Daumier’s Ecce Homo (c.1849-52)

In 1849 the French State commissioned Henri Daumier to paint an Ecce Homo for a provincial church. This, the largest canvas he ever painted, is a rough sketch for it. Unfortunately, the authorities dissatisfied with the result eventually chose another artist to complete the project. At the time Daumier was known only for his illustrations and caricatures; he did not exhibit his paintings publicly until more than 20 years later. Nevertheless, this sketch has many of the hallmarks of canonical art which appear, surprisingly, in his cartoons and caricatures as well.1

The picture depicts the moment when Christ is brought before the people who, egged on by Barabbas pointing at left, call for Christ's execution. The torment and implied violence by the crowd represents Daumier's own creative struggle to make a masterpiece which can only be done by someone with a clear mind like Christ's. The museum where it hangs today rightly notes that:

"Daumier doubtless identified with the figure of Christ. Isolated is he who goes against the opinions of the masses and the rulers – a theme which speaks of the place of artists in society, especially in the 19th century.2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Henri Daumier, Ecce Homo (c.1849-52) Oil on canvas. 162.5 x 130 cm. Museum Folkwang, Essen

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Dozens of examples on EPPH show that artists have identified with Christ from at least the 15th century as part of the Inner Tradition which they all share.3 Pointing also, especially with the arm extended, traditionally represents the act of painting.4 Here two figures do that on either side of Christ: a disembodied arm in front where the artist was and Barabbas behind as if in a mirror. Good and evil or, rather, chaos and calm are two sides of the same mind.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Daumier's Ecce Homo

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Artists often think of their art as a performance and have long used the stage or theatre as a suitable metaphor.5 This biblical subject, when Christ is brought in front of the people, is particularly appropriate. Christ represents the solitary performer on stage, the artist and the picture's principal motif. Barabbas and the crowd, on the other hand, are the artist painting his motif. They are the makers and audience of the same "painting", fusing our perception of subject and object in the external world into one internal or mental image where opposites are united.

Lastly, one of the easiest ways for you to find unseen features in major works of art is to look for the artist's initials. Daumier used his so often that I would not be surprised if they appear in more than half of them. Here you can see them in the ropes that tie Christ to his captor, an appropriate link between the opposites he has united. The D of Daumier is between the hands of Christ and his guard (bottom) while the H is formed by the guard's whip and arms. So not only is the hidden form of his initials meaningful but their location is too.






 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail and diagram of Daumier's Ecce Homo

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Notes:

1. See other entries on EPPH by Daumier: Sire, Lisbon is Taken (1833) and The Orchestra...during a Tragedy (1852).

2. Website of Museum Folkwang, Essen. Retrieved March 10th 2015.

3. See examples under the themes Artist as Christ and the Inner Tradition.

4. See examples under the theme Pointing and Touch.

5. See examples under the theme Art on Stage.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 10 Mar 2015. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.