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Honoré Daumier, Les Buveurs (circa 1860)
"As noted by the authors of Daumier Drawings,
“Daumier treated the subject of drinking with great frequency in his prints, depicting it as a social custom, a special pleasure, or a vice.”
Amongst these many images there are three or four which stand out as pointing towards a rarer figure not captured by the categories of social custom, pleasure and vice, that of the
nineteenth-century drinker beset by Existential “angst.”
In particular is a picture usually known as “Deux buveurs” (“Two Drinkers”), 1860-64, and what is striking about the picture in comparison to his other drinker pictures is the intense look of the figure on the left.
Honoré Daumier, “Two Drinkers” (1860-64)
This image indicates, as I argue below, a metaphysical intent. Whilst the downturned mouth recalls the old man in Daumier’s “The Four Ages of Drinkers,” as does a certain look of suspiciousness, and whilst the dark atmosphere of the setting is reminiscent of a couple of other “two drinkers” paintings, the goggle-eyed stare of this character is altogether new: it seems to express the recognition of an internal horror, in the same way that the central figure of Munch’s “Shriek” will cry out to the viewer some thirty years later (1893).
The setting in “Deux buveurs” is bare, as if “stripping back” the world to some primal social setting. The second drinker also has an intensity, but this is a watchfulness occasioned by the state of being of his companion, as if waiting to see what his confrere will do – which could be anything or nothing. Daumier’s entire oeuvre shows an interest in drinking and drunkenness in general, but this smaller group of pictures records a type of drinker who begins to pull away from social ties, journeying inwards to encounter the groundlessness of self.
Elements of this are even evident in his painting “The Drunkenness of Silenus” where a podgy Silenus, head down, is in the act of being unwillingly dragged back into the festivities behind. His particular drunken state is not that of the others – they are revelling whereas his drunkenness appears to have taken him into a different realm altogether. They want to force him to join in the fun, but his face is not the festive face of the others and he looks isolated within the crowd.
Honoré Daumier, L'Ivresse de Silène
It is this other realm that the wide-eyed drinker in “Deux buveurs” can be said to inhabit; although beginning in a world with others (that of his companion) his drinking and outlook ultimately takes him into a private, asocial consciousness.
In order to understand the full force of what Daumier achieves in the picture it is necessary to place it in the context of his other drinking pictures, and in relation to this small group of related images. Daumier’s work in general often deals with “types” drawn from everyday life, in the manner that Lukács argued literature should do, that is, creating characters which
are representative without being a sociological “average.”
Taking the “drinkers” pictures in their entirety we see that Daumier provides a typology of drinking and drinkers between the 1830s-70s which is largely sympathetic to the drinker’s milieu; the absence of titles other than “drinkers” or “smokers” leaves any interpretation beyond that of a genre scene up to the viewer, but there is usually no hint of moralising or satirical intent.
Drinkers are shown to be happy and singing, for instance, or we are shown pairs of drinkers, often respectable and serene in their mutual companionship, as in “Les bons amis.” In this painting two men sit at a table drinking, with the man in three-quarters profile attentive to his friend.
Honoré Daumier, "Les bons amis"
The setting is outside and the atmosphere is bucolic, throwing into relief the way in which the gloomy interior of “Deux buveurs” enforces the feeling that we are entering the dark side of human affairs. A description of “Les bons amis” notes that the friends clink glasses, and that the mood is one of amiable understanding, engendered by the attuned tones, where words are not necessary for such companions.
In another Daumier painting, “The beer drinkers” (“Les buveurs de bière”), there is likewise an air of quiet understanding – one man reads the paper, the other smokes a pipe and watches over him, and two near-full glasses stand on the table, intimating that drunkenness is not part of this friendly dynamic.
Honore Daumier, “The Beer Drinkers” (1855–1860)
Other drinking pairs in Daumier’s work suggest that drink has got the upper hand, but even here Daumier is happy to simply observe the drunken state: the basic sketch “Les ivrognes” (“The drunks”) indicates two men struggling to rise from the bench, ...
Honoré Daumier, Les ivrognes (The drunks) (Circa 1840)
... and another picture with two men sat at a table, “Les buveurs” has been described as showing them working hard to pour more drink and to keep upright.
Honoré Daumier, The Drinkers (1861)
Daumier’s painting “The Four Ages of Drinkers”, already mentioned, is an exercise in the representation of the physiology and attitude of drinkers from childhood to old age, with a boy, a young man, a middle-aged man and an old man drinking together around a table.
Honoré Daumier, "Physiologie du Buveur: Les quatre âges" (1862)
(“The Four Ages of Drinkers”)
The young man seems quite serene, whereas the two older men are sodden. The middle-aged man looks rather withdrawn and preoccupied (or simply stupefied) whereas the old man appears to be staring suspiciously at the younger men.
There is an indifference to the young boy’s drinking, and so it would be possible to put a moral interpretation on the painting, but the overwhelming tone is again one of “showing” the viewer rather than hectoring. Even though there is the appearance of the middle-aged man sinking into himself, and a cynical, rather harsh look to the aged man, both of these attitudes suggest sullenness rather than anything philosophical.
Thus we return to the “Existential” group of images of drinkers which can be regarded as forming a coherent subset:
1. “Deux buveurs” (1860-64) with the wild-eyed drinker
2. a similar painting (1859-69) also usually entitled “two drinkers”, but with significant differences – the related figures are switched round, there is no “goggle-eyed” look, and the man on the right appears to be relating a story or making a specific point;
Honoré Daumier, Two drinkers
3. a brooding “two drinkers” painting where the viewer is brought closer than in 1 and 2 to the figures (1858, in the Barnes Foundation; Figure 1);
4.“Smoker with Absinthe Drinker” (alternatively titled “Two men sitting with a table, or the smokers”)
Honoré Daumier, “Smoker with Absinthe Drinker”
What connects these, other than the basic elements of two men seated at a table and the involvement of drink, is the intimation of emptiness, meaninglessness and angst, rather than leisure-time and relaxation (or, indeed, escape from poverty).
The sombre “The two drinkers” of the Barnes Foundation has the men almost nose-to-nose, and in the face of the man on the right there is only a black hole where the eye should be. The men appear to be at some terrible impasse where neither will give ground.
Honoré Daumier, Les Deux buveurs (Two Drinkers)
In “Smoker with Absinthe Drinker,” the latter, although sat upright, has his head fallen backwards against the wall and looks drugged and vacant, and his eyes are likewise signified by black holes. This appearance of being “drugged” rather than “drunk” is typical of depictions of absinthe drinkers from the period and later, but is also of a piece with the modern sense of “anomie” we see elsewhere, e.g. Degas’s “L’Absinthe” (1876), another "two drinkers” painting where the one drinker is “withdrawn” or contemplative.
All of these suggest a significant alteration in the way certain people “inhabit” the world, and while there is an obvious common connection of alcohol between absinthe drinkers and other drunks, Daumier would appear to be making a distinction between the drinker who is emptied out by having too much (absinthe) and the drinker whose experience of the world is intensified by drinking (“Deux buveurs” and the Barnes Foundation “The Two Drinkers”).
The absinthe drinker is therefore the kind of drinker who becomes uncommunicative – a couple of lithographs in the series “Les Chinois de Paris” contrast the “dead-to-the-world” absinthe drinker with the more traditional drinker – whereas the “intense” drinker of “Deux buveurs” is self-consciously alert to the world that is opened up by his drinking.
Honoré Daumier, "The Chinese of Paris"
(Le Charivari, December 18, 1863)
["Beer ? Never ! Only absinthe can put a fellow back on his feet !"]
Honoré Daumier, "The Chinese of Paris"
(Le Charivari, December 22, 1863)
["Absinthe: The first glass ; the sixth glass"]
The final thing to note is that Daumier does not present us with lone drunks in these pictures – there is an insistent pairing. ... The paired format highlights the way in which the one drinker becomes distinct and individuated, whereas the other, “normal” drinker, remains in the habituated social world which he also serves to represent.
This small group of remarkable pictures is very much in keeping with these glimpses of the Existential drinker. The pairing means that he is shown in a social context, even if in the basic nature of the backgrounds there is a suggestion that the state of affairs for the drinkers transcends specific space or time.
In other words, the “Existential two drinkers” pictures register the identification of a new individual within nineteenth century society who leans towards a more asocial, inward, psychological and philosophical sense of selfhood in a world which lacks authority and existential guarantees."
"Habitual Drunkards and Metaphysics : Four Case Studies from the Victorian Period"
by Steven Earnshaw