Paul Gavarni was the nom de plume of Sulpice Guillaume Chevalier (13 January 1804, Paris – 24 November 1866), a French caricaturist, born in Paris. He began life as an engineer's draughtsman, but soon turned his attention to his proper vocation as a cartoonist.
Most of his best work appeared in Le Charivari, but some of his bitterest and most earnest pictures, the fruit of a visit to London, appeared in L'Illustration. He also illustrated Honoré de Balzac's novels, and Eugène Sue's Wandering Jew.
He is said to have taken his nom de plume from the place where he made his first published sketch. He was born in Paris of poor parents, and started in life as a workman in an engine-building factory. At the same time he attended the free school of drawing. In his first attempts to turn his abilities to some account he met with many disappointments, but was at last entrusted with the drawing of some illustrations for a journal of fashion. Gavarni was then thirty-four years of age. His sharp and witty pencil gave to these generally commonplace and unartistic figures a life-likeness and an expression which soon won for him a name in fashionable circles. Gradually he gave greater attention to this more congenial work, and finally ceased working as an engineer to become the director of the journal Les Gens du monde.
His ambition rising in proportion to his success, Gavarni from this time followed the real bent of his inclination, and began a series of lithographed sketches, in which he portrayed the most striking characteristics, foibles and vices of the various classes of French society. The letterpress explanations attached to his drawings were always short, but were forcible and highly humorous, if sometimes trivial, and were admirably adapted to the particular subjects. The different stages through which Gavarni's talent passed, always elevating and refining itself, are well worth being noted. At first he confined himself to the study of Parisian manners, more especially those of the Parisian youth.
To this vein belong Les Lorettes, Les Actrices, Les Coulisses, Les Fasizionables, Les Gentilshommes bourgeois, Les Artistes, Les Débardeurs, Clichy, Les Étudiants de Paris, Les Baliverneries parisiennes, Les Plaisirs champêtres, Les Bals masqués, Le Carnaval, Les Souvenirs du carnaval, Les Souvenirs du bal Chicard, La Vie des jeunes hommes, and Les Patois de Paris. He had now ceased to be director of Les Gens du monde; but he was engaged as ordinary caricaturist of Le Charivari, and, while making the fortune of the paper, he made his own. His name was exceedingly popular, arid his illustrations for books were eagerly sought for by publishers. Le Juif errant, by Eugene Sue (1843, 4 vols. 8vo), the French translation of Hoffman's tales (1843, 8 vo), the first collective edition of Balzac's works (Paris, Houssiaux, 1850, 20 vols. 8 vo), Le Diable à Paris (1844–1846, 2 vols. 4 vo), Les Français peints par eux-mêmes (1840–1843, 9 vols. 8vo), the collection of Physiologies published by Aubert in 38 vols. 18mo (1840–1842), all owed a great part of their success at the time, and are still sought for, on account of the clever and telling sketches contributed by Gavarni.
A single frontispiece or vignette was sometimes enough to secure the sale of a new book. Always desiring to enlarge the field of his observations, Gavarni soon abandoned his once favorite topics. He no longer limited himself to such types as the lorette and the Parisian student, or to the description of the noisy and popular pleasures of the capital, but turned his mirror to the grotesque sides of family life and of humanity at large. Les Enfants terribles, Les Parents terribles, Les Fourberies des femmes, La Politique des femmes, Les Mans vengs, Les Nuances du sentiment, Les Rives, Les Petits Jeux de société, Les Fetus Malheurs du bonheur, Les Impressions de ménage, Les Interjections, Les Traductions en langue vulgaire, Les Propos de Thomas Vireloque, etc., were composed at this time, and are his most elevated productions. But while showing the same power of irony as his former works, enhanced by a deeper insight into human nature, they generally bear the stamp of a bitter and even sometimes gloomy philosophy.
This tendency was still more strengthened by a visit to England in 1849. He returned from London deeply impressed with the scenes of misery and degradation which he had observed among the lower classes of that city. In the midst of the cheerful atmosphere of Paris he had been struck chiefly by the ridiculous aspects of vulgarity and vice, and he had laughed at them. But the debasement of human nature which he saw in London appears to have affected him so forcibly that from that time the cheerful caricaturist never laughed or made others laugh again. What he had witnessed there became the almost exclusive subject of his drawings, as powerful, as impressive as ever, but better calculated to be appreciated by cultivated minds than by the public, which had in former years granted him so wide a popularity.
Most of these last compositions appeared in the weekly paper L'Illustration. In 1857 he published in one volume the series entitled Masques et visages (1 vol. 12 mo), and in 1869, about two years after his death, his last artistic work, Les Douze Mois (1 vol. fol.), was given to the world. Gavarni was much engaged, during the last period of his life, in scientific pursuits, and this fact must perhaps be connected with the great change which then took place in his manner as an artist. He sent several communications to the Académie des Sciences, and until his death on the 23rd of November 1866 he was eagerly interested in the question of aerial navigation. It is said that he made experiments on a large scale with a view to find the means of directing balloons; but it seems that he was not so successful in this line as his fellow artist, the caricaturist and photographer, Nadar.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
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- Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on Paul Gavarni (see index)
- A selection of his drawings can be found at the website:  - Type in Gavarni in the "Artists Name" box and click on "Go"