By Stephen J. Gertz
In 1844, French painter and caricaturist Honoré Daumierpublished 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!
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...
"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).
In other words, despite its gentle humor and artful compositionsLes 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.
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.
"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).
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.
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).
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!
(Posted on Booktryst - A Nest for Book Lovers. Presented here by permission of the author.)