Caricature

A fine example of Nast's caricature technique. Too Thin, Harper's Weekly 30 September 1871.
A fine example of Nast’s caricature technique. Too Thin, Harper’s Weekly 30 September 1871.

Caricature is the purposeful distortion or exaggeration of physical characteristics of human beings or animals for the purpose of humor or satire. It can be flattering or as is most often the case, quite the opposite.  It is an important tool in political or editorial art.  In that genre, politicians or entertainers are frequently caricatured for dramatic effect. Human beings are made taller, skinnier, shorter, or more obese than in real life. Once conceived by an editorial cartoonist, a famous person’s caricature will seldom change. Therefore, Patrick Oliphant’s Richard Nixon always had a ski -jump nose, other artists would draw Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama with very large ears.  As Donald Dewey writes in “The Art of Ill Will,”  in America, the first half of the nineteenth century, realistically drawn figures were put in improbable or “incongruous” situations to affect humor. Dewey explains that in Europe, distorted physiognomies began to appear in the 1830s and 1840s with advances in lithography.

Very early in his career, Nast experimented with caricature when he freelanced for Phunny Phellow. a short-lived comic periodical, and for the more popular New York Illustrated News.   Abraham Lincoln, tall, gangly and a rising political figure became the subject or target for Nast to try out his handiwork. Choosing Lincoln may have been a convenient test subject rather than a political target.  Nast disavowed ever making fun of his idol to his biographer asserting “it was done by another hand” (Paine 81). But unsigned images of Lincoln caricatures have surfaced which are attributed to Nast.  His experimentation with caricature was sidelined when he began to work for Harper’s Weekly in 1863 primarily as a Civil War illustrator.

As Dewey points out, a key component to a memorable caricature is the passion flowing through the artist’s pen. For Nast, the disappointment in President Andrew Johnson’s failed leadership during Reconstruction fueled both passion and pen.  As Nast matured at Harper’s Weekly, “he drew only what he was moved to draw.”  Nast historian Morton Keller may have said it best, “The distortions of great caricature, the transferences wrought by animal symbolism, the use of satiric humor, are among the most potent devices by which one man can strike at another” (3-4). Caricature helped to focus blame. “Nast believed that caricature offered the public a valuable tool,” on where to focus attention and who was to blame (Halloran 102).

Nast was a painter, illustrator, cartoonist as well as a  caricaturist. The latter required the artist to use satire to unveil a misdeed, a hypocrisy, corruption or any type of undesirable behavior as Nast or his editors saw fit to interpret. Therefore, how did Nast depict those who did not anger him?  Can we spot the Irish police offer who behaved heroically during public unrest? How would one determine a positive depiction of the Irish in a Nast cartoon? When people behaved well, Nast did not have subjects to satire.  How does one prove a positive in a Nast cartoon?

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