In the summer of 1832, Honoré Daumier was sent to prison for six months after offending the king and his officers in a particularly acute satirical cartoon. Sainte-Pélagie, the Paris gaolhouse to which insurrectionists and personae non gratae of the time were sent, was said to adjoin the local zoo. Through the bars in his damp cell, Daumier could watch the animals opposite prowl about their cages.

Robert Macaire and his sidekick Bertrand, plotting their latest industrial deception…

It was one of life’s ironic symmetries, and the kind of biographical detail of which writers dream. But the image of a captive Daumier observing the captured beasts across the street was also, in its own little way, prophetic. It was Paris’ own human zoo that had first sharpened his eye and honed his critical powers; and when the parliamentary assembly eventually outlawed criticism of its political and royal institutions, it was to this spectrum of human indecency that Daumier would return for inspiration for his archetypal ‘Robert Macaire’ series, through which he would smuggle his anti-establishment jibes.

The second appearance of Macaire and Bertrand in Daumier’s ‘Caricaturana’ series

Born in a house just off the Old Port of Marseille, Daumier was raised in the streets of Paris. His father Jean-Baptiste, a simple glazier, harboured hopes of becoming a poet, and in pursuit of a literary career had moved the family to the capital when his son was just eight years old. The young Daumier grew up in times of social and political tumult: as a child, he would have known of Napoleon’s climactic fall from grace and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy; as a young artist, he witnessed first-hand the fermenting undercurrents of civil unrest.

Macaire the ‘self-made man’ refuses an invitation from an ‘upstart whose fortune comes from God knows where…I can’t stoop as low as that, it’s impossible!’

Sketching daily in the city streets, one day he professed to his parents his desire of becoming an artist. Appalled at the idea, they left the matter in the hands of a friend and patron, Alexandre Lenoir, who to their great surprise took Daumier under his own wing. He was made to study paintings of the Old Masters – Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian – and make accurate copies, rapidly honing his instinctive draughtsmanship. By 1829, he was working in a print firm under the publisher Achille Ricourt at a time when lithography, then a nascent technology, was big business. ‘You have the touch’, Ricourt told the young Daumier; and so began a career in print.

Macaire the dentist angers a client by pulling two good teeth and leaving two bad: ‘There will always be time to remove the rotten ones. As for the others, they would surely have caused you trouble in due time. A set of dentures wouldn’t hurt, and they’re all the rage right now – everyone’s wearing one.’

Then came revolution. The current ruler King Charles, aging and ineffectual, had allowed his subjects to institute a suppressive set of new laws that brought heavy-handed censorship of the press into effect. Sensing public opinion was on their side, publishers hit back with force: within weeks, the revolutionaries were assembled and barricades littered the streets. Too slow to appease, Charles was forced to escape to England and, in the subsequent confusion, was replaced by his cousin Louis-Philippe, hastily ushered back from self-exile by opportunistic agents of the crown.

A woman enlists the help of Macaire the detective to recover her missing 1,000 francs: ‘Your case is in hand, madame: the thief is an acquaintance of mine. You need only pay me 1,500 francs for my trouble and he shall return you your money and leave you his card.’

Louis-Philippe promised liberalism, but it was not forthcoming. Where the rebels had hoped for progressive action, he instead promoted a continuation of the status quo: hoarding public funds, refusing changes in electoral law, and, before long, reviving a tyrannical intolerance of public criticism oblique and overt. Monarchists and revolutionaries, until just recently sworn enemies, were for a time united in mutual distaste for the new regime.

Macaire the Parfumeur pokes at Louis-Philippe’s oppressive reign: ‘I despise the duplicity of publicity, the perfidy of the press…Read my catalogue: Perfume of General Foy, a scent for toughening the sinews of the brain and reminding the French people of their liberties and rights, as guaranteed by the constitutional charter…’

Daumier was now working as a political cartoonist, and soon paid the price for his own subversive take on the sovereign’s reign. ‘Gargantua’, a searingly critical sendup of Louis-Philippe’s financial excesses, portrayed the new king as the eponymous giant of French myth, famous for his gluttony: a ramp leads up to Louis’ pear-shaped head, along which the citizens of Paris carry baskets of gold to deposit in his gaping mouth. His breeches stretch under the strain of his corpulent belly, and he sits upon a chaise percée, a portable toilet seat around which parliamentary subjects gaggle in their attempts to catch any falling excreta.

‘Gargantua’, the notorious cartoon for which Daumier was jailed for six months

The print had been intended for publication in ‘Caricature’, a radical new journal established by the exciting young publisher Charles Philipon. In recent years Philipon had revolutionised the journalistic landscape through his various periodicals, in which he put his editorial acuity, barbed wit, and brilliant visual eye to great use. Producing a number of lithographic cartoons for Philipon’s new journals, Daumier quickly became his star pupil, progressively developing his skills through frequent attacks on the puppeteer monarch and his bloated ministers and legislative bodies. ‘Gargantua’ was inarguably his most accomplished print yet, but before it could be published the stone block was seized in a raid on Philipon’s workshop, Philipon heavily fined, and the young Daumier, at just 24 years old, imprisoned.

Macaire the journalist brings an opinion piece savaging a new piece of legislation to his editor: ‘What are you thinking, Macaire, it’s not becoming of us to attack the law, we ought to defend it!’ – ‘Ah yes, yes, I’ll retouch it so it’s in favour of the aforementioned.’

During Daumier’s prison sentence, and in direct response to the state’s draconic gagging of the press, Philipon established a second, daily journal. Entitled ‘Charivari’ – ‘cacophony’, or ‘uproar’ – it would become Philipon’s finest achievement in print. For three years they jabbed at the king relentlessly, weathering court summons, arrests, seizures of prints and plates, trials, and eye-watering fines. But after a series of bloody uprisings in Lyons and Paris were brutally quashed by the king’s troops, trials of the subsequent detainees rigged, and an attempt on the king’s life by a lone rebel thwarted, ministers brought a decisive end to what little clemency they had shown in the past. In September 1835, the parliamentary assembly announced that the publication and sale of any print must be authorised by the interior minister, with penalties of prison time and effective bankruptcy for those found fomenting dissent. Freedom of the press in France was, for a time, dead.

The fraudulent Macaire puts his case before the judges.

Caricature could not survive in such circumstances; but in Charivari, satire would live on. Daumier and Philipon could no longer attack the crown, but they could expose the civil and industrial climate it had created, sustained, and come to represent. While poverty was widespread and social injustice pervasive during the reign of Louis-Philippe, business, meanwhile, flourished. Industry was almost totally without regulation as factories, docks, and the world of finance made the most of a rapidly expanding, dog-eat-dog economy. Daumier proposed to reflect the rapacity and greed of this new world in a ‘human zoology’ of ‘French Types’, portraits of ‘the various classes which constitute the ornament of society.’ From these first experimental models, the first seeds of ‘Caricaturana’ – the ‘Robert Macaire’ series – were sown.

Macaire ‘rises from the ashes’ after his recently insured super glue and flintlock factories mysteriously burn down: ‘I only managed to save the sign and my policy. I’ve lost 100,300 francs & 51 centimes, which you’ll reimburse me… What an awful tragedy!!!’

Macaire and his emaciated sidekick, Bertrand, in fact began life not at the end of Daumier’s pen, but on the stage some fifteen years earlier. Originally written as a two-penny villain in an overcooked drama concocted in 1823, after the premiere performance  of the new play bombed, the actor playing Macaire chose, without consulting the rest of the cast, to ham up his part, adopting the role of charming buffoon, replete with tramp’s outfit. This comic reimagining of the production was an overnight success, and before long the ‘Macaire’ type became a ubiquitous trope on the streets of Paris.

The first cartoon in Daumier’s ‘Caricaturana’, better known as the ‘Robert Macaire’ series. Macaire suggests to Betrand that they set up a bank to ‘sink’ all competition. ‘What about the police?’ Bertrand interrupts; ‘Whoever heard of a millionaire being arrested?’ Macaire retorts.

Philipon and Daumier appropriated the now well-established character to their own political agenda. Sketches were supplied by Daumier, while Philipon was responsible for the text, the two working closely to bring levity to each vignette. So successful were they, that the series was extended to 100 scenes, with the titular anti-hero depicted in a variety of predicaments and playing a number of different parts, from profiteer to publisher, crooked lawyer to remorseless landlord.

Macaire the landlord evicts a family for being a quarter late with the rent: ‘But M. Macaire, we’ve spent 30,000 francs in your shop! I’ve four poor little children…’ – ‘What’s that to me? I didn’t tell you to have them!’

Daumier’s Macaire, like the original, was totally unscrupulous, utterly self-promoting (a reflection, perhaps, on Philipon’s own powers of marketing), garrulous, unsympathetic, a scoundrel and a cheat. Money – either disputedly owed or disreputably earned – lies at the heart of almost every Macaire sketch. Macaire the ‘Discount Broker’ is the very image of duplicity: neckerchief hiked shiftily up over his mouth, a large, plain overcoat hiding the luxurious printed coattails that spill out behind him.

His hands held open in a gesture of shameful mock honesty, he offers an incredulous client in exchange for 40,000 francs, ‘25 francs in cash, 3,000 francs worth of white mustard and articulated clogs, 3,000 francs worth of fried chips, a carriage wheel, two cows, four shares in Physionotoype [one of Philipon’s many invented Macaire businesses], and a quintal of useful facts’ (‘I don’t have any other assets in hand’, his text continues, ‘but these are worth their weight in gold!’).

Philipon takes a sideswipe at rival competition in this restaurant sketch. Having ‘forgotten’ to bring any money with him, Macaire offers ’10 shares in the newspaper “La Presse”, or perhaps my friend’s hat’ to cover the 6 francs for their meal: ‘I would really prefer your friend’s hat’ replies the waiter.

Their adoption of the well-known Macaire as the symbol for Louis-Philippe’s reign was not just commercially shrewd; it also served to deflect future litigation on the part of the state assembly. Macaire is notably not a member of the bourgeois class – though the victims of his swindles often are – and his tricks are, often transparently, those of the everyday huckster. In this manner, Daumier and Philipon could suggest an equivalence between the ludicrous brigandry of Macaire, his pretensions to class and wealth, and the behaviour of industry giants or paid-out politicians whilst denying any intended connection: they were made the targets of precisely the fraudulent exploitation they were (not so secretly) felt to symbolise.

Macaire and Bertrand plan to swindle shareholders in their new ‘asphalt’ business, which is in fact made from ‘mud, manure, and pebbles…’

Exquisitely drawn and heightened with hand-coloured gum arabic, the Macaire cartoons firmly cemented Daumier’s reputation as the preeminent caricaturist in France. To future generations of political cartoonists, they embodied the critical power of satire to deliver acute observation under even the strictest state regulation, harassment, and suppression. Moreover, they did so with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Daumier and Philipon never losing sight of the fact that a cartoon, regardless of the gravity of its message, must above all provide humour and, ideally, a sense of self-awareness.

Macaire, Bertrand, and the Baron Wormspire, a third character in later stage adaptations of Macaire, plot to defraud the stock exchange with inflated shares in ‘tarred bitumen’

One final Macaire scene illustrated here skewers the social-political milieu of Louis-Philippe’s Paris, and Daumier’s own role in it, with such witty self-reflection that it scarcely needs further description. An eye-patched Macaire lounges at a café table, the tattered top hat perched atop his head a subtle nod to the king, for whom it had become something of a metonym; Bertrand sits opposite, his lean features closely resembling the king’s aide, Guizot.

Attending the table is a bemused gendarme, hands on hips, as Macaire begins one of his celebrated declamations: ‘We are shareholders in the Agricultural Institute of Goëtho, in the Physionotype, in the late Health Society, in the Mor-Lycos, in toilet paper for thieves, in The Joke, a newspaper that is very political, and in a host of other philanthropic operations; we have drawn our dividends and are spending them on our good health… Waiter, another morsel of cheese!’

View our hand-coloured Daumier Robert Macaire cartoons online here >