There is art, there is craft and then there is the humble political cartoon, a species of inspired but brutal doodling that probably has caused more pure, apoplectic outrage than all the world's books and paintings combined.
Honore Daumier (1808-1879) was a master of the genre who also happened to be one of the great artists of the 19th century. His impassioned caricatures poking fun at the high and mighty -- politicians, lawyers and the pretentious bourgeoisie -- as well as his drawings, paintings and sculpture expressing profound empathy with the plight of ordinary people, are the subject of a rare and beautiful retrospective that opened yesterday at the Phillips Collection in Washington and runs through May 14.
Daumier lived during a turbulent era that pitted the forces of absolutist monarchy against republican idealism. The old ways of doing things were rapidly being swept aside by the revolutionary forces of industrialization and urbanization.
In this volatile social climate, all artists were suspect, and many a writer, painter and playwright risked imprisonment or worse if suspected of harboring subversive views.
Daumier, a prodigiously talented child born into a desperately poor household in Marseille, was a champion of popular sovereignty and a fearless defender of the urban working classes who earned his initial fame from a vast output of nearly 5,000 satirical prints on political and social themes.
A fervent believer that "one must be of one's own time," he was also one of the first artists to portray a panoramic view of the people and places of Paris, the city where he lived for most of his career.
As a young political satirist for the left-wing periodical La Caricature, Daumier had nothing but contempt for the anti-democratic forces in France, and was once sentenced to six months in prison for a brazenly scatological lithograph of the monarch Louis Philippe.
That cartoon, printed in 1830, depicts the rotund king as "Gargantua," a monstrously swollen glutton with a pear-shaped head who "swallows and thoroughly digests an unseasoned budget, and delivers it immediately in sweet-smelling secretions to the court in [the form of] crosses, ribbons, commissions, etc."
The work instantly established Daumier as the foremost political caricaturist of his day, and his subsequent trial for libel became one of the century's most famous examples of an artist's prosecution by the state.
In "The Legislative Belly: View of the Ministerial Benches in the Improstituted House of 1834," also published in La Caricature, Daumier skewered the members of France's rubber-stamp House of Deputies as a motley crew of pompous blowhards, lickspittles and do-nothings slumped behind their desks in varying attitudes of stupefying venality.
The work itself is at once a tour de force of minute observation and a undisputed masterpiece of the lithographer's art.
Yet there was more to Daumier's art than scalding ridicule and virtuoso technique. He was a brilliant draftsman whose pen penetrated to the heart of the human condition, whatever subject he chose. Daumier could be merciless toward his political adversaries, but he never lost sight of their essential humanity.
Of "The Legislative Belly" one contemporary viewer wrote: "Remove the picture's title and the word deputies; then we have before us nothing but an assembly of men, as our era and our race produce them... As we continue to observe, the initial comic shock disappears [and] a great current of truth is generated and flows toward us."
Daumier's greatness lay in his seemingly inexhaustible capacity for empathy with humanity's frailness and foibles, be they the avarice and pride of the rich or the stoic resignation of society's poor and dispossessed.
This ability is nowhere more apparent than in Daumier's paintings and drawings of ordinary people struggling to make their way in a nation that, by mid-century, was busily engaged in creating new wealth from manufacture and commerce but that had also produced a huge and impoverished urban proletariat.
In "A Third-Class Carriage," perhaps Daumier's most famous painting, the alienation and resignation of those left behind in France's economic boom are etched on the faces of the passengers in a third-class railway car.
More than one version of this work exists, and the Phillips show includes several of them in different media. Two are large, oil-on-canvas paintings, one from the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the other from the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. In addition, there's a slightly smaller oil-on-panel painting from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, and several drawings, including a superb crayon and wash version from the Walters Art Gallery whose two companion pieces, "First-Class Carriage" and "Second-Class Carriage," are also on display.
All three of the latter pieces were commissioned in 1864 by Baltimore art dealer George Lucas on behalf of his client, the railway magnate William Walters, who apparently bought the entire set for the equivalent of a few hundred francs.
An up and down career
The comparatively low price points up the vagaries of Daumier's professional career and reputation, which oscillated wildly both during his lifetime and in the century and a quarter since his death.
Unlike many of the major 19th century artists who became famous toward the end of their careers, Daumier died in poverty and obscurity, having been almost completely forgotten by the generation that knew him principally as the acerbic political wit of the 1830s.
His first retrospective did not take place until 1878, a few months before his death, and even then the impetus for the exhibition came more from his friends on the political left than from any serious interest among the art world.
Daumier's paintings, water- colors and sculpture were still virtually unknown. During his lifetime he exhibited very little, although over the years he had submitted various works to the official Salon. As a result, even after the diversity of his output was recognized, critical opinion remained lukewarm.
"The conclusion will be categorical [that] however interesting Daumier's painting may be, it is hardly creative," wrote one reviewer of the 1878 show.
Another, complaining of the "unfinished" look of some of the artist's canvases, surmised that "Daumier must have executed his paintings in a single session, in one day, and made a rule of not revising them but of transposing to canvas his swiftness with the pencil."
An accepted influence
Only in the 20th century did the magnitude of Daumier's achievement begin to become apparent to art historians and critics, who, grudgingly at first, came to accept the notion that a caricaturist might actually, as one put it, "raise himself to the level of great art."
Visitors to the Phillips show need have no such reservations. By now Daumier's place as a forerunner of Impressionism and a seminal influence on such artists as Manet, Monet, Renoir and Degas -- the latter was one of the Daumier's most fervent admirers and once owned 1,800 of his lithographs -- has been securely established. Daumier has aptly been called "one of the most important men not only in caricature but in the whole of modern art."
One of the artist's most touching series of images is the group of paintings and drawings he completed toward the end of his life on the theme of Don Quixote, Cervantes' idealistic but gullible Spanish knight who, with his faithful companion Sancho Panza, sets out on a doomed but ennobling quest to save the world from its own folly. Daumier might well have been portraying himself in these magical images.
The quality of his art that speaks to generations across time and place is his deep humanity, his refusal to countenance injustice, his scorn for the posturing of the privileged, his bottomless compassion for the society's outcast and rejected and, finally, his joyful and clear-eyed embrace of the thousand small imperfections and weaknesses that are common to us all.
In all these things he was an artist far in advance of his time whose monumental achievement we are only now beginning to fully appreciate.
Daumier on display
What: "Daumier: 1808-1879"
Where: The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. N.W., Washington
When: Through May 14
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.
Admission: $7.50 adults, $4 students and seniors, under 18 free