France’s Last King was a Pear

A show focused entirely on political satire – in the form of caricatures – is currently on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Museum. Looking at the lithographs, I couldn’t help but think of the current troubles caused by various representations of the Prophet Mohammed.  At issue, then, as now, is the notion of freedom of speech.

The Stanford show, “When Artists Attack the King: Honoré Daumier and La Caricature, 1830–1835,” is political satire at its best. Its equivalent today would be the television shows, The Simpsons, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report.

Louis Philippe I was the last king to rule France. (Emperor Napoleon III was the country’s last monarch.) Louis’ reign began nearly forty years after the French Revolution and coincided with the end of the July Revolution of 1830. At first Louis Philippe seemed to be on the side of the people but later he became fat with power, siding with the wealthy. He was lampooned by various artists in the weekly Paris journal, La Caricature. Foremost of these artists was Honoré Daumier, who Artble.com calls “the Michelangelo of caricature.” Some of the exhibition’s funniest prints are those in which the king is depicted as a corpulent, bulbous la poire (pear).

Why la poire?

the body of the king

Not at all happy with the press’ wicked sense of humor, the monarchy passed a law banning all depictions of the king’s image. Under French law the king’s body became sacred. Not to be deterred, Daumier savagely caricatured the king’s appearance. Through his art, Daumier laughed at the king and his government and in so doing, urged the public who read his journal, to do the same. Daumier’s art, the power of his images and the journal, La Caricature, were quite influential. He and fellow caricaturist, Charles Philipon, both landed in jail on at least two occasions for their satirical lithographs of the king and his government.

The Stanford exhibition is divided into four sections:

  • an introduction to the July Monarchy and its politicians,
  • examples of La Caricature’s response to censorship,
  • samples of Daumier’s caricatures of Louis-Philippe (the prints on view are part of Stanford’s art collection), and
  • images depicting the king as La Poire.
The Pear King

Some personal information about the king (unrelated to the exhibition) is that he was in exile before becoming king and so, traveled quite a bit. During his travels, he lived in Germany (in the 1790s) where  he taught at a school. There he got the cook pregnant and their child was put into an orphanage. The pregnancy ended his academic career. A year or two later, at age 22, while living in Scandinavia, the housekeeper at the rectory where he was living bore his child, a son name Erik. Later on in his travels, before he became king, he spent four years in the United States. Here he stayed first with his brothers, who were in exile in Philadelphia, and then in New York and Boston. In the latter city he lived above what is now the Union Oyster House, Boston’s oldest restaurant.

An Aside

This [Daumier] lithograph from the exhibition is reminiscent of the workers that Diego Rivera later depicted in his murals.

The following excerpt is from Purdue University:

For more information on the exhibition, visit http://museum.stanford.edu/news_room/daumier.html

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