Daumier’s Flâneur: an appropriated man

Show Navigation

By | Events and Visits, From the Collections

The cover of the September 2013 Apollo magazine might have aroused a semi-conscious flicker of déjà vu in some visitors to the Wellcome Library.

Cayley Apollo_sept-e1377853072429-768x1024

It reproduced a painting by the Scottish-born painter Peter Doig. The painting, called Metropolitain, is one of several versions of the same composition that Doig was working on around 2004. All the versions include the same man in a top hat and an overcoat, fairly standard middle-class outdoor dress in a mid-19th century metropolis – except that this man is clearly somewhat down-at-heel and worse for wear: his face is raddled and his clothes are patched. Behind him is a mountain or hill on to which is projected a wall of paintings in various stages of completion – only one of them is realized. An exhibition of Doig’s paintings in Munich in 2004 showed all eight versions of this subject, ranging from charcoal and pencil sketches to the most finished version, a large oil painting on canvas (275.3 x 200 cm.). [1]

One of these versions, an oil sketch, is inscribed ‘After Daumier’ by the artist. Doig is known for his ‘appropriations’ of figures from other painters, usually from household names such as Monet and Munch. This figure comes from a painting by Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) painted around 1860 and now belonging to the Art Institute of Chicago. Until 26 January 2014 the painting is on loan from Chicago to the exhibition Daumier 1808-1879: visions of Paris at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Oil painting on wood by Honoré Daumier, ca. 1857-1863. Art Institute of Chicago

Oil painting on wood by Honoré Daumier, ca. 1857-1863. Art Institute of Chicago. Image: Royal Academy of Arts

In Chicago the painting is given the title The Print Collector, at the Royal Academy it is exhibited as L’amateur d’estampes (the Print collector). However the man in this painting looks more like a would-be collector. He has his hands buried in his pockets, hunches himself in his overcoat as a protection from the cold, and looks sideways at the exhibited works as if he were a Baudelairean flâneur wistfully eyeing prints that he cannot afford to buy. It is striking that he is shown in contrejour (a dark silhouette against the light) even though we are looking away from the daylight, towards the pictures on sale. Light radiates from the crayon-manner print hanging on the wall to the left. The print depicts an angelic or saintly head in sanguine-colour: its warmth and beauty draws the man’s attention away from the cold light of the outside world.

The Royal Academy invited Peter Doig to write a brief essay on the Daumier painting in the catalogue of the exhibition [2]. Contributions by celebrity guests usually say more about the writer than about the work, and this essay follows that rule. Mr Doig writes: “Although the title of the painting tells us that the man in the dark hat is a collector looking at prints in a gallery, I want to think of him as an artist. I feel his demeanour and clothing suggest that here is an artist looking at works-in-progress in a studio.” As information about the Daumier painting, most of this is debatable. The so-called ‘title’ does not tell us anything at all, as it is simply a summary invented by a critic or curator, not by Daumier, who never exhibited the painting. As we have seen, there is no evidence that the man is a collector or an artist, and the exhibition space looks more like a stall than a gallery, perhaps a stall of the bouquinistes on the Seine embankments.

Stalls of the bouquinistes in Paris. Photograph

Stalls of the bouquinistes in Paris. Photograph by José María González-Serna © 2007 on Flickr (Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

The notion that the works on Daumier’s stall are unfinished is a result of the attempt to render engravings in oil paint: they could equally be very finished prints after artists such as Watteau and Boucher, of the same general appearance as the Watteau print below.

cayley marginal man watteau

Engraving by L. Surugue, 1729, after A. Watteau. Ca. 34 x 42 cm. British Museum no. 1907,1121.15

Mr Doig’s comments are indeed useful in suggesting that he sees the figure in his own appropriation of Daumier as an artist, not as a collector. The appropriator can do what he likes with the borrowed figures, by placing them in a new context. The same occurred when an earlier artist decided to avail himself of Daumier’s flâneur.

Frederick Cayley Robinson introduced the figure into one of the four paintings of the Acts of Mercy in the Wellcome Library, an act of appropriation which might have aroused in visitors to the Wellcome Library the feeling of déjà vu on seeing the Doig painting.

Detail of painting by Frederick Cayley Robinson. Wellcome Library no. 672829i

Detail of painting by Frederick Cayley Robinson. Wellcome Library no. 672829i

In one of those four canvases, dated 1920 (Wellcome Library no. 672829i), he is a marginal figure waiting outside a hospital, the only civilian among a gaggle of servicemen convalescing from World War I. In another painting by Cayley Robinson (The child’s song, 1919, Manchester Art Gallery), he is re-appropriated as a down-at-heel violinist reduced to playing his fiddle outside a pub on a wintry night.

Where could Cayley Robinson have seen Daumier’s painting? In his day it belonged successively to two Paris collectors, Georges Viau, and (by 1912) Jacques Doucet. While in Viau’s ownership, it was exhibited in Paris at the Exposition Internationale Universelle de 1900, where it was included in a survey of French art of the closing century. It was illustrated in the catalogue as no. 182, and called “L’amateur”.

Daumier's painting reproduced as a plate to: Catalogue officiel illustré de l'exposition centennale de l'art français de 1800 à 1889

Daumier’s painting reproduced as a plate to: Catalogue officiel illustré de l’exposition centennale de l’art français de 1800 à 1889 / Exposition universelle de 1900, Paris 1900. Image: Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

Cayley Robinson, who had a pied à terre in Paris, could have seen it in that exhibition (although he was living in Florence around that time). Alternatively he could have seen it chez Viau a few years earlier when he was studying in Paris (1891-1894). The painting stayed in France during his lifetime (he died in 1927), and was exported to America in 1934, where it was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957.

While ‘appropriation’ is nothing new, it is unusual that this comparatively little known painting has been appropriated independently by two different British painters eighty years apart. Cayley Robinson’s appropriation raises the question of whether any other of his figures are ‘quotations’ from other admired masters. One may have to cast the net wide, as by 1920, his knowledge of French, Italian and British art was formidable.

[1] Peter Doig: Metropolitain, Essays by Bernhart Schwenk and Hilke Wagner,  München: Pinakothek der Moderne; Hannover: Kestner-Gesellschaft; Köln: Walther König, 2004

[2] Daumier: visions of Paris, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2013, p. 130

Author: William Schupbach

Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts