Honoré-Victorin Daumier (1808–1879) often used Miguel de Cervantes’s comic novel Don Quixote as a source for paintings and drawings. These always feature Don Quixote himself, who is usually accompanied by his faithful companion, Sancho Panza. This picture probably depicts the incident when Don Quixote, on horseback in the centre of the painting, charges at a cloud of dust, which he has mistaken for two armies about to do battle. Sancho Panza, who sits on a mule on the right, drinks from a flagon, having explained to the Don that the dust is caused by flocks of sheep.
This small and almost monochrome oil painting on a wood panel is most likely a trial or preliminary sketch for a larger painting now in an American collection. Daumier’s profession as a caricaturist is evident in his use of swiftly sketched outlines and dramatic contrasts of light and dark to convey the essential components of the narrative without unnecessary detail.
Don Quixote, the hero of Miguel de Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote, preoccupied Daumier throughout his career, particularly in his later years. Published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, the novel quickly became a popular choice for French artists and illustrators. Daumier first submitted a painting of Don Quixote to the Paris Salon of 1850–51 and some 30 paintings and around 40 drawings relating to Cervantes’s novel survive.
Yet despite his fascination with the novel, Daumier rarely depicted its many incidental characters. Instead, he focused almost exclusively on Don Quixote himself and his loyal squire and companion, Sancho Panza. This painting probably depicts the moment when Don Quixote charges at a cloud of dust caused by flocks of sheep, after mistaking it for two armies. Daumier does not show the sheep as, in keeping with the novel, the significance of the dust cloud depends upon who is looking at it.
This picture – an oil sketch on panel – is of particular interest for the insights it provides into Daumier’s painting methods. Daumier worked primarily as a lithographer, producing caricatures and illustrations for satirical newspapers and journals, and his training as a graphic artist is evident here, where he effectively draws in paint. Daumier sketches a rough drawing and applies oil paint in thin, loosely brushed translucent washes. Broad areas of white primer and colour block out contrasting areas of light and shadow. Dark contours and silhouette provide definition and outline.
Daumier creates generalised impressions rather than providing detailed representations: the distinct personalities of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are suggested by body shape and movement rather than by facial expression or clothes and objects. He gives Don Quixote and Sancho Panza specific characteristics: Don Quixote’s tall, lean and angular physique is the opposite of Sancho Panza’s short stocky figure. These attributes are echoed in their respective mounts. Don Quixote’s large white horse, Rocinante, is skinny and energetic, while Sancho Panza’s brown mule is squat and lethargic. Situated within the barren landscape of La Mancha in central Spain, the immobile Sancho Panza (typically drinking from a flagon) contrasts with Don Quixote, who gallops headlong towards the distant hills. As in several of the Don Quixote pictures, Daumier uses a diagonal axis, running right to left from the donkey’s neck and along Don Quixote’s lance and raised left arm, to create an effect of dynamic movement and spatial depth.
The contrasting personalities of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are full of comic possibilities, as Cervantes juxtaposes the tragi-comic qualities of Don Quixote’s outmoded chivalry with the pragmatism of his companion. But the ageing Daumier, who had spent his professional career lampooning corruption and self-interest, may also have had a more personal identification with Don Quixote, seeing in him a fellow idealist battling to uphold his values.
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