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What is The Origin and History Of Caricatures?

The word caricature comes from the Italian words carico and caricare, meaning 'to load' or to 'exaggerate'. In the 1590s the Italian Annibale Carracci (and his brother Agostino) applied these words to some exaggerated portrait sketches they created. The descriptions they left, mention that the images were meant for humor to mock their own artistic theories which they taught at the Bologna Academy. Today we might wonder why it took so long for caricature to become a recognized form of art. Yet, it needs to be remembered that for hundreds of years artists strived to create perfect natural representational art, which was always considered to be the end goal. By the time of the High Renaissance, this had been achieved to a greater degree. Only after High Renaissance artists learned how to produce a 'perfect likeness' could they start to disassemble it. Actually, this process went on for hundreds of years until eventually we ended up with completely abstract art in the form of Mondrian's geometric concrete art). Caricature remained very much an Italian artform for the next hundred years - although in Northern Europe Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-69) and other contemporaries were also drawing exaggerated human portraits.

It could also be argued that artists in the Late Middle Ages who were drawing biomorphic animals like gargoyles on the corners of illuminated manuscripts were even earlier caricaturists. Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) was influenced by these drawings and used the imagery in his paintings like Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-05). After Bosch, the next authentic caricaturist was the Italian artist and designer Giuseppe Arcimboldo ((1527-93), active in Prague, who painted a series of burlesque portraits of Emperors and Kings, using painted forms of vegetables, pots, pans and even workmen's tools. Back in Italy, the sculptor Bernini (1598-1680) drew amusing portraits to mock both himself and friends. He wrote that a character could be captured with merely 'a few pen strokes'. The first artist to set himself up as a professional caricaturist was called Pier Leone Ghezzi (1674-1755), he was also a Rococo painter. Ghezzi made a healthy living out of producing amusing drawings of tourists visiting Italy.

By the mid 1700s enough Italian caricatures had arrived back in London to peak the interest of the publisher Arthur Pond. Pond printed a set of drawings by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), Carlo Maratti (1625–1713) and Ghezzi, all of which were well received. From the 18th century, satirical caricatures became all the rage in France, Britain and America. The painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) was one of the first English artists to resort to exaggerated cariacture-style portraiture - mainly in the form of moralistic genre paintings and prints, such as "The Harlot's Progress", "The Rake's Progress", and "Marriage a la Mode" (see: National Gallery London). Later in the 18th century, artists started transforming people into other things such as animals, vegetables and fruits. English caricaturists like James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) depicted politicians of the French Revolution as goats, spiders and pigs to depict lechery, cunning and gluttony. The human face of the subject was added to the body of the animal so that there was no confusion. In Britain Punch magazine was founded (1820s) and quickly became the most popular satirical magazine in the country. John Leech (1817-64) became one of its most famous illustrators. [Punch even caricatured the short-lived Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) - one of England's great illustrators - as Aubrey Weirdsley.


NOTE: Punch magazine is also credited - during the period 1840-65 - with causing the word "cartoon" to replace the word "caricature", in particular as regards politicians and political imagery.

In France, the genre was dominated during the 19th century by the incomparable Honore Daumier (1808-79), who was famous for his cutting political cartoons in the anti-monarchist weekly La Caricature, one of which got him 6 months in jail for criticizing King Louis Philippe. In 1835, the French authorities banned all seditious types of art, norably political caricatures, whereupon Daumier switched to social cartoons. The key to his success as a satirist, was his ability to match a subject's mental state to a physical defect. He was greatly admired by important French painters like Delacroix (1793-1863) and Courbet (1819-77). Another indirect contributor to the genre was the French printmaker and poster artist Jules Cheret (1836-1932), who developed a cheaper type of colour lithography, used in poster art and publishing.

The advent of the railway meant that magazines could be quickly and widely distributed to an increasingly growing audience. With one stroke of a pen, a politician's image could be destroyed. Today the tradition continues, and artists draw on the natural characteristics of the subject - for example, if the person has a large nose, this will be exaggerated, or if they have any peculiarities such as a choice of hairstyle or mannerisms, these will be played on.

Caricature art was very much in evidence at the turn of the century and after, as the political temperature rose before the advent of television. World leaders were satirized, military leaders were lampooned, as international conferences came and went. There is a famous drawing by the Australian cartoonist Will Dyson (1880-1938) which he created in 1919, at the end of World War I. It showed the leaders of the victorious nations walking out of a room, having concluded the treaty of Versailles in their favour. But a young child is weeping in the corner, she is called the Class of 1940. It shows remarkable foresight as many historians regard the outcome of the Versailles treaty as being one of the main causes of World War II.

While newspaper caricatures gained in popularity, a number of painters - notably Whistler (1834-1903), Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), George Grosz (1893-1959), and Ben Shahn (1898-1969) pursued caricature in fine art painting.

In the years following the First World War, with the huge growth in newspapers and other periodicals, the genre underwent a renaissance in the United States, with caricatures accorded a popularity rivalling photographs. A new wave of young draftsmen like Al Hirschfeld and Miguel Covarrubias showed that caricatures could be amusing, colourful, and graceful - not merely acerbic visual comments placed on the editorial page. In Britain, Punch magazine maintained the tradition of political cartoon art and caricature throughout the period 1950-92. Then, during the 1980s, the highly influential and image-shaping British TV show "Spitting Image" lampooned the politicians and union leaders of the Margaret Thatcher era.


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