and discarded -- that their pictures became funny.
And Daumier's art made Paris gossip, gasp and laugh. Other printmakers before him, especially in England -- Hogarth, for example, and Rowlandson and Gillray -- had been intentionally comic, but they were lesser men. Hogarth was harsher and Thomas Nast was nastier, but Daumier's art is kind.
All of us today are used to smiling at the art of Claes Oldenburg, Saul Steinberg, Paul Klee and Red Grooms. And Picasso's "Guernica," in part, is a political cartoon. That high art may be funny -- or agressively political -- is today taken for granted. But when Daumier drew Europe balanced on a bomb, or a falling potted plant squashing a top hat, all of Paris was shocked.
Daumier was born in poverty in Marseilles in 1808. His father was a framemaker, a glazier and a failed litterateur; his mother could not read. (She signed her marriage certificate with a cross.) Daumier went to work to help support his family when he was 12. By the time he was 14, he was already drawing lithographs on stone.
That relatively new medium allowed printmakers the freedom to work not just in black and white, but also in subtle shades of gray. It was a way of putting crayon drawings into mass production. Daumier's prints were often published in editions of more than 3,000.
Another new development -- not technological, but political -- also freed Daumier.
Charles X, the last of France's Bourbon kings, fell in 1830. The July Revolution, which brought Louis-Philippe to power, ended, for a while, censorship in France. Those were heady days. Scores of French polemicists, suddenly unleashed, attacked the new king with great glee. On the right were the Legitimists, the supporters of Charles X. On the left were the Republicans. Among them was Daumier.
"La Caricature," a weekly as satirical as "Saturday Night Live," appeared for the first time in November 1830. "Le Charivari," the saucy lefist daily, was first published two years later. Large prints by young Daumier were published in both papers. Such freedom could not last. Strict official censorship would be imposed again in 1835, but not before French readers had been given an exhilirating and habit-forming taste of drawings of Daumier.
At first his are was raw. In 1832 he spent six months in prison for publishing "gargantua," a drawing that insulted King Louis-Philippe. The king, in Daumier's print, is a bloated, pointy-headed fop seated on a commode, insatiably devouring the earnings of the poor. Yet despite his term in jail, Daumier was a masterful survivor. He used all the slack that those in power gave him. Censorship would be imposed, lifted for a while, and then imposed again, but Daumier kept on drawing.
France has never been at ease with full freedom of the press. Daumier understood that. When allowed to do so, he lampooned the monarchy, the church, the politicians; when his political cartoons were officially taboo, he turned to the fripperies and foibles of the bourgeoisie.
Daumier poked fun at everyone -- window shoppers, connoisseurs, cigar smokers and feminists, actors, butchers, painters, parents, squalling kids. When, in 1862, Nadar, the great photographer, rose slowly over Paris in a hot-air balloon, Daumier sketched "Nadar elevating photography, to the height of art." When avant-garde French painters began working out-of-doors, painting en plein air, Daumier drew the artists snoozing in the shade. When, in 1853, ruthless Baron Haussmann began shoving his broad boulevards throught the neighborhoods of Paris, Daumier took a shot at urban renewal. "At last the sun will shine on my potted plant," says an old man in a nightcap, standing at his window, as workmen swinging pickaxes busily tear down the buildings on his street.
Because Daumier teased the powerful and sympathized with underdogs, and once was sent to jail, it is usually assumed that he must have been oppressed, but the truth is not that harsh. In 1845, he moved to the Ile St. Louis, the island in the Seine that in those days was home to a friendly little colony of intellectuals and artists. The next year he was married to Marie-alesandrine d'Assy, a seamstress 14 years his junior. From all accounts their marriage was exceptionally happy. Because Daumier, as an old man, suffered from an eye disease, it is frequently supposed that he had to give up painting, and that he died in misery, impoverished and alone. But things were not that bad.
The turth is that the artist had a pension from the state. His works sold well until the end, and he owned both a country house and his flat in Paris. His last exhibition, held at Durand-ruel's in 1878, the year before he died, was very well reviewed. Daumier, it is true, was a witness to much misery -- he saw bloodshed, famine, much injustice and the siege of Paris -- but one can tell from his art that he had much fun.
In his prints he also produced an incomparable portrayal of 19th century Paris. His drawings, though less topical, seem to me more beautiful. Daumier was no impressionist, he had no interest in dissolving form or light or color. Even in his freest works, where his drawn line swoops and swirls, the active figures that he conjures seem absolutely solid.
Daumier was much admired, and imitated, too, by the painters of his time. Van Gogh thought him a master. Daumier's cartoons of the theater predict the later, stage-lit images of Degas and Toulouse -Lautrec. He was a close friend of Corot's and the Corcoran show includes a splendid Daumier oil once owned by that great painter.
The Daumiers at the Corcoran are all owned by Armand Hammer. Most of those on view at the National Gallery are gifts from Lessing J. Rosenwald. Joseph H. Hirshhorn, too, has collected modern casts of Daumier's small clay sculptures. The wealthy do not dread looking at Daumier.
Armand Hammer's rich Daumier collection is near-encyclopedic. In 1976, Hammer bought the 5,000 Daumier objects that George Longstreet, the collector, began to amass in Paris more than 50 years ago. (It was once quite easy to collect Daumier; hundreds of his lithographs used to be on sale, for a few francs apiece, at the bookstalls on the Seine.) Though Daumiers are no longer cheap -- a Daumier drawing nowadays may cost $50,000 -- Hammer, in the past three years, has added some 200 items to his Longstreet treasure. A thin slice of his collection will remain on view through Dec. 18 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The late Lessing J. Rosenwald, unlike Longstreet, made no attempt to gather all of Daumier's prints. Rosenwald, instead, sought out rare impressions, some of which include corrections by the artist or little scribbled notes in the printer's hand. ("Daumier complains about the quality of the last proofs, take care of this one.") A set of superb Daumier drawings, borrowed from the Corcoran, the Phillips, and half a dozen other American museums also are on view at the National Gallery of Art. The Daumier exhibition there, in the West Building's print rooms, will remain on view through Feb. 24.