Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Women Who Read and Write Too Much

By Stephen J. Gertz

Look at that! Instead of milk she is pouring shoe polish
into my hot chocolate! Enough with that damned novel!

In 1844, French painter and caricaturist Honoré Daumier published Les Bas Bleus, a series of forty lithographs satirizing bluestockings, i.e. intellectual women. They turn traditional gender roles topsy-turvy and cramp a man's style.

Instead of doing the laundry they hang men out to dry. Sacrebleu!

Oh Agony!.... To have spent my maidenhood dreaming of a
husband who, like me, adored hallowed poetry, and to wind up
with a husband who only likes to bait dudgeons...
the man was born to be a pike!...

Of Les Bas Bleus Gordon Ray wrote, "the bluestockings of this series are almost all literary ladies, and Daumier's satire is directed as much against the literary character in general as its feminine manifestations. At the same time, his attitude towards his subjects is consistently severe, and the fact that he made all forty plates in eight months, whereas most of his longer series extended over several years, suggests that they were inspired by deep-seated and well-developed convictions...

Goodbye Flora, my dear... don't forget to send two copies
of your frothy little pieces to the newspaper office...
and I shall whip them up in my article.

"Advocates of women's rights have as little reason to be grateful to Daumier for Les bas bleus as Jews have to be grateful to Forain for Psst...! [1898-99]... Nevertheless, the album contains some masterly designs" (The Art of the French Illustrated Book, pp 241-242).

- A woman like me... sew on a button?.... you must be out of your mind!
- So be it!... It's not enough that she is wearing my breeches...
she has to throw them on my head!!

In other words, despite its gentle humor and artful compositions Les Bas Bleus by Daumier is staunchly anti-feminist. Though they never signed it literary ladies upset the social contract. Womens rights is a zero-sum game; when women gain, men lose. Vive le difference, death to equality.

May I come in my dear, or are you still collaborating with Monsieur?

Daumier was not inclined to depict women as traditionally beautiful creatures to begin with; his eyes were jaundiced. Comparing Daumier with his contemporary, Gavarni, Ray continued:

Ever since Virginie obtained the seventh honorable mention
for poetry at the Académie Française, I, a captain of the
National Guard, am supposed to count the sheets for the laundry
every Saturday. If I don't do it , my wife will wash my head...

"If Daumier could not draw a pretty woman, as is sometimes alleged, Gavarni at this period could hardly draw an ugly one" (The Art of the French Illustrated Book, pp 220-221).

- The artist captured me as I was writing my melancholic book
entitled "Sorrows of my soul." The eyes came out quite well but
the nose is not sorrowful enough!...
- (Man, sotto voce) - No... it is just in a sorry state...

If Daumier can be blamed for this pointed visual social satire, his publisher, Charles Philipon, may be responsible for each plate's verbal sally. Daumier had collaborated with Philipon when creating political satire for Philipon's notorious La Caricature, Philipon often suggesting the subject/theme and writing the caption.

- Devilish brat! Why don't you let me compose in peace
my ode on the happiness of maternity!
- All right, all right...... he is going to be quiet.....
I am going to give him a good whipping in the other room.
(aside): from looking at what my wife is writing in her work,
it is she who makes the most noise of all.

When, after La Caricature shuttered, Philipon established Le Charivari, Daumier joined him in this journal of social satire, whence Les Bas Bleus originally appeared as a serial. Their previous collaborative formula may have continued: Philipon writing the jokes, Daumier visualizing them.

(Collaborations between caricaturists and publishers were not unusual at all. Twenty-five years before Les Bas Bleus was published British caricaturist George Cruikshank and publisher-bookseller William Hone often collaborated on political satires. Publishers had their eye on current social and political events, chose topical subjects that they thought would appeal to the public, and called upon an artist to realize the caricature).

Hell and damnation! hissed!... whistled!... booed!

It would be interesting to know what Marie-Françoise Aubert, wife of printing house Chez Aubert proprietor Gabriel Aubert, and sister of Charles Philipon (who set the couple up in business in order to handle the printing of his magazines and lithographs), thought of Daumier's (and her brother's) attitude about women. Hers was the brain that managed Chez Aubert to prosperity. Perhaps successful business women were accorded respect that bluestockings, with their heads in the air within books, were denied.

This is an extremely rare book. OCLC records on one copy of Les Bas Bleus in institutional holdings worldwide, not, incredibly, at the BNF, but, rather, at the Morgan Library, and it has never been at auction since ABPC began recording results in 1923. 

As for the ladies of France taking on literary airs blame it on Georges Sand, a baleful influence on contemporary womanhood and generations of women to come. Next thing you know, they'll be a female Secretary of State of the U.S.A. French fries? Non! Freedom fries? Non, non!! Fuggetaboutit fries? Oui!

DAUMIER, Honoré.  Les Bas Bleus. Paris: Chez Aubert, 1844.

First edition. Tall quarto (13 1/2 x 10 3/8 in; 341 x 262 mm). Forty hand-colored lithographed plates.  Lith. by Imp. Aubert.

Ray, The Art of the French Illustrated Book 169. Daumier Register 1221 - 1260.

Caption translations from the French by The Daumier Register.

The Daumier Register needs your help.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

Of related interest:

Scarce Daumier Childrens Books at Daumier Register.

Tonight On "The Bachelor": Daumier's Single Man.

A Rare Suite of Pre-Political Lithographs By Charles Philipon Surfaces.

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