Traces of the Hand

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Traces of the Hand: Master Drawings from the Collection of Frederick and Lucy S. Herman

Caricature and Social Satire

Henry Bonaventure Monnier
French, 1799 or 1805–1877
Joseph Prudhomme Standing, 1872
Pen, brown ink, and watercolor over pencil on wove paper
12 1/16 x 9 1/4 in, 30.64 x 23.5 cm (sheet)
Inscriptions: (recto) bottom left, signature: "Henry Monnier";
faint (erased?) inscription above signature: "à mon ami Bondy"
Provenance: Acquired from P. and D. Colnaghi, London, 1976
Gift of The Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Foundation, 2007.15.58

verso

This highly finished drawing by French actor, writer, and artist Henry Monnier depicts Joseph Prudhomme, a figure who, as the subject of Monnier’s own theatrical performances, writings, and caricature illustrations, embodied the nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie. Prudhomme satirized the collective middle class, reflecting the social structure and cultural norms of Paris after "Hausmannization," the complete revamping of cityscape and population in Paris under Baron Hausmann.1 The new social landscape meant that class, profession, attitude, and circumstance increasingly defined the Parisian individual.2

Monnier first introduced the Prudhomme character in a lithographic series entitled Scenes Populaires of 1830. Prudhomme became the principle motif running through all aspects of Monnier’s career, as the subject of his theatrical works, literary pieces, lithographs, and finished drawings like this one.3 Also critical to the development of Prudhomme as a character type were Monnier’s contemporaries Honoré de Balzac and Honoré Daumier.4 The three shared ideas, and each featured the character in his work, Balzac in his writing, Daumier in his own caricatures, and Monnier frequently acted the part of Prudhomme in his theatrical productions.5 A member of the bourgeoisie himself, Monnier acknowledged his own reflection in Joseph Prudhomme, and as Monnier matured, so did his illustrations of Prudhomme.

The name Prudhomme derived from a verbal pun: in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the word prudhomme was used to describe a man of probity and sagacity; Monnier’s pompous type inverts these virtues.6 In this drawing and in other depictions, he pretentiously poses as a man of judgment with an appraising air. On stage he talks down to those of his own social rank and ingratiates himself with the elite. Prudhomme was known for his banal, sententious statements.7 His curiosity led him to ask indiscreet questions, yet rather than waiting for answers, he preferred to talk about himself and his vast experiences.8

Physically, the Herman drawing conforms to the Prudhomme character as Monnier depicted him in person: short and stout with a round bald head adorned with a single tuft of hair. He wears round spectacles and his mouth curves causing a slight protrusion of the lower lip. Dressed in a tailored coat with wide lapels, Prudhomme wears an enormous white collar nearly covering his ears, and white gaiters cover polished boots. Prudhomme exudes a self-satisfied demeanor in his typical bourgeois attire.9

A faint, perhaps erased, inscription above the signature, "à mon ami Bondy" ("to my friend Bondy"), suggests that this drawing was intended for a personal acquaintance of the artist, but this person has not yet been identified.10

Libby Merrill
Brittany Peterson

 

1. Judith Wechsler, A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th Century Paris, Chicago, 1982, 13.

2. Ibid., 14.

3. Jane Low, "Henry Bonaventure Monnier (Paris 1805 – Paris 1877)," Exhibition of French Drawings Post-Neo-Classicism, London: P&D Colnaghi & Co, 1975.

4. Wechsler, Human Comedy, 13.

5. Edith Melcher, The Life and Times of Henry Monnier, 1799–1877, Cambridge, MA, 1950, 177.

6. Wechsler, Human Comedy, 117.

7. Wechsler, Human Comedy, 118.

8. Melcher, Monnier, 189.

9. Melcher, Monnier, 187–189.

10. Low, "Henry Bonaventure Monnier."

 

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