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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?