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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The poorest of the poor

The Laundress (La Blanchisseuse), c. 1863, by Honoré Daumier. This painting exists in another two versions, one of which is owned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
In the context of art, naturalism is a kind of painting that attempts to look reality square in the face. It seeks to depict people and their transactions with as much honesty as is possible. Since naturalism arose in tandem with the Industrial Revolution, it frequently investigated the changes which the Industrial Revolution wrought.

The Third-Class Carriage, 1863-65, by Honoré Daumier.  While Daumier has us focus on one family—a mother with her infant child, a tired grandmother and a sleeping boy—they represent all of the working class, with their solid bodies and weary stoicism.
Mid-19th century French painters were particularly good at this, and nobody was more incisive than Honoré Daumier. Daumier was a bit of an artistic polymath, excelling at printmaking, caricature, painting and sculpture. He was tremendously prolific, producing more than 6000 pieces of work in his lifetime.

The Uprising, c. 1860, by Honoré Daumier. Daumier was unique in seeing the nascent labor movement as a fitting subject for art. Daumier is very spare with the details here, driving our attention inexorably to the figure in the center. In this, he suggests the coming Impressionist movement.

In Daumier’s era, washerwomen did their work at lavoirs, which were public places set aside for clothes washing.  It was dismal and hard work. Duamier lived on the Quai d'Anjou on the Île Saint-Louis. This afforded him many opportunities to see the washerwomen at their work along the Seine.  His washerwomen, would have been amused by the modern conceit of “Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day” since it was a fact of life for the 19th century poor. They are tired, but they are strong, and they exhibit the same monumentality as Millet’s gleaners.

The Burden (The Laundress) c. 1850-53, is another look at the same subject. Again, the figure is monumental and impressionistic, but here she and her child are both driven. The paint handling clearly suggests the next generation of French painters, particularly Van Gogh.

Having grown up in a working class household himself, Daumier was uniquely sensitive to working class life. However, he did not just paint the poor; he depicted (and caricaturized) the whole gamut of French society.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

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