Given its widespread use, the term ‘caricature’ is often employed rather loosely to describe any form of burlesque, grotesque, or merely ludicrous representation. However, there is more to a caricature than the mere representation of ugliness. A better definition would hold that caricature is an artistic mode, usually in the form of a portraiture, in which the characteristic features of the subject are presented in a way that deforms or exaggerates their shape for comic effect. More precisely, the term ‘caricature’ (which is taken from the Italian caricare) means to overload or to overcharge: as such, caricatures pack meaning and detail onto otherwise simple body shapes. Works of caricature can therefore be defined as excessive or deformed portraits of known individuals; the purpose of such images is generally satiric.
Given this lurid fascination with the ugly, the representation of comic monstrosity might fairly be said to determine the caricaturist's art. With their gross distortion and exaggerated postures the portraits of men and women provided by caricaturists seem distanced from a real encounter with the human body, its strength and frailties. However, this appearance is deceptive. The study of caricature can reveal a lot about changing attitudes to body shape, diet, and sexual activity. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, caricaturists were much influenced (as were artists in many different genres) by the work of G. B. Della Porter (De Humana Physiognomia, 1586); Charles Le Brun (Expression des Passions, 1698); and Johann Kaspar Lavater (Physiognomische Fragmente, 1775). Le Brun's work described, via a mixture of simple sketches and rather more complicated descriptions, the most striking of facial and bodily attitudes: rage, grief, reverence, and so forth. Le Brun's illustrations provided artists, including caricaturists, with a basic template which they could revise (or distort) for their own purposes.
In the nineteenth century, as research in physiognomy gathered pace, texts such as Charles Darwin's The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals can be seen to have had an influence on contemporary satiric portraits. Certainly anthropomorphic caricature was hugely popular from the middle years of the nineteenth century. As such, caricature provides a record, albeit an oblique one, of changing attitudes to the human body, its form, and its functions. The practice of caricature also has connotations of moral judgement, as well as bodily excess or mere physical form. Writing in 1991, Kenneth Rivers defined caricature as ‘the artistic use of deformation for satirical purposes’. Although the intention behind any given caricature can be defined broadly as ridicule or satire, the precise motivation behind a particular piece can be varied. While the work of some caricaturists aims no higher than the exhibition of crude national or sexual stereotypes, many caricatures reveal more subtle ploys, and greater artistic and political aspirations. Indeed, the history of caricature has often been entwined with the history of censorship. The status of the caricaturist's art might fairly be defined as a negotiation between a crude impulse to ridicule and a higher wish for change or reformation.
Although the point will admit of some debate, it is safe to date the emergence of caricature (at least in its pictorial form) to the early sixteenth century. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is often cited as an early caricaturist. Certainly illustrations in his sketch books depict faces and figures with their features grossly deformed for deliberate comic effect. An equally plausible candidate for the title of first caricaturist is Annibale Carracci (1560–1609). Carracci's paintings, of which The Bean Eater (1583–4) is a good example, blend the conventions of Italian low-life painting with a keen eye for characteristic detail. However, the claim that Carracci was the first caricaturist rests on the knowledge that his works generally represent recognizable individuals, and not anonymous or general types as is the case with da Vinci; witness, for instance his ‘portraits’ of old men and young girls in his sketch books.
Carracci's foremost achievement was to blend gross distortion with a general likeness, so that while the features of the face were turned and twisted the person portrayed remained easily recognizable. Along with that of his brother Agostino (1557–1602), Carracci's work defined the caricaturist's art as a mode of satiric portrayal which in rejecting the physical reality of the person represented sought to reveal a greater moral truth through the exhibition of their vices. Unquestionably, it is the work of the Carracci brothers that made caricature both artistically successful and hugely popular, both in the sixteenth century, and arguably beyond. Carracci is even credited with offering the following defence of the caricaturist's art:
Is not the caricaturist's task exactly the same as the classical artist's? Both see the lasting truth beneath the surface of mere outward appearance. Both try to help nature accomplish its plan. The one may strive to visualize the perfect form and to realize it in his work, the other to grasp perfect deformity, and thus reveal the very essence of a personality. A good caricature, like every work of art, is more true to life than reality itself.
Carracci's statement defends caricature on the grounds of its artistic worth, and its moral seriousness has been used by successive generations of practitioners and critics eager to defend caricature.
If Carracci established the worth and value of caricature in the Baroque period in Italy, then the golden age of British caricature was without question the eighteenth century. It was during this period that British art produced arguably some of the more playful, most incisive, and most savage caricatures ever attempted. William Hogarth (1697–1764), Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827), and James Gilray (1756–1815) all flourished at this time. While Hogarth's graphic satires employ caricature sparingly as part of a more general lambasting of Georgian society, Gilray's cartoons viciously expose the foibles and deformities of his most prestigious contemporaries. Frequent victims of Gilray's pen were politicians such as the Prime Minister Pitt, who is depicted as thin and emaciated as if on the verge of collapse, while his opponent, the more ebullient Charles James Fox, appears fat and swarthy. Like Hogarth, Rowlandson's comedy is broader, but he still uses startling images of personal deformity in order to get his — sometimes cruel — jokes across. With the addition of George Cruikshank (1792–1878), and possibly Sir David Low (1891–1963), Hogarth, Gilray, and Rowlandson represent the finest achievements of British caricature. Today historians regularly cite the social and political satires of Gilray and Rowlandson as valuable evidence of prevailing attitudes and prejudices within eighteenth-century culture.
Undoubtedly influenced by work going on across the channel, French caricature flourished throughout the nineteenth century. In the uncertain political climate that followed the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, pictorial satire enjoyed an uneasy existence. Its principal practitioners were Charles Philipon (1800–62) and Honoré Daumier (1808–79). Importantly, Philipon founded the weekly La Caricature in 1830, shortly to be followed by the daily La Charivari. Both journals provided an outlet for some of the finest caricatures the period produced. Certainly Philipon's representation of the hated Louis-Philippe as an overripe pear on the verge of rotting is a triumph of artistry and political expression. The detested king's flabby features coalesce to form the bulging sides of the fruit, an image which combines, brilliantly, physical ugliness with a distaste for the system of government that Louis-Philippe led. Although quickly repressed, Philipon's and Daumier's work in the 1830s was to have an influence on caricature in France, Europe, and the US for the remainder of the century.
More recently, the twin crises of the early twentieth century — the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism on the continent — have provided caricaturists with fertile if also painful subjects for their comedy. In Germany, George Grosz (1893–1959) used his art to expose the moral bankruptcy of the German state during the Weimar and Nazi periods. Almost entirely self-taught, Grosz drew spare caricatures representing opulent Germans as wholly debauched, their bodies glutted on sexual excess and political corruption. Happily, the twentieth century also saw more pleasurable and prosperous times. In reflecting upon the opulence of the twenties or the wealth of the 1980s, American journals such as The New Yorker, and the British comic magazine Punch, image an affluent society which they wish to chasten yet also to celebrate. The harsh images of Gilray and Grosz are not present, perhaps, but a canny social commentary remains.
Gombrich, E. H. and and Ernst, K. (1940). Caricature. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
Rivers, K. T. (1991). Transmutations: understanding literary and pictorial caricature. University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland.
Victoria and Albert Museum (1984). English caricature 1620 to the present: caricaturists and satirists, their art, their purpose and influence. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
See also art and the body.
car·i·ca·ture / ˈkarikəchər; -ˌchoŏr/ • n. a picture, description, or imitation of a person or thing in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect. ∎ the art or style of such exaggerated representation: there are elements of caricature in the portrayal of the hero. ∎ a ludicrous or grotesque version of someone or something: he looked like a caricature of his normal self. • v. [tr.] (usu. be caricatured) make or give a comically or grotesquely exaggerated representation of (someone or something). DERIVATIVES: car·i·ca·tur·al / ˌkarikəˈchoŏrəl/ adj. car·i·ca·tur·ist / -ˌchoŏrist/ n.
So as vb. XVIII.