Musée d'Orsay: Honoré Daumier The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Honoré Daumier
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
Honoré Daumier (1808-1879)
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
Circa 1849
Oil on wood
H. 32; W. 22 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Le martyre de saint Sébastien [The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian]

In February 1849, the Beaux Arts committee commissioned a painting from Daumier, leaving him to choose the subject. He suggested a Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, and in May 1852 delivered a large canvas (250x150 cm) which was immediately sent to the church at Lesges, a small village in the Aisne region. Rediscovered in 1979, this painting is now in the Musée de Soissons. This beautiful sketch was discovered in a private collection in 1978.

At the end of the 1840s Daumier was a master of caricature, but had not tackled many paintings. Delacroix was unquestionably one of the artists who inspired him in this new direction. Thus, with the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Daumier chose, very unusually, not only a religious theme but went as far as to take up a subject already treated by Delacroix. However, it was not a question of copying or imitating, as Daumier freely adapted the codified system of religious painting. The treatment of the martyr's body, for example, is close to some of his lithographs. The angel, a Rubenesque character, reappears in the satirical works produced for the Idylles parlementaires (1850-1851).
These connections between painting and caricature found their most ironic expression in December 1849 in a lithograph published in the Charivari. Entitled New Saint Sebastien, it represents Doctor Véron who formerly worked in the hospitals of Paris and later became director of the Paris Opera. All these elements offer a glimpse of the political dimension of the theme, possibly a metaphor for the fate of the Second Republic.

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