Lawyers and characters of the Parisian court system constitute one of Daumier's more consistent bodies of work and were favorite subjects since his youth (his first job was errand boy to a bailiff). In Paris his family lived opposite the Palais de Justice and the young Daumier used to visit the court and sketch the figures that populated it. Between 1832 and 1833 the artist spent six months in prison as a result of having caricatured King Louis-Philippe. This personal experience with the French judicial system inspired him to visit the courts more often afterwards, and for three years he amassed drawings and sketches of scenes from the tribunals that he re-used for more finished compositions later.
From these early sketches and memories, Daumier built a repertory which provided inspiration when later in his career he began to work for Charivari magazine which published his lithographs and especially the series Les Gens de Justice (1845-8) and Physionomies du Palais de Justice (1852). When in the 1860s the artist's contract with Charivari was interrupted, Daumier concentrated on executing drawings for connoisseurs and collectors whose demand for these subjects was very strong. The French art critic and novelist Champfleury, a keen supporter of the work of Daumier, whom he repeatedly praised in his writings, is recorded as asking the artist, on behalf of a friend, for two drawings of tribunal scenes (Daumier 1808-1879, exhib. cat., op. cit., p. 447). Champfleury even took the liberty of specifying the subject of one of the drawings (it is not known whether the artist carried out the commission or not).
The present work, dated to the years 1864-5, belongs to this category of highly finished and polished drawings and watercolors that were executed for the market. These were the years, as was described by Maison, 'when his genius as a draughtsman was at its zenith' (K.E. Maison, 1967, op. cit., p. 11) and Daumier executed the finest of the series of Court Scenes, Third Class Carriages and Don Quixote.
The composition of the present drawing recalls that of the lithograph Je crois vous avoir suffisament prouvé [...] (fig. 1), published in Charivari in 1864, in which a lawyer is shown defending a man whose wife has repeatedly betrayed him. In the drawing, the lawyer stands in the center, overshadowing the humble client who sits next to him, his gaze concentrated, his face almost with the appearance of a mask.
The lawyer is shown pointing both index figures at the table on which sit the symbols of his profession: a hat, representing the power given to him by the profession, and some papers likely to contain proof of his client's defense. As Colta Ives has written, 'these figures finally represent for us neither lawyers nor judges, but personifications of human weakness dressed up in dark robes' ('Lawyers and the Courts', in Daumier Drawings, exhib. cat., New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, p. 175)
Typically, in this sheet Daumier concentrates on characterizing the over-emphatic gesture of the lawyer. He builds up the composition by creating a dark background behind the two figures, making them stand out. Also, as with Daumier at his best, a pun is concealed in a small detail of the drawing. Here, he translates the French saying 'brasser du vent' which conveys the idea that the lawyer is speaking in vain and that his words are just 'hot air' and nothing more, by depicting a cloud in front of his open mouth with a little touch of white bodycolor.
Emile Strauss (1844-1929), who seems to have been the first to own this drawing, was himself a lawyer. He was an acquaintance of the Rothschild family and best known for having married Geneviève Halévy, previously the wife of the composer Georges Bizet, and 'grande Salonnière of her time.