Daumier was a major innovator in the field of political caricature, known for memorable images that used both biting humor and realism to convey urgent social concerns. Through his prints, paintings, and sculptures, Daumier expressed keen sympathy for the plight of the poor and downtrodden, chronicling a period of major social, political, and economic upheaval in mid-19th-century France.
The son of a glazier, Daumier was born in Marseilles and at the age of eight moved to Paris. Economic imperatives led him to work as a bailiff’s assistant by the time he was twelve, instilling in him a disdain for lawyers and a sense of compassion for the impoverished. He developed a passion for drawing and at sixteen trained with Alexandre Lenoir and at the Académie Suisse. Daumier mastered lithography, working for publishers Zéphirin Bélliard and Achille Ricourt, and in 1830 he began to contribute cartoons to the journal Caricature. He developed a vigorous style marked by bold chiaroscuro effects and careful composition. Daumier was an ardent Republican supporter, and his scathing satires combined humor with blunt depictions of abuses of power. In 1832 he was imprisoned briefly for his anti-monarchist caricature of Louis-Philippe as Rabelais’s notorious glutton Gargantua.
As a painter, Daumier was most likely self-taught, beginning to work in oil painting and watercolor for his own pleasure around the mid-1830s. He made copies from paintings by Millet and Rubens and adapted figures from his lithographs into paintings. His subjects ranged from portraiture and scenes of daily life to literature and mythology. Toward the end of his life, Daumier lost his eyesight and died a pauper. His paintings were rarely exhibited during his lifetime, although they gained renown after his death, praised by admirers for their expressive and lively brushwork. Their spontaneous sketch-like quality was even seen by some to presage elements of Impressionism.