Published on 2 of November 2017

On Floor 4 of the General Staff building, a permanent display has opened devoted to the work of the French artist Honoré Daumier. It presents the painting The Burden, the drawing A Seat in the Stalls and 15 of the artist’s prints. Since works of graphic art are particularly sensitive to light, the drawings and prints will be changed three times a year.

Honoré Daumier’s artistic legacy comprises around 300 paintings, over 1,000 drawings, around 4,000 lithographs and more than 100 sculptures. He was known to his own contemporaries above all as a master of the political and social cartoon. The artist’s prints are chiefly satirical in content, as are many of his drawings and sculptures.

Daumier’s first works on burning political issues (criticism of the July Monarchy and King Louis-Philippe) appeared in the early 1830s. The toughening of censorship in 1835 made the publication of anti-government cartoons impossible. From that time right through to the 1870s Daumier produced cartoons chiefly on social issues. The majority of the artist’s lithographs were produced for the satirical daily newspaper Le Charivari. The publication consisted of a single folded sheet, making four pages, the third of which carried a cartoon. The same lithographs were printed separately on thick white paper. In contrast to the newspaper versions, which were always black-and-white, those prints were often tinted with watercolour. (This is believed to have been done by journeymen artists on the initiative of the publisher.)

The theatre played a special role in Daumier’s oeuvre. The artist was a frequent visitor to the Parisian theatres and depicted performers on stage and backstage on many occasions. The audience also became an object for Daumier’s keen observation, as if they too had turned into actors.

It is no coincidence that Daumier is called a witness of his time: his prints can be regarded as an encyclopaedia of Parisian life, its mores, fears, fashions, sorrows and joys. At the same time, the devices that Daumier employed in his work anticipated the art of the later part of the century and had an influence on such figures as Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Daumier’s drawings date mainly from the 1850s and ’60s. Many of them are connected thematically with the prints: often the artist chose subjects already familiar to the public from his lithographs, calculating that the drawings would appeal to collectors. However, compared to the prints Daumier’s drawings as a rule contain less sarcasm and caustic irony.

With the exception of individual works on biblical, mythological or literary themes, the majority of Daumier’s paintings are devoted to everyday subjects. As with the lithographs, the artist might develop particular motifs in his paintings over many years, again producing series of sorts. These include several canvases depicting a laundress with a child and the Hermitage’s The Burden is one of the earliest works in that cycle.