Secrets of the Real Thing: Building a Collection as a Graduate Student

Fig. 1. Embellissements de Paris. – Percement de la butte des Moulins avec l’ouverture de l’avenue Napoléon, perpendiculaire à la façade du nouvel Opéra et aboutissant au Théâtre-Français. Vue prise de la Toiture du foyer du nouvel Opéra [Embellishments of Paris. – Piercing of the Butte des Moulins with the opening of the Napoleon Avenue, perpendicular to the façade of the new Opera and leading to the French theater. View taken from the foyer roof of the new Opera], reproduced from Le Monde Illustré, 27 March 1869.

I never intended to be a collector. As a doctoral candidate in art history working on Honoré Daumier and Haussmannization, I thought I would be able to do most of my image research with online databases. Daumier’s caricatures have been meticulously catalogued by the Brandeis Repository and the Daumier Register (which claims to have accounted for every print created by Daumier whether published or not—more than 5,000 lithographs and wood engravings).1 These enabled me to search through thousands of caricatures and quickly zero in on the ones of particular interest to me: those from the French Second Empire (1852–1870).

This period of Daumier’s activity had been largely overlooked by scholars, due to long-held beliefs that the strict censorship laws of the period prevented artists from satirizing and caricaturing political and social issues.2 Sifting through the databases, however, revealed that throughout this time Daumier had actively used satire and irony to dodge the censors and provide social critique, especially regarding the “Haussmannization” of Paris—the massive urban renewal project headed by Napoleon III and the Prefect of the Seine, Baron George-Eugène Haussmann. The Prefect demolished most of the twisted and narrow streets and alleyways of the medieval city and replaced the congested neighborhoods with large public squares, sidewalks and the broad boulevards for which the city is known today (Fig. 1). From these digital reproductions, it was clear that Daumier was responding to the confusion and anxiety inherent in the erasure and remaking of the city’s physiognomy and, consequently, culture and society. In the face of press censorship, I believed, these caricatures generated a discourse about a shared cultural trauma (Fig. 2).

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  1. Honoré Daumier’s Digitized Lithographs at Brandeis University: http://bir.brandeis.edu/handle/10192/5 and the Daumier Register Digital Work Catalogue: http://www.daumier-register.org. []
  2. For more information regarding Second Empire press censorship, see among others: Elizabeth Childs, “The Body Impolitic: Censorship and the Caricature of Honoré Daumier,” in Suspended License: Censorship and the Visual Arts (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 151–189; Robert Goldstein, Censorship of Political Caricature in Nineteenth-Century France (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1989); Michele Hannoosh, Baudelaire and Caricature (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992); and Judith Wechsler, A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th Century Paris (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982). []