Political Caricature – from Ancient Times to Present Days

“A caricature is putting the face of a joke on the body of a truth.”
Joseph Conrad

Drawing a caricature seems simple at a first glance. Just take a famous face (a politician or a celebrity for example), find its most distinctive feature (it could be a nose, eyes, lips, ears or whatever draws the attention), exaggerate it so that the whole face becomes funny and comic and voilà – the caricature is ready. However, behind the seeming simplicity of the process, the art of caricature is pretty complex and requires expert painting skills, specific vision and a good sense of humor, of course. For many centuries, caricature has always been a vivid marker of human race evolution and social life, not only making people smile and laugh but also lashing the drawbacks of the society and drawing the public attention to the most questionable aspects of social life.

Today caricature is commonly defined as the art, type of a portrait, where one’s specific features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce comic, funny, or grotesque effect. Caricature has a long history of its development, and political caricature is, perhaps, where this particular art reached its culmination. By the way, a surprising fact is that even such “serious” painters as Leonardo da Vinci and Monet worked in the caricature genre at certain times of their art career. To get more familiar with caricature let us follow the timeline of caricature development from the earliest times to the modern age, paying special attention to political caricature.

The art of caricature dates back to the far away prehistoric times, when a man first took a stone into his hands and scratched the picture on the walls of his cave. That was the origin of painting art and caricature as well. Paintings and images from ancient Egypt, Greece and Roman Empire carry some features of caricature as well; just have a look at the picture of a man, which is believed to be a politician in the ancient city of Pompeii. What a caricature, isn’t it?

Pompeii Villa of Mysteries

Early caricatures can be found in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, who often invited people with some physiological abnormalities or face deformations to be his models. The below caricatures were produced by genius Leonardo back in the 14th-15th century.

Cinque by Leonardo da Vinci

Man with Bushy Hair by Leonardo da Vinci

William Hogarth is the first name to mention among the pioneers of the true caricature art and political caricature in particular. Being famous English painter, who lived between 1697 and 1764, he raised political caricature at the next level of its development. Even nowadays, satirical political illustrations are often known as “Hogarthian”. “A Rake’s Process” and engraving of a British radical politician John Wilkes are among the most well-known caricature works by Hogarth, which represent formation and strengthening of the political satire genre in art.

A Rake’s Process by William Hogarth

John Wilkes by William Hogarth

James Gillray (1757-1815) has contributed a lot to the development of political caricature as well, producing his flashing and well-aimed social satire, featuring George III, the King of Britain, Napoleon, and general political and social life in 18th-19th century. L’assamble Nationale (1804) by Gillray was called the most talented caricature, which draw a wide response in the society. It is said that Prince of Wales even had to spend pretty much money to have this painting destroyed.

L’assamble Nationale by James Gillray

Monstrous Craws by James Gillray

The Plumb Pudding in Danger by James Gillray

The Cow Pock by James Gillray

Fashionable Contrasts by James Gillray

Very Slippy Weather by James Gillray

American political caricature movement was initiated by Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Actually, this notable artist is commonly referred to as the Farther of the American Cartoon. He was the first to depict Santa Clause with the appearance, familiar to all of us today (before Nast illustration, Santa looked like a tall and thin man). Harper’s Weekly was the magazine, where Nast published his political caricature, dealing with multiple social issues – from American Civil War to American Indians and to Ku Klux Klan. These are some samples of the works by Thomas Nast.

The Brains by Thomas Nast

Uncle Sam’s Gunpowder by Thomas Nast

Public Nuisance by Thomas Nast

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

Throughout the whole 20th century the caricature art and political caricature in particular flourished, either in view of growing number of artists, choosing caricature genre, or growing democracy, which allowed creating caricatures without being afraid of the consequences.  Naturally, the American caricaturists continued to generate a larger amount of political satire caricatures. Some of them are presented below:

Ohio – The Mother of Presidents

How They’re Acting – and How They Feel

Progressive Fallacies

It is interesting to point out that even such cruel dictators as Natzi Hitler and Soviet Stalin became the objects for caricature. Have a look at some of the caricatures, created not after the death of those tyrants but when their power was at its apogee.

Hitler – Stalin by Bob Row

Nazi-Soviet Alliance by David Low


Russian Church and Stalin by Lev Regelson

A Cartoon From “The Nation” in New York (5 April 1933)

A Hot Seat is Sometimes Uncomfortable…!

The Führer’s Complaint: “How Can I Become a Dictator If No One helps!”

How Hitler Says “Legal”

Now getting back to the USA, below there are several caricatures, created at different times during the 20th and 21th century, featuring US Presidents. For example, Bill Clinton has always been popular on wide public and so did the caricatures, featuring him.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton by Steve Curl

However, the present President Obama does not leg behind, winning the attention of modern caricaturists.

Barack Obama by Dan Johnson

Commander in Chief by Kal Lex

Relief by Kal Lex

As the human evolution continues, so does the development of caricature. The army of caricaturists today is great. Though their works are rarely displayed in art galleries, they are still very close to all of us, whether we meet their caricatures on the newspaper pages or invite them to make a few friendly caricatures at birthday party. The role of caricature in social life is still significant and there is not much exaggeration in this statement. Putting the face of a joke on the body of truth, caricature has always helped and continues helping us in understand the real core and value of things and revealing the true faces under the masks, worn on public… That’s because “parodies and caricatures are the most penetrating of criticisms,” as Aldous Huxley said.


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Cruzine magazine founder interested in everything around graphics and design.