The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Caricature and Caricaturists

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Caricature and Caricaturists
Edition of 1920. See also Caricature on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

CARICATURE AND CARICATURISTS. A tendency to burlesque and caricature is a feeling deeply implanted in human nature and it is one of the earliest talents displayed by people in a rude state of society. An appreciation of, and sensitiveness to, ridicule, and a love of that which is humorous, are found even among savages, and enter largely into their relations with their fellow-men. When, before people cultivated either literature or art, the chieftain sat in his rude hall surrounded by his warriors, they amused themselves by turning their enemies and opponents into mockery. They laughed at their weaknesses, joked at their defects, whether physical or mental, and gave them nicknames in accordance therewith, — in fact, caricatured them in words, or by telling stories which were calculated to excite laughter. When the agricultural slaves were indulged with a holiday from their labors, they spent it in unrestrained mirth. And when these same people began to erect permanent buildings, and to ornament them, the favorite subjects of their ornamentation were such as presented ludicrous ideas. The warrior, too, who caricatured his enemy in his speeches over the festive board, soon sought to give a more permanent form to his ridicule, which he endeavored to do by rude delineations on the bare rock or on any other convenient surface which presented itself to his hand. Thus originated caricature and the grotesque in art. In fact, art itself, in its earliest forms, is caricature; for it is only by that exaggeration of feature which belongs to caricature that unskilful draughtsmen could make themselves understood. The field of the history of comic, satiric literature and art is very large, and many nations, ancient and modern, Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, pagan and Christian are represented. During the period of transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages, the Roman mimi continued to exist, and the evolution of the religious and secular caricature of the period and of the caricatures preceding the Reformation was associated with the mimi performers who sung songs and told stories, accompanied with dancing and music, an ever-popular form of amusement. In the 4th century Saint Augustine calls these performances nefaria, — detestable things — and says, that they were performed at night. The songs as they are called continued to consist not only of general, but of personal, satire and contained scandalous stories frequently accompanied by rough illustration or caricature, of persons living and well known to those who heard and saw them. The Reformation and Puritan periods furnish many amusing and historically illuminative specimens of caricature, domestic and political, as represented in the Flemish school of Breughel, the Italian school of Salvator Rosa and the French school of Callot of the 16th century. The commanding figure of the 17th century in caricature is William Hogarth, the Englishman, whose new style of design raised him to a degree of fame as an artist few men have ever attained. A little known fact is that Benjamin Franklin, the friend of Hogarth, to whom the dying artist wrote his last letter, also was a capital caricaturist, and used his skill in this way as he did all his other gifts and powers in behalf of his country and his kind. James Gillray was the prominent figure in English caricature in the latter half of the 18th century, Gavarini in France; George Cruikshank and John Leech in England were the noted caricaturists of the early part of the 18th century. The two great cartoonists of recent times have been Sir John Tenniel and Thomas Nast, the former being to all Europe what the latter was to all America, and in connection with these two can be said all that need be said of caricaturists of our time. True, Nast was practically alone in his field, and he did not work as long as did Tenniel, still, to judge him at his best, though the period was comparatively short, he stood high as a picture-maker of that class. Nast was as brave as his subject, Tweed, the New York city boss, was crooked, and the two furnished the best series of caricatures by far that have ever been seen in this, or, it might be said, in any other country. Nast however, was not the draughtsman that Tenniel was, but what he lacked in artistic finish he made up in power and force of expression.

Since the day of Tenniel and Nast, caricaturing seems to have fallen into less virile hands. Tenniel and Nast each drew a caricature once a week, while now caricaturists draw seven or eight in that time. Formerly the best caricaturists were employed on the weekly papers, while now the better class are employed on the great dailies. But the times have brought this about, not necessarily the caricaturists. Workingmen have no time to read, and a picture which may tell all at a glance means more to them than the ablest editorial that the combined editors of the country could write. A picture can be understood by all, whereas we have many languages and we speak but few, and read fewer. Words we forget, but pictures stay, filed away in our minds, and we refer to them on a moment's notice. Every day, as the pace quickens, and the press for time increases, we find our time for reading diminishes, thus the moving-picture excels the finest description ever written of the same thing.

We sometimes see so-called comic art, which is not comic, and that called caricature which is not true caricature. A man who draws a picture of a man with a broad grin and winking with one eye, or cross-eyed, or perhaps a man standing with one foot on his other, is not necessarily a caricaturist any more than is the man who puts big feet and big noses on every person he draws. A young caricaturist who had submitted a picture to a critic for his judgment and had received a severe lecture on the bad drawing it displayed made an attempt to hide behind the fact that it was a caricature, and therefore shouldn't be considered as the critic was considering it. Whereupon he replied: “No, never try to hide behind that. Remember one thing: that poor drawing is not caricature, and another, that all the bad artists in the country are not caricaturists. On the contrary, those who exaggerate the salient features must draw them even better, as more attention is called to a big nose or large ears if they are made conspicuously large, than would be the case otherwise.”

But there is something else that a successful caricaturist must possess. That one thing, whatever it may be called, is of more importance than the art of drawing properly, and is a certain force of character, or of individuality which at once suggests strength of purpose and power. It can convey the feeling of sadness, of brute force, or excruciating mirth, yet many very fine draughtsmen who are styled caricaturists never draw with that spirit predominant, and without it their productions are not true caricatures.

Thus, in trying to be caricaturists, such men are robbed of the chance of being serious illustrators, in which work they might succeed; and they never succeed as caricaturists.

There are three kinds of good caricatures: First, the strong, powerful, almost brutal; second, the humorous, the one instantly compelling laughter; and last, but not the least in effect, the pathetic; a picture capable of causing men to weep. The most effective are the powerful and the pathetic. The humorous is indeed attractive, if not overdone, but you soon forget its meaning. It can attack any and all things, from the weather to the President, without offense. But the most effective caricature is one that the subject of it would rather you would not print. Probably none can be made more powerful than the pathetic when it is timed and tempered just right, as its appeal to the sympathy is the surest way to the emotions. No caricaturist ever drew a caricature that would cause people to shed tears on seeing it, unless the artist shed tears when he drew it, any more than one could draw an angry political boss unless at the time of drawing one wore the same angry and hateful expression on one's own face. So with the humorist. One must wear a broad smile when he draws a man laughing, unless one is drawing him from life; and unless one is smiling when drawing smiling people, the subjects will seem to look and laugh only in mechanical fashion.

If the caricaturist is strong enough in his line to be called one, the first person he wins is himself. Once he has settled in his own mind that he is working for a just cause, it will be noticed at once that his work improves, and if he continues to study and put his heart and soul into it, others will be converted and he will acquire a following. If a cartoonist in his politics keeps side by side with his pictures he will be much more of a caricaturist than one who will work on a Democratic paper one day and the next on the Republican side. A young man in starting out should study and choose for himself and in that way he will find that he can lend more power and force to his work. It would be hard to imagine Thomas Nast being in private life a sympathizer with Tweed. The difficulty with caricaturists is that they are sometimes like the politician after the election, when he says: “No wonder the other side won; ‘they bought us.’ ” What interest could one take outside of the mechanical reproduction if one knew that the caricaturist who had one year drawn powerful caricatures for one party would turn around the next year and work for the opposition. The power of a caricature becomes power only when the reader of the picture is convinced that that which is represented in the picture really did happen, and that cannot be done by a caricaturist if one day he is with the poor, and the next day with the rich; or in the same relation with any case that comes up.

The late John J. Ingalls said that the caricature did harm that good might follow. Caricatures, to be effective, should be founded on fragments of truth, though you are permitted to dig below the frost line. Without truth at the bottom they are powerless, and with truth at the bottom they are powerful and everlasting. Though Tweed, the man, is dead, Tweed, in the caricature, still lives, a prisoner in stripes, with ball and chain to his leg. A good caricature may be called an exaggeration of the truth. In these times there are great opportunities for the cartoonist. The billionaire will have to deal kindly and justly with his fellow-men, or else he will be more of a target than ever before, but the honest man need never fear a caricature; on the contrary, he can laugh and go about his business, and if he is attacked, the attacks will react in his favor. But they cannot be recommended as the steady diet for a dishonest person, since whether he has a conscience or not, if they don't bring him to justice they will give him many a sleepless night.

Bibliography.— Flogel, E., ‘Geschichte des Grotesk-Komischen’ (Leipzig 1778); Champfleury, F., ‘Histoire générale de la caricature’ (Paris 1865-80); Wright, F., ‘History of Caricature and Grotesque’ (London 1875); Parton, J., ‘Caricature and other Comic Arts’ (New York 1877); Grand-Carteret, J., ‘Les mœurs et la caricature en Allemagne, en Autriche et en Suisse’ (Paris 1885); Everitt, W., ‘English Caricaturists of the 19th Century’ (London 1886).