Today we use caricature for parties, events, as political and social criticism, and to memorialize the famous or infamous. When we think of “caricature,” the first association most of us make are to political cartoons in the New Yorker or else to larger-than-life portraits of celebrities – Lady Gaga with shoulders the size of her head or George W. Bush with ears popped out like Dumbo.
But where did caricature start? The earliest examples of caricature are a part of Leonardo Da Vinci’s collection of “bizarre heads.” We really don’t know what Da Vinci’s intent with these drawings were – to criticize, to observe, or simply to garner a chuckle from his audiences. In either event, the collection seemed to fire up viewers, as caricature became quite the popular artform after “bizarre heads” was first shown.
Caricature that aims solely to make us laugh generally distorts physical characteristics. But in the case of recording the famous and infamous, after a few hundred years, caricatures can unintentionally become more famous than the reality of the person. One of the earliest examples of this was in Napoleon Bonaparte, who we still think of as fantastically short because of the caricatures drawn by James Gillray.
Gustave Doré’s portrait of a buck-toothed Englishman with a flabby chin, white suit, and a cigar held between his ring and middle fingers from 1861, has been used again and again in different sociopolitical contexts to portray the undereducated elite. The caricature has eclipsed the infamy of the group to become art in its own right.