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History of political cartoons

Political cartoons are illustrations, designed to convey a social, political or economical message. As a visual expression political cartoons are usually found on the editorial pages of newspapers and magazines. The goal of political cartoons is to send a clear message, using images which will be familiar to all of the people in a society. Irony and satire are heavily used in political cartoons.


I) A Brief History of Political Cartoons

Political cartoons are for the most part composed of two elements: caricature, which parodies the individual, and allusion, which creates the situation or context into which the individual is placed. Caricature as a Western discipline goes back to Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic explorations of “the ideal type of deformity”– the grotesque– which he used to better understand the concept of ideal beauty. Over time the principles of form established in part by Leonardo had become so ingrained into the method of portraiture that artists like Agostino and Annibale Carracci rebelled against them. Intended to be lighthearted satires, their caricaturas were, in essence, “counter-art”. The sketch of “A Captain of Pope Urban VIII” is representative of the new genre in that it is a quick, impressionistic drawing that exaggerates prominent physical characteristics to humorous effect. At its best, it brings out the subject’s inner self in a kind of physiognomical satire– as the example presented here seems to be a comment on some facet of the Captain’s masculinity. Caricaturas became popular with collectors, but they perceived the “fanciful exercises” as curiosities rather than viable artistic productions. As a result, they were not displayed publicly, and so one of the earliest modes of established graphic satire remained in the parlor and drawing room.

While caricature originated around the Mediterranean, cartoons of a more editorial nature developed in a chillier climate. The Protestant Reformation began in Germany, and made extensive use of visual propaganda; the success of both Martin Luther’s socio-religious reforms and the discipline of political cartooning depended on a level of civilization neither too primitive nor too advanced. A merchant class had emerged to occupy positions of leadership within the growing villages and towns, which meant that a core of people existed who would respond to Luther’s invectives and be economically capable of resisting the all-powerful Catholic Church. In regards to the physical requirements of graphic art, both woodcutting and metal engraving had become established trades, with many artists and draughtsmen sympathetic to the cause. Finally, the factor which probably influenced the rise of cartoons more than any other cultural condition was a high illiteracy rate. Luther recognized that the support of an increasingly more powerful middle class was crucial to the success of his reforms, but in order to lead a truly popular movement he would need the sheer weight of the peasantry’s numbers. The distribution of simple broadsheet posters or illustrated pamphlets throughout population centers proved to be an effective strategy because the images would reach a large amount of people and enjoy the greatest possible amount of comprehension. …


The History of the Cartoon


Cartoon (humorous drawing), pictorial sketch or caricature, by implication humorous or satirical, and usually published in a newspaper, magazine, or periodical. In recent years the word has mostly been used to describe three specific kinds of drawing. These are the political, or editorial, cartoon—the main daily or weekly pictorial comment in a newspaper or magazine, referring to a current political or social issue; the pocket cartoon—a single-column drawing on a topical subject, often on the front page of a newspaper; and the single-joke, or gag, cartoon, which relies for its effect on amusing social commentary or wordplay.

Before the introduction of the term “cartoon” in its modern sense in the 19th century, satirical and humorous drawings of all kinds were referred to as caricatures. Today “caricature” is used mostly to refer to distorted portraiture that emphasizes the characteristic traits of an individual; it may either stand on its own or form part of a cartoon. Beyond these central forms, the term “cartoon” has also been applied to comics, television and film animation, multi-frame jokes published in newspapers, continuity strips, graphic novels, humorous advertising, humorous book and magazine illustrations, and satirical puppetry. …


Cartoons and the historian – Cartoon History

by Roy Douglas

Many historical books contain cartoons, but in most cases these are little more than a relief from the text, and do not make any point of substance which is not made elsewhere. Political cartoons should be regarded as much more than that. They are an important historical source which often casts vivid light on events, and which is useful both to the teacher and to the researcher. The essential of a political cartoon is that it is not meant to portray an actual event, but is designed to bring out points which are not adequately made by textual descriptions – or which can be understood by illiterate people, or by people in a hurry.

The medium of cartoons is a very old one. A famous palette from the dawn of pharaonic Egypt shows King Narmer (Menes) striking what appears to be a defeated enemy in front of a falcon, symbol of the god Horus.(1 ) It is unlikely that Narmer personally dispatched all his enemies, and even more unlikely that he contrived to have a falcon present to watch events. It is much more likely that this was a true cartoon, making an important point of propaganda. Pharaoh has divine backing. For that reason, he has been, and will continue to be, successful against his enemies at home or abroad. It is therefore advisable to support him in all his doings. …


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