The famous French poet, Charles Baudelaire, who wrote essays about the major caricaturists and illustrators of his day, said that French artist J. J. Grandville frightened him.
In an essay published in Écrits sur l’art in 1857, Baudelaire wrote, “There are superficial people whom Grandville amuses, but as for me, he frightens me. When I enter into Grandville’s work, I feel a certain discomfort, like in an apartment where disorder is systematically organized, where bizarre cornices rest on the floor, where paintings seem distorted by an optic lens, where objects are deformed by being shoved together at odd angles, where furniture has its feet in the air, and where drawers push in instead of pulling out.”
But all of that is precisely why Grandville, an illustrator and lithographer known for his poetically unrestrained, imaginative drawings and his sardonic caricatures created during the 19th century reign of King Louis-Philippe, had so much appeal and influence on the next century’s surrealist artists and writers.
With its dreamlike inversions and diverse cast of anthropomorphic animals, plants and objects, Grandville created a world like no others that yes, at times can be a bit discomforting and bizarre, as Baudelaire noted, but it is also a world that is wonderfully imaginative and his work is now recognized as a major precursor to the Surrealist movement.
Jean Ignace Isidore Gerard was born in Nancy, France, in 1803 to an artistic and theatrical family. “Grandville” was his grandparents’ professional stage name, which he later took, and also shortened his full name to just J. J.
Grandville got his first drawing lesson from his father, who painted miniatures, and he showed a talent at an early age for creating images that exaggerated the features of his subjects — essentially caricatures.
After school, he moved to Paris when he was 21 and as his artistic skills flourished, lithography came into widespread use for producing salable prints. Lithography suited Grandville’s sensibilities and style, and in 1826, he published a collection of his lithographs titled, Les Tribulations de la Petite Proprieté (Tribulations of Small Property). He followed this with Les Plaisirs de tout âge (The Pleasures of All Ages) and La Sibylle des Salons (The Sibyl Lounges) in 1827, but the work that first established his fame was Les Métamorphoses Du Jour (The Metamorphoses of the Day), published in 1828.
Metamorphoses, a series of seventy scenes, satirizes the bourgeois middle class of Paris as comic combinations of animals and humans in the clothing and settings of the time. The anthropomorphic images and his political caricatures, rich with satirical humor, became wildly successful and widely mimicked. The success of this work led to him being an artistic contributor to various periodicals.
After the prior censorship of caricature lifted in 1835, Grandville turned almost exclusively to illustrating books, supplying artwork for various classics including Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, and Robinson Crusoe. He also continued to issue various lithographic collections.
For all of the fantastical whimsy, wonder and biting humor Grandville created, the last 10 years of his life were marked with deep tragedy and he suffered the loss of his first wife and all three of their sons, who all died under the age of 5. Grandville remarried, however, and had a fourth son.
The death of his third son, George, in 1847 was reported to be a mortal blow to Grandville and he was described as going insane in the end. He died on March 17, 1847, three days after George’s death.
Grandville was just 43 years old, but he left behind a massive body of work that ranged across the entire spectrum of graphic art, from political caricature to book illustration. His last work, Les Fleurs Animées (The Flowers Personified), a series of images of lovely female figures metamorphosed into blooms that are both poetic and satirical, was published posthumously and is considered to be one of his most supreme achievements. It’s also his most popular and has remained in print. This book, as well as his other works, periodically comes to auction and Heritage Auctions sold a copy of the first American edition for $538 in 2011.
Of all Grandville’s projects, however, the one most influential in its afterlife was least successful during his own lifetime, his 1844 Un Autre Monde (Another World), written by Taxile Delord, the editor of the journal Le Charivari to which Grandville had contributed numerous drawings. The full work can be viewed at the Internet Archive.
The loosely organized plot describes a parallel world created by three immoral demiurges named Dr. Krackq, Dr. Puff and Dr. Hahblle. Each travels within the world, describing its people and their customs. The “other” world, of course, is a thinly veiled parody of our own. The novel’s minimal narrative functions principally as a framework for Grandville’s drawings — thirty-six full-page hand-colored wood engravings and 146 wood-engraved vignettes, smaller images inserted into a page of text. Some of the illustrations in the book have since become famous, and Sir John Tenniel, an English illustrator, graphic humorist, and political cartoonist prominent in the second half of the 19th century, and many cartoonists from Punch borrowed heavily from Grandville’s imagery.
Another World is more like a graphic novel than an illustrated text and each chapter can best be described as posing the question, “What if ... ?” What if social status was clearly indicated by stature? In the chapter “The Great and the Small,” Puff discovers a world where the idle rich are very tall, while the laboring classes are short.
Even lowly playing cards have character flaws and are prone to settling their disputes with violence. The illustration, “Battle of the Playing Cards,” inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and is probably Grandville’s most familiar image to audiences today.
In another one of his best-known drawings in Another World, Grandville demonstrates our planetary insignificance at the mercy of a celestial juggler, who amuses himself by playing with unknown worlds.
Grandville was well aware that Another World did not achieve the success he had hoped for. Three years after its publication, he wrote to a friend: “Until now, I believe, no work of art has understood and expressed dreams (except Another World, a recent and little-known work by your humble servant).” He was correct on both counts: it was unique and it was ignored — until 1963, when a facsimile edition was published and the noted surrealist Max Ernst provided a frontispiece for it with the legend, “A new world is born. All praise to Grandville.”
After his death, Alexandre Dumas, the celebrated author of The Three Musketeers, and friend of Grandville, described in his memoirs, My Memoirs (1802 to 1833), the celebrities of the day coming to Grandville’s art studio and sitting for caricatures and conversations in his “garret atelier,” among drawings on all surfaces mingling with the eclectic collection of objects and creatures that inspired him.
Dumas wrote, “ ... Grandville had a delicate and sarcastic smile, eyes that sparkled with intelligence, a satirical mouth, short figure, large heart and a delightful tincture of melancholy perceptible everywhere — that is your portrait, dear Grandville!”
Grandville was the first star of French caricature’s great age, and although he may not be well known by the masses today, from the Surrealists of the 1930s-1950s to Walt Disney studios, his work has influenced countless artists.