A quiet man of few words, Daumier famously proclaimed that "one must be of one’s own time," and his work certainly reflects this dictum. Honoré Daumier was a gifted artist and illustrator and a highly engaged social critic of mid-nineteenth-century France, and his impressive oeuvre of drawings, watercolors and oil paintings reveals his keen aptitude for observing society as a whole. Few artists were as captivated by the legal profession as Daumier; the French courts were a familiar environment for the young artist ever since childhood, when his father had turned to the courts to settle financial disputes, and later Daumier’s first job would be as a bailiff’s assistant. By 1831 his family lived across from the Palais de Justice in Paris, where the artist undoubtedly bore witness to the parade of judges, lawyers and their myriad clients who frequented its halls.
Un Défenseur habile presents a dramatic courtroom scene with an emphatic lawyer at center pleading the case of his worried, watchful defendant seated behind him. A spectral jury looms in the shadows behind the pair, heightening the sense of anxiety in the room. The pathos of Daumier’s characters is aided by the artist’s adept handling of the pen and his careful attention to body language. Brilliant touches of white gouache illuminate the lawyer’s hands, head and the papers in front of him and accentuate the disheveled nature of the figure whose notes lie in disarray and thinning hair emerges from a bare head. Paired with the client's concerned grimace, these qualities hint at the satirical intent behind Daumier’s title that refers to the main protagonist as “A Skilled Defender.” Such a focus on and accomplished critique of judicial foibles would not arise in French art again until Rouault’s expressive and reprobative series of judges and lawyers a half-century later (see fig. 1).
It was from the time of the July Revolution of 1830 that Daumier turned his creative energy to a biting social critique extended to the French governmental systems. The newly created constitutional monarchy led by King Louis-Philippe allowed for greater freedom of expression and brought with it a flurry of illustrated pamphlets and publications critiquing the administration. Despite his more liberal policies, the king was not spared from criticism and instead became one of the most targeted figures of newly founded periodicals like La Caricature and Le Charivari. In taking the judiciary and courtroom drama as his subject, Daumier sought to scrutinize and expose the system that was flawed and often unfair to the most vulnerable members of society.
At the age of twenty-three Daumier found himself at the center of the judicial system he had grown up around: he was tried for one of his contemptuous portrayals of the King and summarily charged with six months in prison, sending a clear message to other critically inclined artists. Daumier’s time in court and prison left an indelible mark on the artist, who immediately after his sentence became a frequent visitor to the various Palais de Justices in and around Paris. His reports from this time were, however, more politically benign and captured the likenesses of various criminal offenders rather than government officials. Daumier’s keen observation grew stronger with the years spent studying the courts, and came to a crescendo in the 1840s with the remarkable series of lithographs Les Gens de Justice highlighting the hypocrisy of lawyers, judges and prosecutors in the French judicial system.
It is, however, Daumier’s immaculate watercolors from the 1850s-60s which anticipated the scores of rich and lyrical oil paintings and revealed his true artistic talent (see figs. 2-3). As art historian and curator Colta Ives states, “The highly finished watercolors of lawyers and judges, which Daumier produced in the 1860s, are in every way the works of a mature artist conscientiously refining themes tried earlier within the framework of journalism. They have an air of formality and self-conscious importance, reminding us that the artist was not in this instance cartooning for the newspaper but proffering his art to the select world of connoisseurs and collectors” (C. Ives et al., Daumier Drawings (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1992, p. 175).
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