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When I was a teenager I became fascinated by the art of Honoré Daumier (1808-1879).  Daumier is now famous for his sensitive pictures of day-to-day life for marginal people in French society, however, during his lifetime, he was known as a caustic social critic who created biting caricatures of the corrupt politicians who flourished during the chaotic yet reactionary period of French politics which followed Napoleon. During his life, Daumier witnessed the fall of Napoleon, the Bourbon restoration, the July monarchy, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, and the Third Republic.  For some reason he was cynical about the motives and abilities of the French political class.

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The Legislative Belly (Honore Daumier, 1834) lithograph

Here is one of his satirical masterpieces, “The Legislative Belly” a lithograph from 1834, which depicts the members of the Chamber of Deputies. The Chamber of Deputies was an elected assembly, but only those who paid hefty taxes were eligible to vote, so exceedingly rich merchants and bankers chose the Deputies from among their own ranks. The title at the bottom reads “aspect of the ministerial benches of the improvised chamber of 1834.”

Looking up the individual deputies reveals that Daumier has pictured the deputies mostly as they actually looked.  These caricatures would have been easily recognizable to anyone following French politics in the year 1834:  Daumier did not melt or distort these features all that much…and yet the cumulative effect is horrifying.  The deputies look like monsters.  They have the appearance of doddering inbreds, vultures, cannibals, and fools.  The deputies drew Daumier’s wrath for their reactionary policies which enormously favored the wealthy and for their fractious and pettifogging habits when in session.

If Louis Philippe’s legislators were anything like they looked to be (and history sadly indicates that they were), it is astonishing that the July Monarchy lasted until 1848 when it was swept away by revolution.  Still there are many lessons about politics to be gleaned from this lithograph…and from reactionary French politics of the 19th century! One of these lessons is that even extremely non-representational legislative bodies are subject to popular opinion…eventually.

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