French artist J.J. Grandville (1803-1847) was an influential and prolific illustrator. Today remembered primarily for his political cartoons in pioneering publications such as La Caricature and for his somewhat fantastical illustrations of people and animals, Grandville created a body of work that served as inspiration for later Surrealist artists. In recent years, renewed interest in Grandville's art has led to the publication of many of his original drawings as well as public exhibitions of his work.
Developed Early Interest in Art
Jean-Ignace-Isidore Gérard was born on September 15, 1803 in Nancy, France into an artistic family. His paternal grandparents had been actors at the court of Lorraine; from their stage name of “Gérard de Grandville,” Gérard would later take his own professional name, J.J. Grandville. His father, Jean-Baptiste Gérard, painted miniatures and passed this skill on to his son. Stanley Appelbaum noted in his introduction to Fantastic Illustrations of Grandville that “several critics have traced the mature Grandville's finicky draftsmanship and crowded compositions to this early training.” Grandville began drawing at a young age and published his first lithograph, The Cherry Seller in 1824 or 1825 in Nancy. (Lithography was a printing technique that transferred text or pictures from a printing plate to paper that had been invented shortly before the time of Grandville's birth.) From this early age, Grandville's style was heavily influenced by the satirical drawings that appeared in popular English and French publications.
Léon-André Larue, a relative and lithographer who worked under the name of Mansion, liked the young Grandville's work and encouraged him to travel to Paris to pursue a career. Grandville took this advice and went to Paris in about 1825. In Paris, Grandville worked with costume designer Hippolyte Lecomte to produce a series of lithographs, Costumes, in 1826. Grandville's family maintained connections to the theatrical world—a cousin was stage manager of the Opéra-Comique—and there, Grandville found both early work and inspiration. Grandville continued to publish series of lithographs through the remainder of the decade. Some notable works were the 1826 series Sundays of a Paris Bourgeois and the 1827 series Every Age Has its Pleasures, which he produced for the printer Langlumé.
In 1829, Grandville published a successful series of 70 lithographs entitled The Metamorphoses of the Day. These works depicted animals in human attire and participating in human activities. Michel Melot commented in Grandville's Grove Art Online biography that in this series, “[Grandville's] penchant for fantasy was already obvious,” while Appelbaum stated that the series “instantly established his fame and determined much of his future activity.”
Considerably less successful was Grandville's next series, the 1830 Voyage pour l'éternité (A Trip to Eternity). This series shows a skeleton appearing before a variety of people as a harbinger of their deaths. Writing in The Charged Image, Beatrice Farwell described one on the pieces of the series thusly: “A quaking who just admitted Death says, ‘Monsieur le Baron … on vous demande?’ (Monsieur le Baron … someone asking for you?) The fat and gouty baron replies, ‘Dites que je n'y suis pas’ (Say I'm not in).” The somewhat macabre series, probably inspired by a similar, earlier series by the artist Thomas Rowlandson, stopped publication after only nine were printed. Despite the lack of popular support for the series, it drew the admiration of contemporary notables such as writer Honoréde Balzac and art critic Champfleury.
Became “King of Caricature”
Around 1830, Grandville's career took a new direction. The previous year, he had begun working for the satirical publication La Silhouette. At La Silhouette, Grandville met publisher Charles Philipon and draw caricatures of the increasingly unpopular French king, Charles X. A staunch Republican, Grandville may have actively participated in the Revolution of 1830, in which Charles X was removed from power and replaced with his more populist cousin, Louis-Philippe. Grandville continued producing caricatures for La Silhouette until the journal ceased publication in January 1831. He then joined the staff of Philipon's new publication, La Caricature. In 1832, the journal declared Grandville to be the “king of caricature.”
Soon, the government sought to close La Caricature down. In order to raise money to support the paper, its publisher began a series of politically-charged lithographs called the Monthly Association. Grandville contributed 17 of the 24 prints published under this title. Philipon brought a new publication, Le Charivari, in 1832. This journal was less politically strident than was La Caricature, but still provided opportunity for politically-charged material. At La Caricature and Le Charivari, Grandville—joined by such notables as Honoré Daumier—expressed his displeasure with Louis-Philippe's government through his cartoons, singling out the King's support for causes that Grandville believed were anathema to the Republican movement. Melot noted that these cartoons were “among the most powerful published at that time, especially in defence of the freedom of the press.” During the early 1830s, Grandville created about 100 cartoons, but this number dropped sharply with the reintroduction of government censorship on the press in 1835.
Success in Book Illustration
From 1827 on, Grandville produced works for book illustration; after 1835, due to the new laws that essentially barred Grandville from making his living creating political caricatures, he turned away from the creation of contemporary cartoons to focus more closely on illustration. His first significant illustrated work of this era was a volume of song lyrics by popular French songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger. In 1838, Grandville produced illustrations for two major works, an edition of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and an edition of the fables of Jean de La Fontaine. The former showcased Grandville's ability to mix the fantastic with the commonplace, one of his great contributions to the field of book illustration. The latter led to further work illustrating the texts of two more French fable writers, Lavalette and Florian, in 1841 and 1842, respectively. Grandville also illustrated an edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in 1840.
Around 1840, Grandville received a major commission from publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Impressed by Grandville's previous drawings of animals, Hetzel created a project that would showcase this style; Appelbaum called this commission “the first book specifically conceived as a vehicle for Grandville's genius.” Scènes de la vie privée et publique des animaux (Scenes of the Private and Public Life of the Animals) used story frameworks to highlight Grandville's drawings depicting animals in situations relevant to the lives of contemporary people, as announced by the subtitle Etudes de moeurs contemporaines (Studies of Contemporary Manners). For example, one story tells of a drawn-out court case concerning the killing of a sheep by a wolf; another describes the dog of a drama critic who himself becomes a critic, only to die of boredom. Four of the stories were written by Balzac, and the majority of the rest by Hetzel under the pseudonym P.J. Stahl. Published first in 100 installments between November 1840 and December 1842, the book was later collected into two volumes and published in full; in 1866, the book reappeared in a somewhat altered form under the alternate title Les Animaux peints par eux-mêmes et dessinés par un autre (The Animals Painted by Themselves and Drawn by Another). The satire was such a popular success that small statues depicting characters from the stories were being sold without the consent of the publisher.
Following the completion of this work, Grandville illustrated a book entitled Les petites misères de la vie humaine (The Petty Sorrows of Human Life). Close on the heels of this project, he received a commission from publisher Henri Fournier, who had previously published Grandville's illustrations in the 1838 La Fontaine collection. Beginning in 1844, Fournier published the thirty-six installments of Un Autre Monde (Another World), which many consider to be Grandville's masterpiece and which Peter A. Wick, writing in his introduction to Grandville's collection The Court of Flora, called “almost a forerunner of Star Wars.” This collection featured the stylized, exaggerated images of people, plants, and animals that characterized much of Grandville's work. Linked loosely by a text by Taxile Delord, a writer and editor for Le Charivari, Grandville's illustrations are here at their most fantastic, whimsical, and imaginative. Melot commented that “Grandville abandoned the logic of the conscious mind to depict the world of dreams, in which perspective, viewpoint, shape and size undergo peculiar metamorphosis and distortion.” Although this piece was greeted with both confusion and respect in its time, it is today considered Grandville's most significant work; Appelbaum called it “a summation of all that had gone before, Grandville's artistic testament.”
Personal Difficulties and Legacy
Despite professional achievements, Grandville suffered from personal difficulties that aged him before his time; he reportedly became hunched and gray-haired before his fortieth birthday. In 1833, Grandville had married a relation from Nancy, Marguerite Fischer, who had a strong and somewhat overbearing personality. However, the couple had three children. Two of these children died young, and Fischer followed in July 1842. He remarried a Miss Lhuillier in 1843, apparently at the behest of his wife, who had requested that he marry again while on her deathbed and selected Lhuillier as a suitable choice for Grandville.
Grandville's final months were marked by personal tragedy. Sometime around late 1846 or early 1847, his surviving child by Fischer passed away suddenly, and Grandville was affected by a severe bout of melancholy. Shortly after this, Granville seems to have contracted a throat infection of some sort that ultimately resulted in his admittance to a private medical clinic near Paris; some stories suggest that this clinic was a mental institution, although this seems unlikely. Soon after entering the clinic, Grandville died as a result of his illness on March 17, 1847. Appelbaum noted that Grandville had composed his own epitaph: “Here lies Grandville; he loved everything, made everything live, speak, and walk, but could not make a way for himself.”
In some ways artistically ahead of his time, Grandville had what Melot called “the boldness of a visual imagination that anticipated the Surrealists.” Because of the extreme topicality and intellectual sharpness of his political cartoons and their accompanying descriptive captions, the modern reader may face challenges in determining their meaning or relevance; however, Grandville's work is for the most part accessible to the modern viewer. His works somewhat superficially resemble the illustrations that depict the nonsense fantasies of his approximate contemporary Lewis Carroll, whose Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published nearly 20 years after Grandville's death, but his themes reflect the psychological and social explorations of artists working in the 20th century. From the time of Grandville through today, opinions on the quality of his work have often been mixed; however, recent revivals in interest have led to some exhibitions as well as publications showing the unique style of this innovator.
Farwell, Beatrice, The Charged Image: French Lithographic Caricature 1816–1848, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1989.
Grandville, J.J., The Court of Flora George Braziller, 1981.
Grandville, J.J., Fantastic Illustrations of Grandville Dover, 1974.
Melot, Michel, “Grandville, J.J.,” Grove Art Online, http://www.groveart.com (December 8, 2007).