Henry Monnier (1799-1877): Scenes of Modern Life

First U.S. Retrospective of Henry Monnier
Modern Comedy from the 19th Century


            Long before the observational humor of New Yorker cartoons, Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld, the popular 19th-century French artist Henry Monnier, who was also a celebrated playwright and actor, chronicled modern life with precision and irony at a time when modern life was just being invented.  From December 13, 2005 through January 21, 2006, the Art Gallery of The Graduate Center will present “The Comedy of Modern Life,” examining Monnier’s remarkable career through his watercolors, drawings, prints and illustrated books.  The first retrospective of Monnier’s work to be presented in the

U. S. , the exhibition will be on view at the CUNY Graduate Center, 365  Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 12 to 6 pm.  (There will be an opening, to which the press is invited, on Monday, December 12, 5 to 7 pm.)

            In connection with the exhibition, there will also be two public events, allowing for an even broader perspective of Monnier’s interdisciplinary work. 

On December 12, 5:30 p.m ., in conjunction with the exhibition opening, there will be a rare fifteen-minute performance of his erotic puppet play The Tart and the Student ( La Grisette et l’étudiant ), translated by Graduate Center Distinguished Professor of Theatre Daniel Gerould, directed by Amy Trompetter, and performed by students from Barnard College, in the Martin E. Segal Theatre.

On December 14 at 6:30 p.m ., Graduate Center Professor of Art History Patricia Mainardi, who curated the Monnier exhibit, will present an illustrated talk, entitled “Why is Caricature Funny?”  Both events are free; to register please call 1-212-817-8215 or email continuinged@gc.cuny.edu .

            Monnier (1799-1877) was a frequent contributor to satirical political and journals, including La Caricature , La Silhouette , and Le Charivari , and he also illustrated novels by Stendhal and Balzac.  His lithographic albums depicting ironic vignettes of modern life appealed to a vast audience and contributed significantly to transformations of subject matter and style manifested in the new art of the 1860s.  Of Monnier, Balzac wrote: “No draftsman knows better than he how to capture the ridiculous and express it; but he always formulates it in a profoundly ironic manner.” His irony, Balzac said, was “well calculated, cold, but sharp as the blade of a dagger.”

            Monnier began his triple career of artist, writer, and actor during the Restoration and July Monarchy, and was celebrated for unsentimental, realist portrayals of modern life such as his Scènes populaires. Piecing together jobs as illustrator, writer, caricaturist, and actor, he lived by his wits, often improvising performances based on his artworks, and vice versa. He created characters which became part of the fabric of French culture, such as the grisette , a  young romantic working-class woman, and, his crowning achievement, Monsieur Joseph Prudhomme, the epitome of the nineteenth-century bourgeois, pompous and self-satisfied.  (Monnier was fond of dressing up and being photographed as this character.)

            Difficult to categorize in his own time—A realist or a caricaturists? A caustic critic of modern life, or an enthusiastic participant?  A maker of art or his own artwork?—Monnier can now be appreciated in the light of postmodernists, such as Cindy Sherman and Matthew Barney, who use themselves as raw material, functioning as both creators and creations.  The current exhibition, together with the presentation of Monnier’s erotic puppet play and the lecture “Why is Caricature Funny?”, offers the public a chance to experience the complex ways in which Monnier intertwined observation, creation, and performance.

Submitted on: DEC 12, 2005

Category: James Gallery