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caricature and cartoon, in graphic art, comically distorted drawing or likeness, done with the purpose of satirizing or ridiculing its subject. Cartoons are used today primarily for conveying political commentary and editorial opinion in newspapers and for social comedy and visual wit in magazines.

Definition of terms


Caricature is the distorted presentation of a person, type, or action. Commonly, a salient feature or characteristic of the subject is seized upon and exaggerated, or features of animals, birds, or vegetables are substituted for parts of the human being, or analogy is made to animal actions. Generally, one thinks of caricature as being a line drawing and meant for publication for the amusement of people to whom the original is known; the personal trait is usually present.


The word caricature derives from the Italian verb caricare (“to load,” “to surcharge” as with exaggerated detail) and seems to have been used first by Mosini in Diverse Figure (1646). The 17th-century sculptor-architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was a skilled caricaturist, seems to have introduced the word caricatura into France when he went there in 1665. There is perhaps, in the choice of the verb caricare as a source for the noun, some influence from the idea of carattere (Italian: “character”) or even from cara (Spanish: “face”). At any rate, the face is the point of departure for most caricatures. It is conceivable that underlying the series of overlapping profiles with varieties of extraordinary noses and chins and brows which Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer drew independently about 1500 was an observation not only of contemporary human types but of the fact that the heads of rulers on coins and medals, when worn with age, often became ridiculous. A latter-day case is the penny showing Queen Victoria, whose coiffure began to look like an elephant’s head when the coin was well worn down.

Caricature, after its spread as idea and practice from Italy and France to Great Britain in the 18th century, became rather a broad term. In the late 19th century, Gilbert and Sullivan, the English creators of comic operettas, spoke of one of their subheroines as having “a caricature of a face.” Perhaps, therefore, it is not surprising that, although cartoons as they are now known developed gradually out of caricature from the 15th century, cartoon is a 19th-century word.

Satirical deformations and comic analogies in sculpture, the drama, and vase painting are older than purely graphic caricature. The ancient Egyptians represented men as animals; Greek comedy had by-products in burlesqued figures on vases and in terra-cotta statuettes; Romanesque and Gothic sculptors made fun of human failings in stone capitals and wood miserere seat carvings all through the Middle Ages. The marginal flourishes of illuminated manuscripts contain grotesque faces and occasional exaggerated scenes from daily life, or references to the morality plays, which have the same relationship to those plays as Greek clay representations have to the stage. All such works verged upon caricature in the narrow personal sense; some were caricature in a broad sense. In the generations since caricature became a clearly defined idea, there have been occasional examples in painting and sculpture alongside the more usual drawing for reproduction.


A cartoon originally was and still is a drawing, a full-size pattern for execution in painting, tapestry, mosaic, or other form. The cartoon was the final stage in the series of drawn preparations for painting in traditional Renaissance studio practice. In the early 1840s, when that studio practice was rapidly decaying, cartoon rather suddenly acquired a new meaning: that of pictorial parody, almost invariably a multiply reproduced drawing, which by the devices of caricature, analogy, and ludicrous juxtaposition (frequently highlighted by written dialogue or commentary) sharpens the public view of a contemporary event, folkway, or political or social trend. It is normally humorous but may be positively savage. Just as the personal caricature was for an audience that knew the original, so the cartoon was and is based on wide acquaintance with the subject. It serves as a capsule version of editorial opinion when it makes political satire, and it is a running commentary on social change, sometimes intended as a corrective to social inertia. (For treatment of animated cartoons, see motion picture: Animation.)

Origins of caricature and cartoon

Individual satire

Caricature was a product of the Renaissance and Reformation emphasis on the importance of the individual. If a man was seen officially as an emperor, he was seen unofficially to have feet of clay or to be wearing no clothes. From about the first third of the 16th century, the emphasis on decorum was so strong in Italy and spread so fast northward and westward, reinforced by a still more solemn decorum from Spain, that it produced a reaction. Desiderius Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly was both a Renaissance effort at satire and a carryover of medieval mockeries; the marginal drawings made in one copy of it by early 16th-century members of the German-Swiss Holbein family are neither caricature nor cartoon in the modern sense, but they are in the same stream of subjective comment on objective observation as the series of exaggerated profiles drawn by Leonardo and Dürer. In the 16th century the work of the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder is full of near caricature, as in the familiar drawing of an artist who is troubled at his easel by a nosy peering connoisseur behind his shoulder. In the work of Bruegel and that of his contemporary, the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, there are witty and sometimes horrendous dislocations of parts of the body, combinations of human anatomy with fishes, birds, animals, and windmills, and exaggeration of obese or emaciated physical types that are likewise near cartoons.

Yet true caricature in the sense of the satirical portrait of an individual is almost impossible to identify before the work of a late 16th-century Bolognese painter, Agostino Carracci. The first caricatures of persons whose names are still known today are by Bernini. Artists of their time could at last afford to be easy about their position and occupation, about what was objective and what was subjective. They impartially caricatured one another in the studio and the types in the street. The rise of connoisseurship and collecting in the 17th century soon produced appreciation of these caricatures outside the studio, leading to the gathering of such drawings into albums and their transformation into multiple etched or engraved publications.