FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, a painting by Honorè Daumier depicts an activity with which we are all too familiar: the commute. Third Class Carriage (Un Wagon de Troissieme Classe) is currently on display at the Legion of Honor in Gallery 17.
Although best known for his lithographic work as a political and social caricaturist, Honoré Daumier also made a profound contribution to the realist movement in nineteenth-century art as a painter and sculptor, and Third-Class Carriage ranks among his most celebrated images. Born in Marseilles, Daumier first rose to prominence in Paris during the 1830s for his satiric cartoons for such left-wing journals as La Caricature and Le Charivari, leading even to his brief imprisonment for a scathing caricature of King Louis-Philippe. He continued to make prints throughout his life, eventually amassing almost five thousand works that chronicle the political life and social mores of the times, attacking deceit, pomposity and abuse of power, and poking fun at the everyday foibles of his fellow citizens.
Daumier turned more and more to painting after about 1850, although his work in this medium comprised a relatively small part of his overall oeuvre and remained more or less unknown to the public until his paintings and drawings were exhibited at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1878, just a year before his death. Railroads provided Daumier with a rich source of inspiration for all aspects of his art, and Third-Class Carriage was the first of numerous oils on this particular theme. In his prints, Daumier generally focused on the humorous aspects of train travel–the fear of speed, the discomforts involved and the humorous situations caused by the forced confinement of strangers, often from different social classes. In Third-Class Carriage, however, a more serious, sympathetic tone is struck, with an emphasis on the dignity of the common man and woman and the timeless theme of the cycles of youth and old age. Typically, the train provides a capsule glimpse of society, with the crowding of figures onto hard seats in a narrow compartment serving to exaggerate the characteristics of individuals and expose the stratifications of social class.
Across the foreground Daumier sketches a microcosm of Parisian society, of male and female, youth, middle age and the elderly. Particularly impressive is the old man in the center portrayed with almost regal bearing, but all the figures are given quiet monumentality, partly through the sculptural modeling of Daumier’s brushwork and partly through the warm play of light across his forms.
Whether you take Caltrain, BART or MUNI, this painting is definitely worth the trip!