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.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable