A caricature is a rendered image showing the features of its subject in a simplified or exaggerated way through sketching, pencil strokes, or through other artistic drawings. In literature, a caricature is a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.
Beside the political and public-figure satire, most contemporary caricatures are used as gifts or souvenirs, often drawn by street vendors. For a small fee, a caricature can be drawn specifically (and quickly) for a patron. These are popular at street fairs, carnivals, and even weddings, often with humorous results.
Caricature artists are also popular attractions at many places frequented by tourists, especially oceanfront boardwalks, where vacationers can have a humorous caricature sketched in a few minutes for a small fee. Caricature artists sometimes hire for parties, where they will draw caricatures of the guests for their entertainment.
Caricatures can be insulting or complimentary and can serve a political purpose or be drawn solely for entertainment. Caricatures of politicians are commonly used in editorial cartoons, while caricatures of movie stars are often found in entertainment magazines.
The term is derived from the Italian caricare—to charge or load. An early definition occurs in the English doctor Thomas Browne’s Christian Morals, published posthumously in 1716.
Thus, the word “caricature” essentially means a “loaded portrait”. Until the mid 19th century, it was commonly and mistakenly believed that the term shared the same root as the French ‘charcuterie’, likely owing to Parisian street artists using cured meats in their satirical portrayal of public figures.
Some of the earliest caricatures are found in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, who actively sought people with deformities to use as models. The point was to offer an impression of the original which was more striking than a portrait.
Caricature took a road to its first successes in the closed aristocratic circles of France and Italy, where such portraits could be passed about for mutual enjoyment.
While the first book on caricature drawing to be published in England was Mary Darly’s A Book of Caricaturas (c. 1762), the first known North American caricatures were drawn in 1759 during the battle for Quebec. These caricatures were the work of Brig.-Gen. George Townshend whose caricatures of British General James Wolfe, depicted as “Deformed and crass and hideous” (Snell), were drawn to amuse fellow officers. Elsewhere, two great practitioners of the art of caricature in 18th-century Britain were Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and James Gillray (1757–1815). Rowlandson was more of an artist and his work took its inspiration mostly from the public at large. Gillray was more concerned with the vicious visual satirisation of political life. They were, however, great friends and caroused together in the pubs of London.
In a lecture titled The History and Art of Caricature, the British caricaturist Ted Harrison said that the caricaturist can choose to either mock or wound the subject with an effective caricature. Drawing caricatures can simply be a form of entertainment and amusement – in which case gentle mockery is in order – or the art can be employed to make a serious social or political point. A caricaturist draws on (1) the natural characteristics of the subject (the big ears, long nose, etc.); (2) the acquired characteristics (stoop, scars, facial lines etc.); and (3) the vanities (choice of hair style, spectacles, clothes, expressions, and mannerisms).
There are numerous museums dedicated to caricature throughout the world, including the Museo de la Caricatura of Mexico City, the Muzeum Karykatury in Warsaw, the Caricatura Museum Frankfurt in Frankfurt, the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hanover and the Cartoonmuseum in Basel. The first museum of caricature in the Arab world was opened in March, 2009, at Fayoum, Egypt.