Great Works: Two Drinkers (Deux Buveurs) By Honoré Daumier, 1860-4

Private collection

Honoré Daumier exhibited little during his lifetime, and sold even less. His subject matter was not what the public wanted. What prosperous collector would be eager to stare at the enshadowed profile of a poor, burdened laundrywoman with a miserable child in tow on the banks of the Seine? Who would want to relax into images of thin and near-spectral street drifters, the straitened poor, the marginalised, with their awkward stooping postures and bent backs? Who wants to remember the unremarkable?

There is so much physical awkwardness in Daumier's figures, so many hulking, slumped, wrenched-awry forms. What is more, the paintings are almost never highly finished. They often look slightly abandoned through sheer vexation. They lack smoothness, nobility, colour. They are aggressively unpretty and often quite dark and muddy. They do not celebrate anything. What is more, for the most part they are disappointingly small in scale. Daumier simply could not manage heroic scale – just as he was temperamentally unsuited to heroism.

Here is a desperate scene indeed. When we first look at these two men hunched over a table, we think of Cézanne's Card Players. But the two paintings are worlds apart. Cézanne's hard-bitten peasants look poised, becalmed, and even statuesque by comparison. We admire that painting as an exercise in the subtle harmonics of colour. It is coolly crafted. There is nothing cool about Daumier. The exchange of gaze is terrible, unnerving, wild, pop-eyed. Bulbous eye stares at bulbous eye. The faces themselves are weirdly lit, in white. They appear stunned, mask-like. Those masks look loose enough to be peelable, to reveal the skull beneath – as in that famous scene in Bergman's Hour of the Wolf.

What does this strange act of mutual interrogation amount to? We see the bulk of the two bodies clearly enough, but there is also much blurring and smudging of detail; strange, floating patches of what look ectoplasmic globs mar the painting's surface. It ends, at the top, horribly smearily, before the paper on which it has been painted runs out. The paint is unevenly spread about the surface. Frankly, Daumier doesn't much seem to care about such outrageous evidence of imperfection. That is not what he is up to. He doesn't care about being crude. He has never pretended to paint like Ingres. Life is often harsh, crude and savage, and especially for those neighbours of his in the working-class area of the Ile Saint-Louis where he lived.

Much of this aggressive insouciance is highly characteristic of the man. Daumier didn't go for the gloss of academic exactitude – which is why he showed so seldom at the Salon. He usually painted from memory, without models. Much of his work seems hole-in-corner, even furtive. This painting is currently on display at the Royal Academy in its excellent show devoted to Daumier's career as painter and satirist. The work is beautifully stage-managed, set deep into a grey niche, so that you have to peer, as if into a cellar or underground bar where the two mad-eyed tipplers are sitting, inelegantly hunched, slumped, self-propped. The confrontation seems dramatic – but we also feel that it may not be so at all. It may simply be a truthful rendering of the kind of wild-eyed exaggeration common to two drunks – in which case we can feel entitled to laugh at it, harshly. It possesses that degree of enthralling ambiguity.

'Two Drinkers' can be seen at Daumier (1808-79): Visions of Paris, Royal Academy, London W1 (020 7300 8000) to 26 January

About the artist

Honoré Daumier (1808-79) Honoré Daumier, the son of a glazier, was born in Marseilles, but moved to Paris at 16 planning to become a dramatist. He became a bailiff's boy, and then began to gain recognition as a lithographer, increasingly savage in his themes – he was a staunch republican and occasionally involved himself in street fighting. He died from apoplexy.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015