Academic journal article European Comic Art

Early French Caricature (1795-1830) and English Influence

Academic journal article European Comic Art

Early French Caricature (1795-1830) and English Influence

Article excerpt


This article analyses the production of caricatures in post-revolutionary Paris, specifically the role of publishers and artists and the constraints of censorship within society of that time. By considering such factors in the light of English caricature production, we will outline the exchanges that took place between London and Paris at the turn of the nineteenth century and demonstrate that the two cities' comic print productions were subject to reciprocal influences.

Two caricatures contrast the French and the English: French Liberty, British Slavery by James Gillray (published in London in 1792, Fig. 1) and Le Suprême bon ton n° 12 ['Supreme Good Taste No 12'], attributed to Carle Vernet (published c. 1802 in Paris, Fig. 2).

Both provide a comparison between the French and the English, but despite their shared theme, they also provide a stark contrast between the different styles of French and English caricature at the turn of the nineteenth century. Gillray's figures of the scrawny Frenchman chewing on onions and the grotesque Englishman tucking into his roast beef are severely exaggerated representations of reality. The figures represented in Le Suprême bon ton, however, are far from ruthless satire. They are more figurative, almost in the style of fashionplates rather than caricature. In fact, it is only in comparison to un-caricatured fashion-plates that the caricatured elements of this image become apparent: the overly-coiffed hair of the Frenchman on the left, the portly Englishman on the right and the slightly deformed profiles of the other English figures to the right of the plate.

This difference in style can largely be attributed to the different social and political situations in Britain and France at this time. The golden age of English caricature (c. 1760-1820) is well documented. James Gillray, Isaac Cruikshank and Thomas Rowlandson, amongst others, were admired and feared for their graphic talents. The emergence of this wave of caricaturists has been traced to various factors, including political and economic stability,1 the rise of consumer society,2 and the improvement of academic etching and engraving.3 This confluence of factors, specific to time and place, has since received considerable academic attention. This is not the case, however, for French caricature of the same period: with the exception of caricature produced during the French Revolution, French satirical prints published before 1830 have been largely ignored. And yet, the huge collections of French caricature at the British Museum and at the Cabinet des Estampes are testament to the emerging market for comic prints in Paris immediately after the tumultuous years of the Revolution. This market thrived in post-revolutionary Paris, dominated by a small group of publishers, who met the demands of the society of the time while conforming to the strict standards set by the administration.

Perhaps the comparative lack of interest in French caricature of this period is due to the anonymity of the artists. London caricaturists such as James Gillray (1757-1815) and Isaac Cruikshank (1764-1811) were recognised both as artists and as political commentators by their contemporaries. On the other hand, French caricatures are often unsigned, with the result that French caricaturists did not enjoy the same recognition as their English counterparts. Furthermore, there are few archive resources available to reconstruct the lives of the caricaturists whose names we do have. However, the commercial nature of caricature means that we must bear in mind the role of the publisher, as well as the artist. In the case of Paris, it is the details and records of the publishers that have survived more often than those of the artists. Unlike in London, where publishers competed to work with celebrated caricaturists,4 publishers in Paris played a more prominent role in caricature production than even the artists and artisans. …

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