Years ago I found myself in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a posse of 15 finance geeks in tow, enjoying respite from a college trip to study financial institutions on Wall Street. Being the only art nerd amongst the number crunchers, I had been unanimously elected to lead the other students through the Met. As we rounded a corner in the European paintings galleries, I came upon The Third-Class Carriage by Honoré Daumier, and excitement literally sent me leaping toward the painting.
With frenzied enthusiasm, I explained the importance of this sociological study of three generations of a poor French family riding in the third-class train. My description piqued the interest of my friends, so I expanded my art history lesson to other highlights from Daumier’s career, including his epic print illustrating the atrocities of the Rue Transnonain massacre, his satirical caricatures of the French legislature, and his biting exposés of the French judicial system and its inequities.
At this point, a guard got my attention and asked whether I was conducting a museum tour without permission. When I assured him that I was only 18 years old and telling my friends about some of my favorite paintings, he was skeptical. But upon being confronted with proof—my California driver’s license—he not only allowed me to continue my “tour,” he also joined our group and even began to ask questions.
I imagine the artist, who would be celebrating his birthday today, would have been pleased. Daumier was one of the most impassioned men to draw breath, fighting fearlessly to advance the Republican cause of democratic freedoms and social equality during the revolutionary struggles in Paris during the mid 19th-century—even to the point of spending five months in jail for a lithograph depicting king Louis-Phillippe gluttonously devouring all the nation’s wealth. Thus, I imagine our group’s passion on his behalf would have made him quite proud.
Though made more than 150 years ago, Daumier’s scathing critiques of the French government are still profoundly poignant—not to mention germane to the current political climate, as citizens of numerous countries wage street protests in the name of democratic freedom.
Happy birthday, Daumier—how I’d love to see your caricatures of today’s headlines!