Ancient History, No. 13: The Abduction of Helen
Honoré Daumier ( French, 1808 - 1879 )
Paris, who had worn himself out,
Was just good for nothing but kraut.
Helen knew it and in her strong arms,
she carried him close to her charms.
In this print, Honoré Daumier ridicules the abduction of Helen of Troy, whom he depicts as neither beautiful nor weak. Who abducts whom in this picture? According to Greek legend, Helen—queen of Sparta—was abducted by her lover, Paris, which led to the Trojan War. Part of the Ancient Stories series, this image was printed in Le Charivari on June 22, 1842, during a moment of intense political censorship. The series was inspired by the heated debate at that time between painters of the Neoclassical and Romantic schools. Daumier responded by showing historic personalities from Greek mythology in absurd situations. He used these familiar stories to encrypt potentially offensive references to political issues of the time. Helen symbolizes the Greek people, while Paris bears a strong resemblance to Count Ioannis Antonios Kapodistrias (1776–1831), a diplomat who unsuccessfully endeavored to mobilize Russia for the Greek cause. Contemporary Parisians would have understood the cigar as mockery of “tobacco-mania.”
Very few members of French society escaped the probing eye and deft touch of Honore Daumier. As chief illustrator for Charles Philipon's political newspapers, La Caricature and Le Charivari, he produced caricatures of all strata of French society, including the king. Symbols of French culture such as the classical hero and the family unit were the butt of harsh and humorous criticism. The Parisian middle class opened their newpapers to see themselves depicted in every sort of activity, from viewing art at the Paris Salon to arguing in the courts. Honore Daumier's insight into the human condition brings smiles to viewers one hundred and fifty years after they were created.
For Daumier, lithography provided a fast and economical medium, and he executed almost four thousand prints during his lifetime. Unlike woodcuts, etchings, and engravings, lithographs utilized drawing tools and techniques familiar to all artists. Using a greasy crayon, liquid tusche, or ink, the artist drew his composition on a slab of stone. A master printer would then prepare the stone with chemical processes necessary to ready it for inking and printing. Commercial lithographic studios in France actively sought artists to participate in this revolutionary printmaking process.
Martha MacLeod, DMA label copy, 2016.