Refugees were one of several subjects Honoré Daumier returned to in his work over many decades, and individual works are difficult to date. It seems likely, however, that Daumier was struck by the movement of large numbers of people uprooted by war, repression or disaster in Europe in the 1840s and early 50s. This included political prisoners deported from France after the 1848 Revolution and those newly exiled after Louis-Napoléon’s coup of 1851, the Irish fleeing the potato famines, and people forced to leave their houses and land by rapid industrialisation.
The sculpture shows a mass of naked men, women and children in a sombre, rhythmic procession, as in a frieze. The plaster is suitably rough in texture, the paint is the colour of mud and glistens like sweat. In 1992 Patrick McCaughey wrote that the figures:
are both a metaphor for the political opponents of the monarchy driven into exile after the failure of the 1848 Revolution and also the image of the toiling anonymous masses. Such a subject could only be captured in sketch form; the heroism of modern life did not produce single heroes but rather a crowd in flux, moving anonymously to an unspecified destination.
The plaster held by the National Gallery of Australia is one of two known surviving examples.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014