Between 1832 and 1835, as a result of a commission from Charles Philipon (1800-1862) - founder of the anti-July Monarchy satirical newspapers, La Caricature and Charivari - Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) modelled a series of caricature busts in unbaked clay which he coloured with oil paint. Daumier made the sculptures to serve as models for his own lithographs to be published in Philipon's newspapers.
The series came to be known as The Celebrities of the Juste Milieu rather than the "Parliamentarians" because only twenty-six of the represented characters actually held a parliamentary mandate.
Daumier's sometimes cruel but invariably amusing portraits exceed mere caricature and, as well as MPs and peers, his gallery includes relatives and close friends, even Philipon himself. Thirty-six of the original forty or so busts survive today; all are housed in the Musée d'Orsay.
The generous support of the Fondation BNP Paribas has enabled restorers Agnès Cascio and Juliette Lévy at the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France (C2RMF) to carry out a systematic analysis of the busts, following which it was decided that ten of the sculptures might undergo a rigorous restoration whilst the others receive a lighter treatment. Due to its extreme fragility – unbaked clay is in a state of perpetual disintegration – the series has undergone numerous restorations during its life (1878, 1927, 1969, 1979), making it impossible to distinguish Daumier's original work from later interventions.
Valuable photographs commissioned by Philipon's son in 1861 show that Daumier individualised each bust much more than had previously been thought; a close analysis reveals notable contrasts between formats, modelling, flesh tints and the colours of the costumes. The sculptor Fix-Masseau's drastic but timely repairs to the clay busts in 1927, prior to their being cast into bronze by their then owners, the galerie Sagot-Le Garrec, no doubt contributed to their survival.
Some busts, such as those of D'Argout and Philipon, were almost in their original state, having been neither yet remodelled nor repainted: their cleaning has revealed their original paint making it possible to rediscover the subtlety of Daumier's colours.
This exhibition combines for the first time a presentation of the clay figures, the lithographs for which the figures served as models, and non-caricatured portraits of about twenty of the featured personalities, (incl. d'Argout, Baillot, Barthe, Cunin-Gridaine, Delort, Dupin, Etienne, Fulchiron, Guizot, Kératry, Montlosier, Odier, Persil, Philipon, Royer-Collard, Sébastiani, Vatout, Viennet…) in the form of medallions by David d'Angers, studies by Devéria and contemporary lithographs.Daumier's unique series is placed in an historical context by a presentation of contemporary sculpted caricatures, notably by Dantan.
There are problems in identifying the subjects of four of the busts (unknown, commonly referred to as Falloux, Lucas [formerly known as Pelet de la Lozère], Sémonville or Broglie [formerly known as Soult], Roederer [formerly known as Verhuel de Sevenhaar]) and these will be juxtaposed with portraits of their possible models.
The exhibition concludes with a section focusing on the restoration process itself which centres around the bust of Persil, one of the fiercest opponents to the freedom of the press whom Philipon and his staff jokingly suspected of having "descended from a cannibal brought back by Captain Cook". This sculpture has been much photographed since 1861 providing a clear record of the difficulties through which this series, unique to the history of 19th century sculpture, has undergone. The C2RMF scientific report (X-ray photographs, analyses of materials and coloured pigments, etc.) illustrates the techniques used on the whole series.