For centuries great graphic artists have created enduring images that demonstrate the power of art as a vehicle for social and political commentary. Caricatures and cartoons are among the most lasting and effective of these images. These drawings, often depicting principal events and figures of the day, become in the hands of a master at once topical and timeless, unique and universal. Usually created under short deadlines for reproduction in a commercial format such as a newspaper or magazine, cartoons and caricatures reflect the artists' attempts to enlighten, amuse, provoke, or persuade their readers. In the effort to express themselves and engage their audience, these artists have produced original works of extraordinary historical and artistic value, shedding vivid light on their times, and, in retrospect, our own.
The masters of caricature and cartoon represented in this exhibition are as diverse as their works and equally compelling. James Gillray, an Englishman working primarily in the eighteenth century, established a high standard for the genre that subsequent cartoonists and caricaturists have worked hard to equal. Honoré Daumier, active in nineteenth-century France, outraged King Louis Philippe with satirical lithographs that belittled the monarchy and its achievements. At the turn of the twentieth century in America, Rose O'Neill did the unthinkable for a woman, carving out a successful career as a cartoonist while exhibiting more sophisticated work in the Paris salons. Miguel Covarrubias, already well-established in his native Mexico, arrived in New York in 1923 and astounded audiences with his pointed caricatures. Oliver Harrington, an African American, labored in obscurity, his cartoon genius and exceptional draftsmanship only revealed to a widespread audience at the end of his life.
The sheer ability of these artists is fully revealed through the study of their original works. We gain insight into their working methods and the technical limits imposed on them by time, place, and mode of publication. The earliest printing techniques, involving copper plates, lithographic stones, and woodblocks, reproduced images with painstaking labor that took days or weeks. Caricatures and cartoons appeared either as separate sheets for sale by printsellers or within periodicals that audiences could savor over time; artists created more complex images because audiences had time to read and learn from them. In the twentieth century, photomechanical techniques permitted reduction from the original. In general, artists began to create larger, simpler drawings that could be reduced and retain their impact, as well as accommodate the ever more fleeting attention span of modern readers. Such diversity of methods, materials, and formats, however, does not obscure the shared legacy of graphic wit, creativity, and ingenuity, that is so amply represented in the Library of Congress collections.
All objects in this exhibition, unless otherwise noted, are preserved in the Prints and Photographs Division. This exhibition was prepared with support from the Caroline and Erwin Swann Memorial Fund for Caricature and Cartoon.