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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Slanging the emperor : Honoré Daumier’s Le Monde illustré caricatures of the 1867 Exposition Universelle Stephens, Russell James


The staging of the greatest spectacle of Napoléon III’s Second Empire, the1867 Exposition Universelle, did not go uncontested. In a series of wood engravings produced for the conservative magazine Le Monde illustré, and which stand as testimony to the power of images, the caricaturist Honoré Daumier challenged the Emperor’s World’s Fair and the Fete Imperiale rhetoric it espoused. Two caricatures realized from the Le Monde illustré series evidence Daumier’s subversive strategies to circumvent Napoléon III’s censorship and fashion a defiant political criticism of the régime. Foremost amongst these I argue is Daumier’s deployment of slang or argot --the “unofficial” language of the streets and associated with suppressed members of the working classes under the Second Empire--prostitutes, ragpickers, and ouvriers. Daumier’s caricatures set these marginalized argot voices into collision with the “official” rhetoric of the Emperor’s World’s Fair. Drawing on Bakhtin’s concepts of Menippean satire and the ‘carnivalesque this thesis also explores how Daumier’s images mock and ridicule representations of authority and dogma. Crucially, however, stepping past the practice of a satire of negation, Daumier’s caricatures can be understood as refashioning the utopian promise and regenerative dimension of laughter derived from the ancient past into something more distinctly modern. The Second Empire was not only a time of class conflict but an era characterized by a lost revolutionary possibility. Indeed, it was the brutal reality of the unrealized ambitions of large segments of the working classes crushed in June 1848 that permeates the history of this time. Daumier’s World’s Fair images were produced at a shifting historical moment in the mid 1860’s of increasing political consciousness of the working classes. Glimpsed in this context, Daumier’s caricatures can be read at one level as “counter images” to the Exposition, disarming the politically anesthetizing phantasmagoria of the Napoléon III’s Fair, rooted in Saint- Simonian notions of progress. However, at another level they can also be understood through their mobilization of the voice of argot and the hidden suppressed language of the working classes as refashioning the fearless utopian promise of laughter as a weapon of class struggle.

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