HONORE DAUMIER (1808-1879)
HONORE DAUMIER (1808-1879)
HONORE DAUMIER (1808-1879)
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HONORE DAUMIER (1808-1879)
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Property from the Estate of Sophie F. Danforth
HONORE DAUMIER (1808-1879)

Les trois juges

HONORE DAUMIER (1808-1879)
Les trois juges
signed 'h. Daumier' (lower right)
gouache, watercolor, brush and pen and India ink, ink wash and black chalk on paper
7 5/8 x 6 in. (19.3 x 15.3 cm.)
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Paris.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York (acquired from the above, 17 July 1928).
Alexander L. Sinsheimer, New York (acquired from the above, November 1928).
Carroll Carstairs Gallery, New York.
Helen and Murray Snell Danforth, Providence, Rhode Island (acquired from the above, 19 January 1950, then by descent to the late owner).
K.E. Maison, Honoré Daumier: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings, London, 1967, vol. II, p. 201, no. 603 (illustrated, pl. 225).

Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

Honoré Daumier’s witty works on paper—incisive portraits of modern French society—often landed him in serious trouble. In 1831, for example, he published an unflattering caricature of Louis-Philippe I; the artist was soon charged and convicted with the crime of insulting the King and spent six months in prison. In the years that followed, Daumier became fascinated by the dynamics of the court and devoted more than two hundred paintings, drawings and lithographs to this subject. The present work on paper, Les trois juges, belongs to this group, which is widely considered to be the signature theme of his oeuvre.
Daumier’s explorations of legal subjects were based on first-hand observation, initially through his own entanglement with the justice system. After his release from prison, the artist began to attend other public proceedings at the Palais de Justice, near his apartment and studio on the Ile Saint-Louis in Paris. Even if the defendants in these trials were charged with heinous crimes, Daumier approached his subjects with characteristic humor. He perfectly captured the absurdity of the courtroom: the theatrical fireworks of the prosecution, the melodrama of the defense and the smug piety or bored indifference of the judge. As curator Colta Ives wrote, “It was undoubtedly Daumier’s liberal outlook and his profound distaste for the abuse of power that prompted him to examine the actions and motivations of lawyers and judges. With the zealous instincts of a playwright’s son, he staged dramatic portrayals of the sins of vanity, sloth, deception, and greed against a backdrop of the halls of justice” (“Lawyers and the Courts,” Daumier Drawings, exh. cat, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992, p. 174).
Daumier ultimately published these scenes as a lithographic series, with titles such as Les Gens de Justice (1845-1848) and Physionomies du Palais de Justice (1852). These print portfolios were enormously popular in the nineteenth century; their success further stimulated the contemporary market for Daumier’s oils, watercolors and drawings among collectors, and he continued to produce these unique images throughout the 1850s and 1860s. The later works on paper are remarkable for their fluid layers of pigment, overlapping with quirky lines of pen. These mixed-media sheets frequently focused on an individual or a small gaggle of lawyers; French judges typically presided over hearings in groups of three, and so these figures often appear as trios in Daumier’s work.
The present composition, for example, depicts three judges gathered informally in the hallway of the Palais de Justice. The trio, united by their uniform of dark robes and cylindrical hats, are engaged in a casual, collegial conversation. The stooped figure on the left guffaws, as if in the middle of telling a bad joke. A heavy-set man with a ginger mutton-chop beard smiles haughtily in response, while the central figure follows along with a wan grin. Despite the banal nature of the pleasantries they exchange, these judges each possess significant power over the lives of their fellow citizens; as the Goncourt brothers wrote of Daumier’s lawyers, “The heads are frightful, with grimaces, laughs that cause fear. These men in black have I know not what ugliness, from horrible antique masks grafted onto their makeup” (quoted in B. Laughton, Honoré Daumier, New Haven, 1996, pp. 106-107).
As Les trois juges demonstrates, Daumier was adept at capturing and critiquing social dynamics, legible through clues of anatomy, posture and facial expression. The artist was also sensitive to details in the margins, which could shift the tone of the entire scene. Consider, for example, the shady encounter between another lawyer and a man in a top hat in the background of Les trois juges, a vague allusion to the ubiquitous corruption of the legal field at that time. This subtle addition is evidence of the evolution of Daumier’s craft, as he matured from a clever young caricaturist to a sage chronicler of modern life.

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