Nineteenth-century art is rich in pictures of artists at work, a subject that gratified a growing popular taste. Although Daumier in his lithographs often satirized the Paris art world, the collectors, and the public, in The Painter at his Easel he approached the theme of the artist in his studio with deference. Posed before an easel, the painter is shown alone in a sparsely furnished room, the far wall barely distinguishable in the reddish-brown penumbra. His palette and brush seem to be substitutes for his hands. The moment is one of intense concentration; the artist has paused, and the pause itself assumes an almost sacramental aura. Daumier highlighted the figure of the artist, his brush, and the edge of the easel with a white, calligraphic line. Set against a dim background these energetic outlines produce a radiant effect, suggesting the exalted state of the artist in a moment of creative engagement.
Duncan Phillips purchased The Painter at his Easel for his personal collection in 1944 but often lent it to the museum. It was formally given to the collection by Marjorie Phillips in 1967. However, its presence had been anticipated well before it was acquired by Phillips, for a vignette from it had already graced Phillips publications, including the 1922 Daumier monograph, where it appears on the cover and title page.