Great Works: Charles Guillaume Etienne: The Vain Man, 1832 (15.9cm high), Honoré Daumier

Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Clay is desperately undervalued as a medium for art. Works by the greatest of ceramicists often command near derisory prices at the auction house. So it is easy to overlook a small work in clay, and especially when it is one among many ranged side by side on a shelf, production-line style, amid a great collection such as the Musée d'Orsay's in Paris – which is not to praise the establishment itself, I hasten to add, which is one of the most wretched conversions of an industrial building into a mecca of high art of the second half of the 20th century.

This tiny caricature of a forgotten playwright and politician called Charles-Guillaume Etienne, barely more than an adult hand's span in height, was made by Honoré Daumier, one of the greatest of all practitioners of the art of poking fun and getting into serious trouble for doing so. He served a term of six months in prison for one of his bold attacks upon Louis Philippe.

Daumier is renowned for his prints – he made about 4,000 of them during his prolific lifetime. The series of caricatures that you can see displayed in this functional row, behind glass, on the ground floor at the d'Orsay – as if they were tossed off at great speed, one after another, to please the artist himself – are something altogether different. They are faster, less finicky, and often much funnier. They also come entirely uncluttered by incidental embellishment. They are types of human beings in the raw.

The title of this work is The Vain Man, and Daumier is at pains to show off this self-vaunting individual as nothing more nor less than what the limits of that title encompass. The making is rude and crude. This work has not been been fired in the kiln. It has been manipulated by Daumier's deft hands, and then hand-painted. The effects of colour are brilliant, but strictly limited. No harm in that though – what this piece requires by way of colour is an impression of a kind of overwhelming dullness, and that is precisely what Daumier achieves. This is a piece of tobyjugglery, which rises to a much higher level because it is so brilliantly and preposterously individualised. We fully understand the meaning of swell-headed as we stare at it.

Let us begin with that fat, grey bow (which is evidently the knotted end of a cravat), perfectly centred at the front of his neck. Its flourish suggests that this man is something of a gift to himself – and what better gift could a man of such and such pretensions want than himself? The fleshy and ever swelling neck seems jammed, squeezed into that throttling cravat. The cheeks distend only as far as the high collar – that tall, stiff, grey wall – will permit them to go. The collar constrains an overwhelming abundance of slopping and spilling flesh. It gives all that otherwise shapeless fleshiness a certain form, if not a limit. It even appears to squeeze these cheeks into folds or crude, hillock-like ructions that almost press against the nose, which seems to be extruding out towards us like a fat, gradually unlooping, worm-like thing.

The nose is darker than the surrounding flesh, deep with the rubicundity brought on by overmuch scoffing and swilling. There appear to be areas of rouging where the flesh rises, as if to suggest that the man has been applying dibs and dabs of make-up to himself in order to enhance the generally favourable public perception – as he believes – of his own favourable qualities. The fact is that he is virtually blind to his own grotesquely ill-favoured appearance, as those tiny, narrowed, heavily-lidded eyes seem to suggest. He does not need to see how and what he is – he knows that already. He knows what a man of gravity he is said to be.

There is a tremendous display of deportment in this head, and the way it is being carried along – very slow-movingly, dromedary-like, we imagine – on this neck, with such care. The eyebrows arch above the eyes like great escarpments, and then we come to the bathetically flat, narrow plain of the forehead, which is immediately beneath the top of the head. There is a strange triangle here, that slope up from temple to the very top.

The head looks hugely broad at the level of the cheeks and preposterously narrow at the top. We have not yet remarked upon those pert and rather sloppily wet-looking little lips, which appear to be just about to open in a witticism – or to have just closed on one, to huge applause. This helps to animate the face – a trick that Daumier may have learnt from the great Bernini. We are left speechless by this piece. Much, much, much later we may hazard a quick glance in the mirror.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was among the greatest of 19th-century French caricaturists. He feared nothing. He even took on the might of a reigning king, and was imprisoned for his pains. Lithography was the medium in which he worked most regularly. These tiny busts were made to please himself.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition