Deux saltimbanques / Two Saltimbanques
Pen, washed in grey, on ribbed hand-made paper
Inv. No. 16737 (Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e. V.)
24.1 × 15.6 cm
The artist Honoré Daumier made a name for himself chiefly with his lithographs – important documents of social history which were published as newspaper cartoons. With a keenly observant eye, he delivered a commentary, in thousands of images, on the rapid succession of political changes in France, on the world of that country’s lawyers, and above all on the pleasures, horrors and fears experienced by its citizens. His success was founded as much in the pithy forcefulness of his satire as in his extraordinary inventiveness as a draughtsman. Alongside printmaking, painting and sculpture, drawing held a special status for Daumier as a medium for private reflection, a circumstance powerfully demonstrated by his Saltimbanques. This melancholy scene depicting two itinerant circus performers of advancing years is distinguished by economy of means as well as a great amount of empathy. They seem to have found a suitable place for themselves in the margins of public life. With the brightness created by sketchy strokes of the pen, Daumier describes the two obviously very different characters and their relationship to one another. The rather plump, stolid-looking one has taken a seat and, his legs dangling, is turned towards his companion. The latter, on the other hand, a figure of more slender build, is only leaning against the same seat-like object; the apparently well-worn cap on his bald head makes him look somewhat like a jester. His hands clasped in front of him, he gazes into space with an air of resignation. His eye sockets, in deep shadow, emphasize an introspective thoughtfulness that seeks no external stimulus. Revealing subtle sensitivity, Daumier uses the light play of lines and the shading – created with free movements of the brush – to lend this wordless dialogue an aura of serenity. As a pair of diametrically opposed characters, the two are somewhat reminiscent of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, recurring objects of Daumier’s interest. Daumier returned again and again to the world of travelling entertainers. While he likes to portray the spectacle of the annual fair by showing the parade with which the performers court the public’s favour, he represents the individual entertainers as rather quiet, solitary figures. Because of their independence and their outsider status, such persons came to feature in nineteenth-century art and literature as symbols of the artist’s existence, a symbolism that was taken up again in the century that followed, most notably and influentially by artists such as Picasso and Beckmann. Honoré Daumier certainly deserves the credit for developing this metaphor into a worthy theme for a picture; in this drawing he treated it with the calm deliberateness of later life, born of knowledge and experience.