That lovable old German theoretician Gotthold Ephraim Lessing thought that painting was an art of spatial relationships and that the things depicted in it should have the good manners to stand still. Leave action and movement to the temporal art of poetry, Lessing argued in his 1766 essay "Laocoon" (translated into French in 1802 and known by every serious artist ever after). But Lessing had the sense to admit that there were exceptions. "How many things would seem incontestable in theory," he wrote, "had not genius succeeded in proving the opposite by fact." If Lessing hadn't penned that qualifier, the drawings and watercolors of Honore Daumier a century later would have compelled him to rise from his grave and add it. And the more than 100 examples in "Daumier Drawings" (at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 2) give us a wonderful chance to understand why.
Daumier (1808-79) was the first French artist to get to the hall of fame because the people liked his little drawings, instead of the aristocracy liking his big salon paintings. Baudelaire ranked him as one of the top three draftsmen, along with Ingres and Delacroix. Born the son of a struggling poet whose day jobs were glazier and picture framer, Daumier missed out on the traditional academic artist's education. At 19, he apprenticed for a few months to a portrait lithographer, but boredom drove him out. He apparently learned enough tricks with the crayon, however, to catch on as a caricaturist and courtroom artist with the magazines Le Caricature and Le Charivari. For more than 40 years and through 4,000 lithographs, Daumier gracefully skewered reactionary, starch-collared pols and effortlessly ennobled lowly laundresses. He paid dues, too: six months in prison in 1831 for a vicious caricature of the obese King Louis-Phillipe, a virtual end to his political cartoons with the 1835 censorship laws and an unceremonious dumping by Le Charivari, after a mere 27 years of service. (He got the job back, with a banquet, three years later.) Historically, Daumier makes the word seminal an understatement; his great-great-grandsons embellish our daily op-ed pages, and the Daumier estate still holds the patent on Jules Feiffer.
But Daumier still wanted to be a painter capable of rendering standard stories from classical mythology and the Bible. He took up oils seriously in 1848, but his lack of formal training made them more a straitjacket than a pair of wings. More or less reconciled to drawings and watercolors (actually watercolored drawings), this reticent, unpretentious artist essentially reinvented drawing as a self-sufficient medium. He drew daily, favoring the broken stumps and butt ends of Conte crayons to achieve hardiesse, which sounds like "hardiness" but really means "audacity." What he got in addition was the best sense of gesture-that elusive combination of physical motion and psychological insight-in the history of art. But for the absence of Armani power suits, "The Speech for the Defense" (circa 1867) might be a magnificently composed and subtly colored freeze frame from cable's Court TV channel. "The Family" (circa 1863), whose comfortingly circular strokes depict a nursing mother, is a beautifully backlighted example of the artist's tender side.
Daumier still tried the occasional painting, but the study for it was almost always better. He was simply the unrivaled master of the visual vignette, the short short story brimming with empathy for the incessant shoves and tugs of bourgeois urban life. In the mid-1860s, just before his eyesight began to fail, Daumier produced the little masterpiece of his circus series, "Street Show." In it, a wildly gesticulating clown (whose physiognomy echoes another favorite Daumier subject, Don Quixote, and is drawn in a style that presages the speedworshiping Italian futurists of the 1920s) tries his best to conjure carnival customers out of an empty city square. Behind him, a Sancho Panza-esque drummer, made from a blood-red swatch and the most sketchily succinct lines we'll ever see, beats out an accent to the appeal. Daumier, who knew the precariousness of being a public performer, might have been pitching for a little career sympathy. But he died only after a big show at Durand-Ruel with a catalog biography by Champfleury, and was eventually buried near the painters Corot and Millet in Pere-Lachaise cemetery. So what he deserves is admiration, from Lessing's ghost as well as us.