Charles Baudelaire was a poet and critic who kept the closest of watches on the art of his time. In 1858 he described Honoré Daumier as "one of the most important men, I will not say only of caricature, but also of modern art". Baudelaire was on permanent lookout for "the painter of modern life", an artist who could truly reflect the reality of mid-19th-century France, and in his urge to identify just such a chronicler he could be skew-eyed: he named both heavyweight talents such as Manet's and lightweight ones such as Constantin Guys's. Neither fully fits the bill but Daumier, with his facility and sense of engagement, was a better choice.
Baudelaire was not alone in his judgment. Balzac claimed that Daumier had "Michelangelo under his skin"; Degas thought he belonged alongside Delacroix and Ingres; Picasso was a later admirer. Partly because art likes to maintain its hierarchies and partly because modernity quickly becomes passé, Baudelaire's advocacy, and that of the others too, rapidly lost currency. Subsequent commentators acknowledged Daumier's pre-eminence as a caricaturist but not as an artist.
Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris at the Royal Academy offers a chance to assess whether Baudelaire et al had a point. Daumier's reputation as a serious artist may be healthier now than for a hundred years but the fact that the RA needs to include his dates as part of the exhibition title says something of his modest standing. There are 130 works on show, a fraction of his extraordinary output that numbered some 4,000 lithographs, 500 paintings and 100 sculptures.
Daumier, known as "Bonhomme" by his friends, was not a vocal artist. Almost his only recorded adage is: "One must be of one's own time." His time was the rapidly changing world that saw post-Napoleonic France marked by revolution and by switches between monarchies and republics. This unstable scene was his subject. He was himself a dyed-in-the-wool republican and his politics, both in his distrust of politicians, lawyers and doctors and his sympathy with working people, drove his work.
The bulk of his lithographs were produced for the satirical journals La Caricature and Le Charivari. Many of his images were those of an interested observer but he was possessed of a sharp edge too. After the publication in 1831 of a caricature of King Louis-Philippe as Rabelais's gluttonous character Gargantua he found himself in serious trouble. Daumier depicted the monarch as a huge pear-shaped figure into whose mouth the poor are tipping their hard-earned money which is excreted in the form of peerages and decorations for the wealthy who cluster beneath his nether regions. The image earned Daumier two months in jail and a further four in a mental institution — the administration's way of showing that dissenters were mentally disturbed. On emerging from this ordeal Daumier went straight back to work again, unchastened, and continued to produce weekly caricatures for the next 40 years.