In 1846, Honoré Daumier moved to 9, quai d'Anjou on Paris's Ile Saint-Louis. In the period that followed, the artist, better known for his caricatures of barristers and theatrical scenes of saltimbiques, turned toward the city's working class citizens. From the crowded riders of a third-class railway carriage to the local butcher, Daumier began to create what Gen Doy has called 'icon[s] of modern drudgery' (P. Wood, ed., "Material Differences: The Early Avant-Garde in France," The Challenge of the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1999, p. 65).
It is the weightiness of the figures that has encouraged scholars to align Daumier's canvases with other radical 19th century depictions of labor. According to Henri Loyrette, 'Daumier's…anonymous figures of poverty, display the same slow gestures, the same bowed forms, the same weight and compactness as Millet's gleaners.' In fact, Daumier had spent time with Millet at Theodore Rousseau’s house in Barbizon in 1855, the year before the present work was painted.
This sensitivity to the quotidian reality of the underclass lends both painters' work 'a universal dimension, raising what could have remained mere genre painting, picturesque and sentimental, to the level of history painting' (in "Situating Daumier," Daumier: 1808-1879, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1999, p. 17).
Daumier executed numerous works showing figures assembled to sing or play music (see lot 45). Occasionally Daumier mocks formal musical settings, as in his 1858 lithograph Un Orchestre dans une Chanteurs Maison Comme il Faut, where a professional musician yawns in the pit during a tedious scene on stage. However, he ('Buskers') does not condemn or make light of the enthusiasm of his ordinary subjects. In Chanteurs ambulants he presents an impromptu performance amongst the lower classes. His musicians are haunting figures singing a ballad that is colored by post-revolutionary disillusion. Referring to the present work, Michael Pantazzi observes, 'The itinerant singers…are depicted with a heightened expression, suggesting that Daumier made a distinction between the types of performance and adjusted the physiognomies accordingly. The forlorn singers who give their all with force of habit that can pass for fervor, are observed with affectionate irony' (ibid., p. 458).
Roger Passeron observed, 'Daumier, as we can imagine, attached as much importance to [itinerant theatre and street performers] as to the classic theatre, if not more. Whereas he dealt with the latter mainly in lithographs and paintings, he treated the former in watercolor and drawings. The fair, the eternal theme of the show, the 'parade', the magic patter of the mountebanks, the clown the charlatans, the buskers, the animal trainers, who have kept alive the tradition of laughter, verve and wit from the Middle Ages to our own day – all this hypnotized Daumier…It is easy to visualize Daumier, delighted simply to be in the street, drawn by the added pleasure and excitement of an itinerant show' (in Daumier, Fribourg, 1981, pp. 210-212).