© National Gallery of Art


History of Art: The 19th Century

"Wandering Saltimbanques," 1847-50, Honoré Daumier

Finally the day comes when the artist is freed to paint not what he sees,
not what the patron pays him to see, but what he knows he is looking at.
So Daumier's family of sad entertainers shuffles not along a street but out of
a haze -- of noise and crowds, of laughter, of jeering, of hunger and uncertainty.
The man, for all his coxcomb shirt and clown's hat, cannot even look up;
the woman peers around his shoulder, her face covered by shadows as though
every time she played some overdrawn character it erased part of her own.
And the child! Daumier paints him as if naked, except for the simple chair
he carries upside-down on his head, his hands gripping its back. His eyes
are hidden, but no matter -- the upward tilt of his chin says all we need to know:
He is deep in some fantasy of his own, dreaming that he is a captain steering
his swift ship, an engineer in his polished locomotive, but Daumier knows
the two posts of the chair are bars in a cell from which he may never escape.

December 2000

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