DAUMIER’S WOOD ENGRAVINGS

2018-09-11T17:09:56+00:00

Here below is a highly interesting article about Daumier’s wood engravings from the year 1926 by M. H. DANIELS, then at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. We feel that her thoughts and observations are still today invaluable to the ardent collector of Daumier prints. We are very pleased to have discovered this article and to be able to introduce it here, since most collectors of Daumier prints are specializing in his lithographs, while his wood engravings still today don’t seem to get the appreciation they deserve.

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Picked up one at a time during a series of years and individually of such comparatively slight importance that few have justified more than the merest passing mention in the BULLETIN, there has gradually been brought together in the Print Room of the Metropolitan Museum a little group of books illustrated with woodcuts by Daumier that is not without its very real interest for such people as take the nineteenth-century woodcuts seriously as works of art.

As a medium for book illustration, the woodcut after having held the floor in the fifteenth century and rivaled engraving in the sixteenth, declined almost to obscurity in the seventeenth and eighteenth, but came back once more into its own in the nineteenth century. Adapting itself so easily to caricature, the century in France is marked by the drawings upon wood of such notable delineators of life and manners as Grandville, Victor Adam, Traviès, Emy, Gavarni, Monnier, and one of the greatest of all illustrators and caricaturists, Honoré Daumier.

It is surprising that so few of the many who have recorded the works of Daumier have given much space to his woodcuts, all being concerned for the most part with his paintings or with the lithographs which appeared in the two Paris dailies, La Caricature and Le Charivari, by which he earned his daily bread. Yet in the medium of the woodcut Daumier was surely at his best. Dropping for the moment the political ferment of the day with its attending choleric attack upon some high dignitary of the law or, at Philipon’s request, upon Louis-Philippe himself, Daumier took his material from life about him in the Paris streets and suburbs.

Intimate and friendly, for all the touch of malice behind them, the little vignettes decorating the pages of Les Français peints par eux-mêmes, Muséum Parisien, La Grande Ville, Némésis Médicale, and Le Prisme (1840-1842) have a spontaneity and freedom that must necessarily have been lost in the daily grinding out of the famed lithographs. Their greatness lies in something more than such attributions of quality as good drawing, technique, brilliancy, and other phrases of print description. Finding drama in the most casual goings and comings of the people about him, Daumier, drawing his social caricatures with an uncompromising hand, shows an amazing, almost psychic penetration into the very soul of the many layers of society of the time.

Caustic, satirical, with startling directness he seems so easily to catch the spirit of each of his types. The complacent, wealthy bourgeois, stuffy city official, and unctuous bill-collector are just that-nothing more. He depicts the struggles of the lower classes for existence and with each other with an unsurpassed eloquence. Daumier has put his finger upon all the bathos and pathos in ordinary living. Ineffably amusing is the cut from Le Monde Illustré of the family walking through the Egyptian galleries of a museum and, as all three gaze up at a wall-relief depicting a row of animal-headed deities the wife exclaiming, “No, the Egyptians were not beautiful.”

Through a series of incidents created by Daumier and afterwards used to illustrate Paul de Kock’s La Grande Ville, one can follow the daily life of the bourgeois Parisian from his rising in the morning, his toilet, his way to business or morning promenade, the pause at noon in the garden of the Palais Royal to set his watch by the report from the little cannon, through his afternoon amusements in the Champs Elysées and Bois de Boulogne, to the evening at the theatre and his retiring.

In sharp contrast to this smug, well-fed middle class, there are in the same volume the lodging-house inmates at four sous the night. The drawing of the shabby little man sitting on his mattress, back against the wall and smoking his clay pipe, his hat and slippers on the floor beside him while all around him sleep the other “guests,” is nothing short of masterly! Riimann in his catalogue sentimentally speaks of these illustrations as the “Sunshine and Rain in Life.”

In the Nemesis Médicale, Daumier helps the author, François Fabre, to take a fling at the whole medical profession from the worthy M. D.s and sages-femmes to the charlatans on their soapboxes. He depicts crowds swarming into the gates of an Orthopedic Institute, the gruesome ravages of a cholera-morbus epidemic, and the strutting father having the strangely shaped head of his infant prodigy examined by a phrenologist. Will he tell the fond parent that it is not an indication of genius as he has supposed but probably criminal tendencies?

And so Daumier goes on through his astounding medley of types. Sympathetically, almost tenderly it seems at times, he produces with amazingly simple treatment his powerful studies of physiognomies. With what whimsicality he has drawn the two street musicians in Le Monde Illustré or the poet writing in bed in his attic or the groups of art-lovers in the galleries and auction rooms.

Although of the last century, Daumier cannot be held to his period. Not only did he exert a powerful influence upon his contemporaries and immediate followers, for example, Millet and Delacroix, but he continues to be a fertile source of inspiration. He is too great to be anything but eternal and universal. The illustrations of these little books have as much appeal as though they were done by one of our present-day cartoonists.

Take the drawing for Le Bourgeois Campagnard by Frédéric Soulie, the little man in carpet slippers, rake in hand, looking over his spectacles, could easily be one of the droves of commuters in New Jersey or Westchester measuring the sprouts in his own garden against those in his neighbors’. If one replaces the topper by a felt or straw hat in another illustration, one has a man of the twentieth century sitting with his wife on the ridge of a hill gazing out upon rolling fields and turning over in his mind – even as you and I – whether or not life in the country would be as peaceful as this one afternoon of an excursion from town.

Historically these little vignettes are of an importance that is out of all proportion to their size, as can be seen by any one who has looked into the origins of the contemporary revival of the woodcut in France. The modern movement owes its impulse to Lepère, probably, more than to any other one or many men, and as has been pointed out, he found much of the inspiration for his technical innovations in the woodcuts, which Daumier designed in the late thirties of the last century.

It is even believed by a few who are acquainted with the material that nothing done on the wood since the days of Dürer and Holbein is of greater merit, or possessed of stronger lasting qualities. That such an opinion should be possible only goes again to show that the nineteenth century still remains the least known of all centuries in the world of prints.

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(from: The Woodcuts of Daumier by Margaret H. Daniels, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 21, No. 1, Jan., 1926, pp. 16-19)

We would like to add some details about the technique applied in Daumier’s wood engravings, which might be of interest to the collector of Daumier wood engravings:

Daumier supplied the drawings on paper, which were then engraved by wood engraving specialists like Maurand, Verden and others. Note the closeness of a wood engraving to the crayon drawing – compare the “look” of the engravings to the “look” of Daumier’s lithographs. All of Daumier’s wood engravings are registered in the Daumier Register (www.daumier-register.org) from DR5001 to DR6116.

Wood engraving was one of the favored techniques of the 19th century reproductive printmakers. These engravers possessed a formidable ability, which would make wood engravings look like ink-wash drawings or, as in the two examples by Maurand and Verden, like lithographic drawings.

Many of the wood engravings made for illustration in the later 19th century were not printed from the original wood block but rather from electrotypes. An electrotype is an exact duplicate of the wood block produced by electrolysis, a technique invented in 1839. The wood engravings that appeared in the “Illustration” or the later “Charivari” were produced with this system.