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Maxime Valsamas
PhD student, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis

In Honoré Daumier’s print with the caption “The swarm of ducks so darkens the sky that poor Europe does not know which way to go,”1 a single figure dominates the composition; Europe confronts the viewer in the guise of a female allegory. The shield placed at her right side reveals her identity. While Europe is an imposing figure—she is depicted on a monumental scale with sturdy arms and formal features that bear resemblance to several of Daumier’s other depictions of Europe from 1867 and 1868—her frown, portrayed through an economic use of lines, exposes her inquietude. Europe’s angled eyebrows and slightly open mouth, facial features associated with allegorical figures of Fear,2 indicate her disconcertment. Her expression undermines her physical presence; she appears haggard and bewildered. Through the use of shading Daumier darkens the lower portion of Europe’s drapery, practically eliminating her feet in the process (only the outline of her left foot is noticeable) and making it difficult to determine which way she will move next. Adding to Europe’s state of confusion are the ducks that surround her and the storm-like movement they suggest by fluttering in a multitude of different directions. The murky sky implies that matters are about to take a turn for the worse.

In the late 1860s allegory was Daumier’s preferred means of expressing his critique of the development of international affairs. The use of allegorical figures enabled Daumier to subvert the censorship imposed during Napoleon III’s regime (1852–70) while still commenting on political events in a satirical fashion.3 However, even after censorship in France was loosened in the second half of the 1860s, Daumier continued to depict allegorical figures. Daumier endowed these figures with mundane qualities, doing away with the moral grandeur most often associated with academic allegories; he instead conveyed ideas through the figure by using an intentionally coarse visual idiom. By joining allegorical symbolism with aspects drawn from real-world observation, Daumier was creating what the art historian Ernst Gombrich has described as “that fusion, that amalgam, that seems so convincing to the emotional mind.”4 As demonstrated in this print, this combination of elements resulted in an allegory that was distinctly modern, and it gave Daumier’s work the pungency that satirical images published in daily journals intended to convey.

Conventionally, allegorical figures are portrayed with supplemental symbols to help viewers identify their character. Cesare Ripa, the Italian author of the first compendium on allegorical representations in the Western world, and Hubert Gravelot, who assembled a treatise on allegories in France in the late eighteenth century, both defined Europe as an extremely well-adorned figure.5 She possesses an abundance of riches that are to be shared with her people. Moreover, Europe is often shown surrounded by military trophies, lances, and a horse to convey her conquests, or by books, palettes, brushes, and chisels to demonstrate her artistic virtue. None of these symbols appears in Daumier’s image. A crown does rest on her head, a symbol that appears in Ripa’s and Gravelot’s treatises signifying that Europe is the queen of the continents,6 but it is a puny, undignified crown, suggesting that she no longer exerts the dominant position she once occupied.77 In fact, in Daumier’s print, in addition to appearing to have lost her way, Europe is missing all of the attributes of prosperity. In short, Daumier’s Europe lacks symbols of virtue; she is not graceful, and her expression insinuates the ominous quandary in which she finds herself.

Daumier does supply Europe with a distinct emblem, however—a shield. Yet in this case that protective device has negative connotations. In conventional allegories of the time Europe is hardly ever depicted with a shield at her side. This emblem is more commonly associated with personifications of War and Suspicion—those that need to protect themselves against injury.8 Daumier’s inclusion of it here thus further signals that the European continent is in a state of turmoil.9

In 1867 rumors of war were widespread across Europe, and the ducks in Daumier’s print symbolize these rumors.10 The birds are emphatically not regal, contributing to the satirical element of Daumier’s image. The three ducks in the foreground carry pieces of paper in their beaks, denoting the ever-growing reports about impending war in European newspapers. The bits of paper contain words on them; however, Daumier deliberately sketched them in a way that makes them difficult to read.11 Visually this magnifies the uncertainties relating to Europe’s predicament. Aside from Britain, which remained neutral, all the European powers at the time (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Prussia, and Russia) vied for dominance and territorial expansion.12 Daumier’s personification of Europe exercises no control or power over the situation—she finds herself between two signposts, with no particular road or path to mark a clear way forward. Additionally, while Daumier’s figure is not necessarily depicted as old, she certainly does not display the preternatural agelessness of many allegorical figures, suggesting that the constant crises have tested her willpower and have made her weary. Similarly the long grey lines that suggest wind and fog are so strong that they obstruct a reading of the two signposts that flank her, as do some of the overlapping ducks that also create black patches in the sky, heightening the sensation that the swarm is obscuring Europe’s vision. The intentionality of this obscurity is underscored by the fact that the contrasts between greys, blacks, and whites are particularly strong in this impression, since it is a proof with handwritten caption.13

The context in which this print was created offers further insight into its imagery. It was published in Le Charivari, one of the leading republican satirical newspapers at the time, on October 22, 1867. The print formed part of the Actualités series, a section of the paper that met the growing demand amongst French readers for news about contemporary international affairs. All prints published in Le Charivari required consent from the editorial committee before they could be reproduced; proofs with captions were used to obtain this consent. While Daumier created the image, a journalist at the newspaper would have been in charge of adding the caption.14 Daumier produced the majority of his lithographic oeuvre for Le Charivari, whose political outlook he shared.15

Republicans in France were unsettled by the precariousness of peace on the continent. The personification of Europe, instead of France, shows that international affairs are the primary focus of Daumier’s print.16 The diplomatic issues that affected France and the other European powers in the run-up to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 consumed Daumier to the extent that more than half of the lithographs he created in 1867 and 1868 dealt with European affairs.17 After Prussia’s victory over Austria in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, an enlarged Prussia was much more present on the French frontier, and the realignment of powers weakened France’s status. Moreover, by October 1867, the temporary peace that the Universal Exposition had symbolically brought to the continent was soon to end, since the exposition was set to close on October 31 of that year. Undoubtedly, Daumier drew this image at a moment of European alarm and expectation of war.

Manifesting pacifist sentiments, Daumier’s prints repeatedly present images implying that war hinders the prosperity of a nation, or, in this case, of an entire continent.18 Nobody could predict what would happen to Europe if war broke out on the continent; personifying a figure like Europe to depict the struggle between nations was an effective way of provoking political critique with respect to the unfolding events.

* I would like to thank Professor Emeritus Steven Hause, in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis, for kindly answering my inquiries about international affairs in the 1860s and for sharing his insights about the ongoing conflict on the European continent in 1867.

  • 1 In French the caption reads “La nuée des canards obscurcissant tellement l’air que la pauvre Europe ne sait plus quel chemin prendre” (translation mine). See catalogue number 3601 in the catalogue raisonné by Loys Delteil, Le peintre-graveur illustré, vol. 28 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1969), originally published in Paris by Chez L’Auteur in 1926.
  • 2 For comparative purposes see the figure Peur (Fear) in Hubert Gravelot, Iconologie par figures, ou Traité complet des allégories, emblêmes, &c (Paris: Le Pan, 1791), 76. Gravelot’s treatise on allegories was the first of its kind published in France after the outbreak of the French Revolution and was widely referred to by nineteenth-century French artists.
  • 3 From the start of Napoleon III’s reign strict laws had been set in place preventing artists from directly attacking the emperor. For a thorough overview of censorship laws in France during the Second Empire and the nineteenth century as a whole, see Robert J. Goldstein, Censorship of Political Caricature in Nineteenth-Century France (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1989).
  • 4 Ernst Gombrich, “The Cartoonist’s Armoury,” in his Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (New York: Phaidon, 1971), 139.
  • 5 In the first edition of Ripa’s Iconologia (1593) translated into French in 1644, Europe is described as “une Dame royalement vêtue d’une robbe de plusieurs couleurs…il n’est point de climat dans le Monde qui soit plus fécond et plus fertile que celui-cy” (a lady adorned by a royal robe of many colors…no climate in the world is more fecund and more fertile than this one). Cesare Ripa, Iconologie, vol. 2 (Paris: M. Guillemot, 1644), 8–9. As for Gravelot, he labels Europe as “une femme magnifiquement vêtue; elle porte la couronne que lui acquit autrefois l’empire des Romains sur l’univers. Assise sur deux cornes d’abondance…un cheval et des trophées militaires se font remarquer à ses côtés et désignent sa vertu guerrière, de même que les attributs des sciences et des arts” (a beautifully dressed woman; she wears the crown formerly bequeathed to her by the Roman Empire. She sits on two cornucopias…a horse and military trophies are noticeable at her sides, indicating her martial virtue, and the science and art symbols also exalt her). Gravelot, Iconologie par figures, 29.
  • 6 In treatises on allegories Europe is typically represented in a category that describes the four areas of the world, along with Asia, Africa, and America.
  • 7 Many of Daumier’s lithographs dating from 1867 to 1870 demonstrate an overarching concern for the threat of war in Europe.
  • 8 See, for example, the figures of War and Suspicion in Cesare Ripa, Baroque and Rococo Pictorial Imagery: The 1758–60 Hertel Edition of Ripa’s Iconologia with 200 Engraved Illustrations, ed. Edward A. Maser (New York: Dover, 1971), 72–74.
  • 9 In only one other print does Daumier show Europe with a shield. Un baiser de circonstance (Delteil 3565), published on the opening day of the 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris, alludes to the temporary peace the exposition will bring to Europe amidst the escalating tensions between the European countries vying for power. Daumier implies that Europe will not benefit from this situation for long, since all the goods from Peace’s cornucopia are going to waste.
  • 10 The word canards in the print’s caption has a double meaning. It refers to physical ducks, and it also means unfounded rumors or exaggerated stories. Ducks symbolizing rumors was a visual motif Daumier used both before and after this print, such as in Un quart d’heure après sa mort il était encore en vie (Delteil 3486) and La grande marée de 1868 (Delteil 3681).
  • 11 While it is difficult to discern the exact words (from left to right they are possibly: “Bourges,” “Tausse,” and “Nord”), it is worth noting that readers of the time were likely able to draw meaning from them.
  • 12 For an overview of European affairs during this time period, see W. E. Mosse, The European Powers and the German Question, 1848–1871 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958).
  • 13 With lithographs the difference in tonality from one impression to the other does not fluctuate; however, the superior graphic qualities of a proof with handwritten caption, especially on velum paper as is the case here, are striking.
  • 14 Assigning different individuals for each task was common practice at most illustrated newspapers during this time period. After minor changes were made to the original caption (“La nuée des canards” replaced “La crue des canards”), it was approved, and the issue in which it appeared was distributed to a circulation of 2,930. For more on Le Charivari’s production numbers, see Elizabeth Childs, Daumier and Exoticism: Satirizing the French and the Foreign (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 191.
  • 15 Daumier left behind barely any letters from which to gain insight about his political life, but his prints are a testament to his viewpoint.
  • 16 As noted by Judith Wechsler, representations of Europe rather than France were also less likely to be seized by censors. Judith Wechsler, “Daumier and Censorship, 1866–1872,” Yale French Studies 122 (2012): 56–62.
  • 17 More than 80 of the 141 lithographs Daumier produced in these two years—he created 73 in 1867 and 68 in 1868—deal with European matters. For a breakdown of the subject matter of all of Daumier’s lithographs, see Delteil’s catalogue raisonné.
  • 18 Daumier employs the personification of Europe as the main character in a multitude of prints, including Nouvelle suspension aérienne (Delteil 3552), in which Europe is suspended on a bayonet, and Équilibre Européen (Delteil 3566), where she tries to keep her balance on a bomb.