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Three famous French artists give impressions of Paris at National Gallery of Australia

It's hard to imagine a time when Parisian artists were not fixated on depicting everyday life, and instead focused on grand tableaux of men in helmets and mythical figures.

But a new exhibition of works from the National Gallery of Australia's collection, Impressions of Paris, shows that it wasn't until the 19th century, when Honore-Victorin Daumier was creating cartoons and caricatures, filled with social satire and political commentary, that French art began to change.

Daumier's beautifully-realised drawings, published several times a week in the daily newspaper Le Charivari, roundly lampooned the mores of French society, navigating changing censorship laws while reflecting that society back on itself.

The gallery recently "liberated" its large collection of Daumier lithographs that had been collected and bound into 34 books by the Oxford and Cambridge University Club in London.    

The newly-framed works reveal both the extraordinary talent of Daumier as a draughtsman, and various aspects of life in Paris – railways, theatre, country versus city life, the vagaries of politicians.

"He was out there, and he could draw beautifully and he was perceptive," said curator Jane Kinsman.


Daumier was a huge inspiration on the artist Edgar Degas, who went on to depict his own version of modern life in Paris.

"There was a sort of freeing up of ideas of what you could depict, and so we've got ballerinas and behind the scenes at the opera house, and the 'lions and the little rats' - the lions were figures from a jockey club who used to pursue ballerinas behind the scenes at the opera house," she said.

Degas, in turn, inspired the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose large, bold posters, and depictions of the seamy underbelly of Paris, made him the Andy Warhol of his day.

"Lautrec is honing in on the character, his choice of, if you like, the underbelly of French society and his simplification figures, his characterisation - he gets the character of people and he plays around with space," she says.

"He was cutting edge."

In fact, all three artists were cutting edge in their own way, and their work charted a crucial period of French art.

The show's title has nothing to do with the later Impressionist movement, in which artists painted outside, and tried to capture a fleeting moment in time.

Instead, Ms Kinsman said, "it's to get the idea of the effect of city life, and how that affected three artists, three core figures in French art".

Impressions of Paris: Lautrec, Degas, Daumier is showing at the National Gallery of Australia until March 9.