Paul Gavarni is the pseudonym of Hippolyte Guillaume Sulpice Chevalier, a Parisian artist who became one of the best and most popular engravers of the mid-nineteenth century. It is thought that he took his name from the town of Gavarnie in Luz-Saint-Sauveur in the Pyrenees, where he spent time in his early twenties.

Gavarni began work as a mechanical assistant in a machine factory, but saw that to make any progress in his profession he had to be able to draw; accordingly in his spare time in the evenings he took classes in drawing. He devoted particular attention to architectural and mechanical drawing, and worked at land surveying and mapping, which led to his obtaining a position with the Government Ordnance Department as a draughtsman. It was only in his early thirties that he turned his attention to creating drawings for publication, and his first published drawings appeared in 1834 in the magazine Journal des modes.

His sharp and witty drawings soon won him a name in fashionable circles. His speciality was sketches in which he portrayed the most striking characteristics, foibles and vices of the various classes of French society; most of his best work appeared in Le Charivari. Soon Gavarni was receiving regular commissions for book illustrations, including Eugene Sue’s Le Juif errant (The Wandering Jew, 1843), a new French translation of Hoffman’s tales (1843), and the first collected edition of Balzac’s works (1850). In addition to his magazine and book contributions, Gavarni produced portfolios of twelve engravings on popular subjects, with short and witty captions; these included Les lorettes (a lorette was a fashionable and liberal-minded young woman), Scènes de la vie intime, Les actrices, Les coulisses (Backstage Scenes), Les fasizionables, Les gentilshommes bourgeois, Les artistes, Les débardeurs (Dockworkers), Les étudiants de Paris, Les baliverneries parisiennes (Parisian Foibles), Les plaisirs champêtres (Rural Pleasures), Les bals masqués, Le carnaval, and La vie des jeunes hommes.

Le ballon perdu (The Lost Balloon), 1859

In 1849 Gavarni visited England, and on his return his impressions were published in the book Londres et les Anglais, illustrés par Gavarni, with many also appearing in the weekly paper L’Illustration. During the later years of his life Gavarni was much engaged in scientific pursuits. He submitted several papers to the Académie des Sciences, and was particularly interested in the question of aerial navigation, experimenting with different methods of navigation in balloons.

Example illustration