Satirical Prints and Drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Spanish Baroque artist Jusepe de Ribera (1588–1652) is best known for large-scale religious paintings, but he also left behind a number of grotesque head drawings and prints that may have been influenced by Leonardo da Vinci.
The two fleshy sacks hanging from this man's throat have been identified as either two goiters (a condition caused by an iodine deficiency), or a pair of tumors. One preparatory drawing depicts an individual afflicted with similar lumps, so it is possible Ribera based this etching on a real person. In the final print, however, Ribera accentuates the condition and incorporates his own ideas.
Around the time of this print's production, Ribera was also working on a series of pattern prints representing a wide range of noses, eyes, and other facial features for use by student artists. In fact, the nearly indiscernible trace of an eye to the left of the hat suggests Ribera re-used one of those metal plates for this grotesque head.
It is possible this grotesque was an exercise in combining a range of visual elements into a convincing and potentially humorous portrait. Although illness is no laughing matter today, this startling figure does produce a kind of visual entertainment alternating between shock, amusement, and respect for the artist's ability.
Ribera's "Large Grotesque Head" utilizes the etching technique, a printmaking method favored by painters because it complemented their training as draftsmen.
To create an etching, the printmaker applies a protective, waxy coating called “ground” to a metal plate. The artist then uses an etching needle to draw an image through the ground. Next, the plate is submerged in an acid bath, where the acid bites away the lines exposed by the needle. After the bath, the printmaker wipes off the ground, inks the plate, applies a damp piece of paper to the plate, and runs it through the printing press.
The areas bitten away by the acid print as black, while the unaffected areas appear blank on the sheet. More time in the acid bath correlates with thicker, blacker lines, and less time produces thinner, pale lines.
Etched lines often have a sketchy, scribbled appearance, like in the collar of this grotesque figure.
In the 18th century, artists increasingly dedicated themselves to professional satire. Painter and printmaker William Hogarth (1697–1764), widely considered the father of English satire, published numerous series of prints commenting on contemporary life.
Hogarth executed this portrait of a gap-toothed and cross-eyed man. An inscription (not shown here) identifies the subject as firebrand politician John Wilkes and notes, shockingly, that the portrait was taken from life.
Politician John Wilkes was famously ugly. Although this depiction is not a literal one, artist William Hogarth did not deviate greatly from more-serious attempts at capturing a likeness. Wilkes was known for his squinting eyes in particular, so Hogarth accentuated this detail to allow easy identification by fellow Brits. The artist did take some liberties with the wig, though, creating the impression of devil's horns.
Hogarth was actually highly critical of caricature as a legitimate art form. This print plays with the viewer’s expectations about caricature, while retaining the facial exaggerations typical of the traditional grotesque.
William Hogarth used the engraving technique to make this print. Engraving, unlike etching, requires specialized training in metalwork.
To create an engraving, an artist drives a sharpened tool called a burin into the metal plate. The displaced metal—called “burr”—curls at the sides of the grooves and must be removed before the plate is inked and printed. Engraved marks register as neat, tapered lines that lack the sketchiness of etched lines.
The many heads populating William Hogarth's "Characters Caricaturas" etching summarize his subtle views on caricature. This etching served as a receipt of purchase for his print series "Marriage-A-la-Mode," a mocking portrayal of a marital union between old and new money. On other impressions of this receipt, a printed inscription in the lower margin details the agreed-upon payment plan.
Moving from the bottom right corner to the left, William Hogarth depicts a famous grotesque by Leonardo da Vinci; exaggerated portrait studies of the working poor by Annibale Carracci; and a caricature head by Pier Leone Ghezzi. This last artist taught 18th-century amateur artists in Italy how to make caricatures. Fittingly, Ghezzi is paired with an extremely inept doodle.
Hogarth argues that both great artists and unskilled artists can make caricatures. Poor draftsmanship is, in fact, uniquely suited to caricature, given that the purpose is to distort the model.
William Hogarth makes the point that—compared with his dozens of imagined characters—caricature and the grotesque lack subtlety and variety.
Nonetheless, the placement of these artistic ancestors at the base of the composition suggests how caricature and the grotesque were literally foundational to Hogarth's own artistic practice.
Following on William Hogarth's heels, Thomas Rowlandson (1756/57–1827) quickly established himself as a major satirical artist in England during the second half of the 18th century and early 19th century.
This drawing features contrasting grotesque and conventional heads, but Rowlandson seems less interested in Hogarth's sharp distinction between the two. Rather, Rowlandson documents a spectrum of human types.
In other similarly crowded sheets of studies, Rowlandson even tried to divulge the character of individuals through side-by-side comparison with animals.
Trained at the prestigious Royal Academy in London, Thomas Rowlandson was a skilled draftsman who imbued his figures with electric presence. Blunt, parallel hatching on this head gives the man a serious, snobbish demeanor.
The face in the center of the top row is believed to be a self-portrait, but it is unclear whether the countenance is aspirational or self-deprecating.
Thomas Rowlandson's Spanish contemporary, painter and printmaker Francisco de Goya (1746–1828), captured a moment of extreme self-deception in his etching and aquatint "Hasta la muerte (Until Death)." Perhaps inspired by British satirical prints, it is part of "Los Caprichos (The Caprices)," a series of 80 prints detailing the follies of mankind and self-published in 1799.
The old woman might be a veiled jab at the mother of Goya's patroness, the Duchess of Osuna, but the scene also resonates as a universal critique of vanity.
An old woman positions an elaborate hat as a youthful helper adjusts a bow on her elder's dress. The old woman's exaggerated nose and extravagantly sagging eyelids recall the kinds of distortions typical of the grotesque. The mirror should objectively reveal the woman's decrepitude, but here it only accentuates her willful ignorance.
Francisco de Goya used a combination of etching and aquatint for "Los Caprichos."
Aquatint, like etching, requires an acid bath. Instead of a waxy ground, however, the printmaker applies a powdered resin to the plate, which is then heated so the resin sticks while leaving exposed areas. After the acid eats away at the unprotected areas, the plate is cleaned, inked, and printed on paper. Aquatint has a characteristic speckled quality when printed.
This detail shows the layering of shaky etched lines and granular aquatint. Aquatint produces a tonal effect similar to watercolor, whereas etched lines give definition to the scene. In both instances, more time in the acid bath correlates to a darker printed tone.
Francisco de Goya incorporated animal imagery into "Los Caprichos" to create absurd visual situations that evade easy understanding. In this etching and aquatint from the series, "¿Si sabra más el discípulo? (Might the pupil know more?)," Goya depicts a young ass learning the alphabet from an elder ass. Both animals are dressed in human clothes.
Francisco de Goya sets up a stark contrast between the braying "wild" asses in the left margin and their cultivated counterparts. The scene could be a humorous critique of society in the broadest sense: Despite the civilizing influence of literacy and culture, people are still no better than common beasts. Such an interpretation would be consistent with Goya's aggressive critique of Spanish institutions and government.
This 1828 etching by William Heath (1794/95–1840) fuses the heads of aristocrats and government officials to the bodies of captive animals found in the Tower of London's Royal Menagerie. Heath seems to address not only the public's growing fascination with exotic beasts but also its unrelenting curiosity about the political elite.
The London Zoological Gardens opened in 1828, and King William IV donated his menagerie in 1830, which makes this print particularly timely and resonant.
This hand-colored etching by James Gillray (1756–1815) features King George III at left. Ultimately declared mad in 1810, George III was an easy target for satirical printmakers. Here, he listens to a concert by men, animals, and some combination of the two.
Although the British monarchy was sensitive to insult in the years leading up to and after the French Revolution, the royal family under George III and George IV amassed an impressive collection of satirical prints. It may have been a convenient pursuit, as many 18th-century print shops were a short distance from the royal residences at St. James Palace.
Unlike animal prints that openly mocked political leadership, "Les Metamorphoses du Jour (Daily Metamorphosis)" was produced at a moment of heavy censorship by the French government. Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (1803–1847), called Grandville, created the series in 1829 and would go on to produce satirical prints for French periodicals such as "La Caricature."
"Innocence in Danger"—number 35 out of 72 prints from this series of hand-colored lithographs—is a fantastical interpretation of the relationship between the sexes. In later editions, the prints each featured a short text by various authors.
U.S. political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902) invented the idea of elephant and donkey symbols to represent Republicans and Democrats, but in this "Harper’s Weekly" cover he depicts a rabbit-headed politician. Nast was a staunch Republican in an era when the Republican and Democratic parties were the opposite of what they are today, but in the 1870s Nast grew increasingly dismayed with both political parties in the face of ascendant Democratic power.
Thomas Nast’s prints for "Harper’s Weekly" were frequently executed as wood engravings. This printmaking method became popular for reproducing images in the mid-19th century, when artists would create drawings for translation into print for professional printmakers.
To make a wood engraving, the printmaker uses an engraving tool to dig lines across the hard end grain of a woodblock. Going across the grain allows for thinner and more precise lines, because wood engraving requires only one cut to produce what appears as a “white line” in the final print. In contrast, a conventional woodblock requires four angular cuts on the side grain to produce one black line.
In the final print, the “white lines” are the engraved areas, whereas the black areas are the untouched surface of the block.
In 1878, the Democrats (which would be considered Republicans today) won majorities in both houses of Congress. Here, Thomas Nast represents the winds of change literally, impacted by shifts in political fortune for the southern United States. In particular, the artist was concerned that the U.S. government would reimburse the South for losses from the Civil War.
The figure at left, composed of cleaning implements such as brooms and dustpans, is clearly one of the "House-maids" cited in the dedication. The figure with the rolling-pin arm holding a colander is one of the "Cooks." This imaginative composition recalls earlier artists like Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who depicted anthropomorphized vegetables.
The print is an acknowledgment of people in service positions, but from an activist standpoint, it may be a critique of reducing staff to their professional function.
George Cruikshank (1792–1878) was the son of legendary satirical printmaker Isaac Cruikshank. In this hand-colored etching, the younger Cruikshank pokes fun at the stuff of gossip rags. For example, Princess Charlotte of England had recently broken off her engagement to the Prince of Orange from the Netherlands.
Princess Charlotte went on to have several romantic dalliances. Here, the jilted Prince of Orange from the Netherlands is represented as her "Dutch Toy," literally rendered as an object of amusement.
In the early 19th century, toys could be extravagant items, especially if they came from high-quality manufacturers in continental Europe. In playing with her Dutch Toy, the princess not only trivializes her paramour, she also demonstrates an insulting disdain for luxury.
George Cruikshank toyed with the relative scale of figures in this hand-colored etching from 1815. Protesters bat around diminutive members of Parliament ahead of a vote on the unpopular Corn Bill. By imposing steep tariffs on imported grain, the bill would benefit wealthy landowners to the detriment of British consumers.
In satirical prints from the 1770s, an enormous wig signified a "macaroni." The macaroni craze originated with aristocratic English dandies returning from their Grand Tours of Europe with a keen interest in their appearance and new fashions, exceeding the usual bounds of restrained English taste.
Although disparaged as conveying a persona that was effeminate, this dandy aesthetic blossomed in late-18th-century England. Print periodicals contributed to the movement's popularity by making widely available the social and sartorial codes befitting a true aesthete.
In this print by an unknown artist, a country boy-turned-city sophisticate has taken on the trappings of a "macaroni." He is all but unrecognizable to his rustic father, who pokes the wig with a rod.
Rather than accentuate the young man's features, the artist exaggerates the most-striking aspects of the costume.
This print is a mezzotint, a method of printmaking so popular in 18th-century England it was called the "English manner" of printmaking.
To make a mezzotint, the printmaker roughens a metal plate with a curved, toothed saw called a rocker. The coarse surface would appear black if printed on a sheet, but the printmaker selectively scrapes away the rough surface to create lighter areas. The more scraped away, the lighter the printed result. The plate is inked; paper is placed on it; and the plate goes through the press.
Different from etching or engraving, mezzotint has a softer appearance that registers as subtle gradations of light and shade rather than networks of lines.
Paul Gavarni (1804–1866) was a professional caricaturist who regularly published his humorous take on French society in 19th-century periodicals.
This lithograph is part of a series called "Souvenirs du Carnival (Memories of the Carnival)," featured in the periodical "La Caricature" as well as in an album of loose sheets that could be purchased separately.
The crayon-like texture of the lines in this print is typical of lithography.
The advent of lithography at the end of the 18th century allowed printmakers to make more impressions of their compositions, because the lithographic stone was less susceptible to wear than a metal plate. Lithography also took the painterly aspects of etching to the extreme, giving painters and draftsmen even greater freedom of line. It cut production costs, and the technique thrived, especially in 19th-century France.
Lithography works on the principle that oil and water do not mix. To make a lithograph, the printmaker renders the composition with greasy drawing materials onto a flat, smooth surface such as limestone. A mixture of acid and gum arabic brushed on the surface fixes the areas of the stone that were not protected by the grease-based image. When the surface is moistened, the non-protected areas retain water. Ink is rolled onto the planographic surface; the water repels the ink; and ink sticks only to the drawn image. When printed, only the oily parts of the image register as black.
Lithographs could be hand colored after printing or printed in color.
Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) skewered French society in lithographs that appeared in the leading satirical periodicals of the day. Women's fashions were of particular interest to Daumier.
Crinoline was a sturdy fabric made from horse hair and linen, but it quickly evolved into a lightweight metal cage designed to support a fashionable bell-shaped silhouette, like that of the woman at left.
"Funny Faces: Satirical Prints and Drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston" was organized by Alec Aldrich, the 2017 IFPDA Graduate Fellow at the MFAH. Special thanks go to illustrator and cartoonist Maria Heg.
This exhibition has been made possible by the International Fine Print Dealers Association.
George Cruikshank, published by Thomas Tegg, "A Dutch Toy!!! or, A Pretty Play-thing for a Young Princess!!! Huzza," 1814, etching with hand coloring, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Brown, 74.244
Published by Thomas Tegg, "Shuttlecocks and Mackerel, or Members Going to Vote on the Corn Bill," 1815, etching with hand coloring on laid paper, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Brown, 74.241
Honoré Daumier, "Danger de porter des jupons-ballons à l’époque des coups de vent de l’équinoxe," plate 383 from the series "Actualités," 1857, lithograph on newsprint, state II/III, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alvin S. Romansky in Memory of James Chillman, Jr., 72.54
Honoré Daumier, "C’est moi, qui r’grett’rai c’te mode là," plate 438 from "Actualités," 1857, lithograph, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alvin S. Romansky, 73.4
Paul Gavarni, "L’Entrée au bal. Ne Perdez pas le tête, mon cher!, Number I," from the series "Souvenirs du Carnaval," 1841, lithograph, state III/III, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of an anonymous donor, 88.297
Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (called J.J. Grandville), "Innocence en danger!, No. 35," from the series "Les Metamorphoses du Jour," 1828-29, lithograph with hand coloring, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alvin S. Romansky, 75.277
James Gillray, "Ancient Music," 1787, etching with hand coloring on paper, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alvin S. Romansky, 75.119.A
Francisco de Goya, "Hasta la muerte (Until death)," plate 55 from the series "Los Caprichos," 1799, etching, aquatint with burnishing, and drypoint on laid paper, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the Museum Collectors, 80.44
Francisco de Goya, "Si sabra más el discípulo? (Might the pupil know more?)," plate 37 from the series "Los Caprichos," 1799, etching and aquatint, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, bequest of Mrs. Eleanor Freed Stern, 93.175
William Heath, "Royal Zoological Garden," 1829, etching on wove paper, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Parker Edwards, 44.511
William Hogarth, "Characters Caricaturas," 1743, etching, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, BF.1983.5.66
William Hogarth, "John Wilkes, Esq.," 1763, engraving, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, bequest of Mrs. Eleanor Freed Stern, 93.174
Thomas Rowlandson, "Eight Studies of Heads, Including at Least One Self-Portrait," c. 1800, pencil, bister ink, and blue and gray watercolor, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, BF.1986.17
Published by R. Sayer and J. Bennett, "What is this my Son Tom," 1774, mezzotint on laid paper, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Bayou Bend Collection, Museum purchase funded by Jack S. Blanton, Jr. in honor of William J. Hill, B.2015.7
Thomas Nast, "Probabilities," from "Harper’s Weekly," 1878, wood engraving on newsprint, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Mavis P. and Mary Wilson Kelsey Collection of Thomas Nast Graphics, 89.688.3
Thomas Nast, "Manhood and Honor Should Have Hare Hearts," from "Harper’s Weekly," 1878, wood engraving on newsprint, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Mavis P. and Mary Wilson Kelsey Collection of Thomas Nast Graphics, 89.686.1.A,.B
Jusepe de Ribera, "Large Grotesque Head," c. 1622, etching on laid paper, state I/III, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning Print Fund, 97.460
Charles Williams, published by Thomas Tegg, "Implements Animated, Dedicated to the Housemaids and Cooks of the United Kingdoms," plate 2, 1811, etching with hand coloring, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Romansky, 75.122
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