Caricature in France, from the Middle Ages to the present day

Caricature in France, from the Middle Ages to the present day

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In France, it was in the 18th century, but especially after the Revolution, that the art of caricature, this mode of expression with murderous graphics - although not always - will enrich the pages of the then booming press, and has since been part of the political game. The primary food of the caricature is observation. Knowing how to observe and detect the physical features from which the artist's pencil stroke will convey a completely different message ... often mocking, exaggerated, coarse, evolving, in line with the times, or even devastating and explosive when it is about touching beliefs and dogmas.

The world seen by caricature

The world seen by the caricature are: uprisings, wars, peace agreements, elections, scandals, the men and women who make this world, those who undo it, the Great of the planet, those who make it are gone, those we have been talking about for more than two thousand years, those who are one but who change their names according to the relationship of men with the Sacred, personalities, the quidam, the joys, the pleasure, the victories, life, death, etc, etc. The cartoon draws its inspiration not only from infinite fields but has found multiple ways to be relayed. Its media are numerous for maximum visibility: terracotta, press, comics, walls, plays, fables, pamphlets, puppets, websites, television, and many more. A caricature which has finally grown over the centuries since the Gauls! Indeed, why not see in the “Artix” and other “Humorix” of the moment, caricatural representations on pottery with a human body but with a monkey face?

And what about the Middle Ages, “The caricature intended to ridicule certain faults of the Church has existed for centuries: the Middle Ages, with its taste for the monstrous, gave famous examples of it, in particular in illuminated manuscripts. If these images were, most of the time, intended to make people laugh or smile, these satirical features took an increasingly humiliating, hurtful and even devastating turn at the time of the wars of religion which set Europe on fire and blood in the sixteenth century. Engravings, loose sheets, medals, objects of all kinds in fact serve as a support for the sometimes coarse, aggressive or even scatological satire, stimulating the violent struggles that erupt from all sides ”recalls the MIR, International Museum of the Reformation in Geneva, in margin of his exhibition Hell or Paradise in 2013. It is true that the disagreements between Catholics and Protestants entered into duality by the means of provocative images.

Recall that with regard to the exact definition of our subject, the Larousse encyclopedia online presents caricature as: "a grotesque representation, in drawing, in painting, etc., obtained by the exaggeration and deformation of the characteristic features of the face. or proportions of the body, with a satirical intention ”; but, an old definition of 1798 produced by the French Academy only indicated: “Painting term, borrowed from Italian. It is the same as Charge in painting. See load ”.

The word caricature as we know it today in French appeared for the first time in a work entitled "The memoirs and the unpublished journal of the Marquis d'Argenson" - written by the latter - who was Minister of Foreign Affairs under Louis XV. Collection released in 1740, it is a very precious document on the moral and political history of the moment ...

Definitions, reproductions, reactions

Before, the term caricatura and caricare fell within its Italian and Latin reality, respectively. It is from Italy, moreover, that the vision of deformation of the human face would have left at the time of the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci knows something about it, he, the keen observer, whose drawing called Grotesque is enough, moreover, to look at.

The European techniques of printing, engraving, lithography, in constant progression have favored the notoriety and the development on our old continent of the caricature. Caricature and reproduction techniques are linked. If François I authorizes its distribution, he who appreciates the arts and letters so much, it very quickly falls under censorship around 1520 ... Today, on the site of the Archives of the city of Blois, we can read this at Comment on a caricature of the king: “It is in the municipal account of Blois for 1517-1518 that the king François Ier is represented. He is shown standing there holding a glove in his right hand and stepping into a round object, which could just as easily be a ball of the palm or soule as a globe of majesty, an attribute of royal power. This last detail would give the drawing a caricature, reinforced by the legend which surmounts it, "The force of arcules" (The force of Hercules), the image of this hero of Antiquity being very early associated with the king for make it a symbol of virtue, strength and courage.

This drawing is contemporary with the construction of the façade of the Lodges at the Château de Blois (1515-1524), decorated with bas-reliefs representing the labors of Hercules ”(I). However, a history buff accustomed to exchanges on the net - a certain Pierre de l'Estoile (sic) - published in September 2013 on the site a response to the Archivists: “The problem is is that the character is dressed in the fashion of the 1550s. Assuming that the dating is wrong, ..., Why would it be a drawing of Francis I? Why would this be the representation of a king? Why would this be specifically a caricature? On the document, there is nothing that identifies the character. Strictly nothing. The only inscription above the drawing: The strength of Hercules ... It is not uncommon to see this type of representation in the 16th century registers ... identification errors of this type, based on nothing, we have been collecting it with a shovel for five centuries ”.

Caricature or not, it makes people react. And this is indeed the role of satirical representation ... The latter, from Henry III in 1574 is the object of systematic destruction - Henry IV will do the same for those who dare to caricature his reign - which makes Annie Duprat say in 2000 in Societies and representations published at the Sorbonne: “In 1866, Camille Lenient, a specialist in the study of political caricature, made the following remark: Henri III, who was not a saint, was without doubt one of the most great martyrs of the satirical genre ”(II). To add just after: "We will try to verify the correctness of Lenient's remark who, despite a good knowledge of caricatures of the revolutionary period, at the very least violent towards Louis XVI considers Henri III to be the greatest victim of graphic violence. This cookie-cutter judgment can undoubtedly be qualified by a comparative study of the challenge to royal power through prints and pamphlets, both against Henry III and against Louis XVI ”.

In the 17th century, expressing oneself freely was more complicated than the myth of Sisyphus ... In fact, censorship was legalized in 1629 because of Cardinal Richelieu. Characters like Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, lieutenant general of police in Paris, who held this post for thirty years, ensures through a network of snitches that no criticism and representations on power influence the people and do not be published. And the cartoons in the first place. During this century, on the other hand, satire examines mores and the bourgeoisie. The behavior of the company is described not in the form of drawings but in the form of text. In poetry, Jean de La Fontaine, taking an example from the fabulists of Antiquity, offers moralizing tales where he stages animals ... instead of men. He can thus freely pass his messages and observations. His creativity coupled with subtlety does not place him under the yoke of censors.

Molière, for his part, draws up in his comedies of manners, tasty portraits on the so-called "good society", on the "round legs" of the Ancien Régime, on debauchery, on the weakness of minds and false devotees, with “Tartuffe”, “l'Avare”, “Dom Juan” for example. “Starting off as a farce, it is clear that, from 1664, he used laughter as a weapon in the service of something and against someone. With the means that are his, and are undoubtedly more effective than all the pamphlets, he tirelessly denounces the education given to girls, false science, religious intolerance and the scandals of good society. A committed author, Molière was also censored by the authorities: Tartuffe banned twice (in 1664 and 1667) and Dom Juan interrupted at the fifteenth performance. The cycle that one could say of denunciation ends with The Miser, and this fact deserves reflection. Everything happens as if Molière had sensed that power, when it fell from the hands of the little marquises, would be recuperated by the money men. Harpagon, under his ridiculous, announces the reign of the bourgeoisie and the deification of property. Moreover, to speak of his "dear cassette" and the money it contains, he uses the same words as the devotees imploring the Virgin and the saints: "Since you have taken me away, I have lost my support, my consolation, my joy .. ”(iii).

Vox populi cartoon

It was with the 18th century, and the questioning of the foundations of society, with the revolutionary ideas that were being put in place, as well as with the authors and thinkers fighting for freedom of expression, with this century of " Lights ”, that the caricature will be propelled. The country is weakened by a huge public debt (does that remind you of anything?), Louis XVI comes to power while the state coffers are empty. Taxes are crushing the population, there is too much inequality between the classes, and scandals (affair of the queen's necklace - which we must remember for today's generations that Marie-Antoinette is in no way the sponsor of the famous jewel, not even the king) stir up the embers of an emerging revolution. In this context, the cartoonish image returns at a gallop. A gallop carrying message, bound for the Third Estate. If the king cannot normally be targeted by the caricature (the censorship established by the Monarchy is still present), the Clergy (well-established social class) becomes a recurring target. An event will give pencil artists their freedom to act to mock the king: Varennes, June 1791. The flight and the arrest.

Anyway, the cartoon has served the revolution in information and mobilization. An obvious influence, a call to the people ...

The development of caricature was halted with the coronation of Napoleon I in 1804 under penalty of imprisonment. The designs targeting him will come from England, where he is depicted as a man with a ferocious extraterritorial appetite. For a few months, however, after his abdication in 1814, French artists again cut their faces to give satire on several media. Then comes the Restoration “this curious period of transition, which the paintings of Paris, by Jean-Henry Marlet, engraver and draftsman, show us with its types, manners and customs ... Galleries of picturesque characters above all, where they take place the boules players, the rat poison merchant, ..., the dog shearer at Pont-Neuf, ... - particularities which will provide material for amusing and often comical prints. As a whole, this society is thirsty for ridicule, for grotesque and above all for laughter, for that big and fat laughter, bequeathed by the deceased regime, of which it is far from refusing the succession ”(IV).

Caricature in France: Philipon, Daumier, Gill, and the others ...

The rebirth of caricature will come with the July Monarchy in 1830. The liberal revolution brought Louis-Philippe to power. On August 7 of this year, all the convictions for political offenses are canceled for the press, it is said that "the French then have the right to publish and have their opinions printed in accordance with the laws, ..., censorship can never be re-established ”(V). A few months later, the king not supporting any more to see all these drawings which mock him, a new law passes to repress the variations! It is forbidden to reproduce the face of Louis-Philippe ... But the imagination of press people is great, suddenly from 1831, the king will be represented by a pear-shaped head! “At that time Charles Philipon and Balzac (who had met at a printer a few years earlier) joined forces to found a new newspaper: La caricature. They are both thirty years old, and have already collaborated on “La Silhouette”, one of the first periodicals in France to have associated image and text. Balzac and Philipon decide to use the formula by emphasizing the depth of the analyzes and the virulence of the sketches.

"The caricature" was immediately a huge success. For all of Europe, it became the Journal des Républicains: "In vain did the Public Prosecutor's Office unleash its indictments and its sleuths against it; it designed the Public Prosecutor's Office and it always had the last word!" (Pierre Larousse) In less than two years La Caricature had 7 trials and incurred four convictions. It is said that Charles Philipon spent more time in Sainte-Pélagie prison than in his office! Balzac provided some thirty articles to the newspaper, all under particle pseudonyms but which were also used by other members of the editorial staff. From 1831, Balzac immersed himself with La Peau de chagrin in the development of La Comédie humaine; he distances himself from journalism (without however absolutely renouncing it). In 1834 “La Caricature” was banned, Philipon launched “Le Charivari” where his most loyal collaborators were to be found, notably Honoré Daumier ”(VI). With more than 250 numbers and 520 lithographs, let us note that the last number of "La Caricature" dates from 1843, ten years after the law of September 1833 which re-established censorship for dramatic works, medals, drawings and lithographs.

The best cartoonists like Casati, Numa, Le Petit, Daumier are employed in these newspapers. Note that the famous "Têtes en poires" come from the newspaper, the sketches made by Charles Philipon date from November 14, 1831 during a hearing at the Assize Court, it is also good to remember that it is not not because of these sketches that Philipon is thrown in jail! These famous "pears" came out on loose sheets sold to pay a large fine of 6000 francs from Charivari. An operation to support the man who dared. The specialist Guillaume Doizy - Author of books on caricature (Marianne in all her states, Down with the skullcap!), Founder of the website wants to ensure that no confusion is made on these historical pears which are not at the origin of the measures of imprisonment of the designer.

“Under the reign of Louis-Philippe le Charivari will support 20 trials, in August 1847 the government of Guizot seizes several newspapers, with among them Le Charivari, La Réforme and La Gazette de France. The law of July 2, 1861 repeals the first paragraph of article 32 of the decree of February 17, 1852, which suppressed any newspaper having had two convictions or contraventions within two years, while the senatus-consult of July 18, 1866 prohibited any questioning of the constitution as well as the publication of petitions aimed at its modification. In May, Le Charivari like many other newspapers was warned, thus undergoing government sanctions: the Emperor did not want to hear about a possible freedom of the press ”(VII).

Let us recall all the same, that "The short revolution of 1848 may well proclaim the freedoms of the press and of assembly (at the same time as it announces the Republic and universal suffrage), in the months which follow, the strong conservative majority of the The Assembly, fearing the return of revolutionary instability, decides to close the clubs, imposes a stamp duty which increases the price of newspapers, and hardens censorship. These are the famous press laws of 1850. Louis Napoleon's coup d'état of December 2 will not give newspapers better distribution conditions. The caricature abandons politicians who are too protected to develop a more social satire, which tracks ridicule and injustice in scenes of ordinary life.

Honoré Daumier reviews the people of justice, the doctors, the school, the educational inclinations of those who were then called the "bas-blues". It also encapsulates the adventures of the swindler Robert Macaire and the police informant Ratapoil ”(VIII). During the period, when France was living under the Second Empire (1852-1870), prior authorization for broadcasting was required from people who would be targeted by a caricature ... So it was only after Napoleon III that the Powerful caricatures like those of Paul Hadol (series of the imperial menagerie where one sees for example the emperor in vulture, assimilation with the animal and its vices) make their appearance.

André Gill will try in the middle of the Second Empire, to bring his satirical newspaper "The Moon" to life, then "The Eclipse".

“As for Baudelaire, who ..., captioned around sixty caricatures for Le Salon caricatural, he wrote in his essay, On the essence of laughter and generally of the comic in the plastic arts (1855), that“ he is clear that a work on caricature [...] is a history of facts, an immense anecdotal gallery ", and he adds that such publications" are undoubtedly entitled to the attention of the historian, of the archaeologist and even of the philosopher; they must take their place in the national archives, in the biographical registers of human thought ”

Suddenly, it is interesting to look at these lines of a specialist –Gérard Pouchain- of a great French author, Victor Hugo, caricatured at all costs: “We better understand the development of caricature newspapers in the 19th century when we think of the number of regimes that have traveled through it, from the Empire to the Third Republic, passing through the reigns of Louis XVIII, Charles X, Louis-Philippe, the Second Republic and the Second Empire, not to mention moments as important as the coup d'etat of Louis Bonaparte or the Commune and the very many wars, neither the great literary currents, such as romanticism or naturalism, nor politicians (Thiers, Gambetta, Mac-Mahon, Jules Grévy. ..), artists (Mademoiselle George, Frédérick-Lemaître, Sarah-Bernardt, Liszt, Wagner ...) and writers (Chateaubriand, Vigny, Balzac, Dumas, Flaubert, Zola ...).

The designers (Daumier, Grandville, Nadar, Doré, Gill, Cham, Faustin, Le Petit, Gilbert-Martin, Pilotell, Bertall, Roubaud, Philipon, etc.) therefore have before them an immense field of action, a very broad “ comedy-human ”always renewed. Victor Hugo, a politician deeply involved in the struggles of his time, a prolific and successful writer, a true “giant of French letters”, could not be forgotten by cartoonists. If we add to the charges which represent him, those which accompany the publication of his works, their parodies, and the repetitions of his dramas, we must approach, or even exceed, a thousand ”(IX).

In the 19th century, let's come back to the one mentioned a little above, André Gill, who founded “The Red Moon” and published his drawings. Regularly its covers will be censored: July 15, 1877, October 24, November 11, and at regular intervals until December 1879 when, for lack of readers that year, the newspaper died. More and more, cartoons are requested by the vox-populi. Everybody feels close to caricature messages, and adheres to the scathing, piquant, ferocious humor of cartoonists. In 1881, a law on the freedom of the press and the cartoon was again voted.

From Chained Duck to Charlie Hebdo via Crapouillot

It follows a range of newspapers at the booksellers, such as "Le Grelot", "Le Chambard", La Charge ". A sort of Belle Epoque, for this satirical press, however, it was to perish with the great war. During these years, "The Butter Plate" with its particularly virulent line will appear, the illustrations were very elaborate. The magazine's audience corresponded to what we might call today “the sores”. 1915 saw the first birth of the “Chained Duck” for only five issues in order to respond to war propaganda. But it was not until a year later that the newspaper appeared with its defined style. 1915 is also the arrival of the “Crapouillot” created by Jean Galtier-Boissière. Imagined in the trenches and with an anarcho-pacifist orientation, which began with a few mimeographed sheets and became a major post-war journal.

Pacifist and man of the left, Galtier-Boissière has good relations with the Lica (or Licra), recalls his notice on Wikipedia. A newspaper which "tells the truths on a number of subjects" writes the founder in his "memoirs of a Parisian". And the participants in this journal come from all sensibilities. Here too, many drawings are censored; plus four issues of a special on the English were "removed from newsstands on November 6, 1931 to respond to the complaint of an outraged British embassy" explains Jean-Michel Renault in his rich book, cited in reference. During the Second World War "Le Crapouillot" ceased to appear. He later returned very politicized and leaning heavily on the far right before disappearing in 1996.

But in times of conflict, let us remember that the designers show committed soldiers, caricatures that do not distort but encourage people to follow the idea of ​​victory. On the newspaper "the illustration", the combatants are arms in hand, tidy, ready to fight. We must highlight the hairy. Then, between the two wars, it was time for reconstruction. You have to change your mind, laugh, forget. Six French dailies, including "Le Matin", "Paris-Soir", "Le Petit Parisien" hire cartoonists. It is then a multitude of small drawings that appear in the press, with more or less intentions, successful or not, but aiming to make people laugh and quickly. The line is meant to be simple. When the second war broke out, censorship returned. Under Pétain, exit the publication of the drawings. The press and their cartoonists are divided. I'll talk about pencil schism! The extremes are revealed in the authors. The Germans control everything and anti-Semitic cartoons flood the publications. We see on the walls of the capital, posters signed Michel Jacquot (1941) for an exhibition on Boulevard des Italiens, entitled "The Jew and France" with the face of a chubby man with a well curved nose, drooping lips, showing " the supposedly characteristic face of the Jew ”as evoked since the Dreyfus affair (dating from the Third Republic)!

While control commissions are rife in France and even attack the press for young people (Mickey was in turmoil!), The cartoons continue their ascent towards freedom. Under the Fifth Republic: nothing is over yet! Hara-Kiri arrived in 1960. Le Canard is well established, its readers are still impatiently awaiting its release, Charlie-Hebdo (in 1970) does social satire. The signatures of the moment are those of Gébé, Siné, Wolinski, Cabu, Reiser, Willem. But the lawsuits remain numerous in front of the publications. Censorship is present on the sketches on mores, on tendentious posters, on Unes trop caustiques (Hara-Kiri censored for its title on the death of General De Gaulle), on an album by Cabu attacking Ms. Pompidou , censorship also on the monthly Pilote, etc., etc.

Times are changing ... Valéry, François, Jacques, and the others no longer really dare to censor anything that can affect them. The fear of being ridiculed cheesy, has-been, not trendy, ridiculous, acts like a sword of Damocles above their heads. "For fear of being laughed at by everyone, no elected official would risk having a derogatory caricature banned today, but the reaction, this time, is organized by associations of various religious denominations, complexed by the irrational who instrument the cartoons to howl blasphemy in front of the press and the courts ”(X).

What is more, public opinion has changed over the past thirty years, so has the media, and television has its caricatures (“Bébêtes-Show”, “Guignols”, various parodies), technologies linked to information with the means of transmission promote buzz, etc. But the fact remains that comedians, cartoonists, will tell you that it is no longer so easy to use stripping, spicy humor. Signs, mustaches, stars, nicknames, Gods, or schoolboy allusions only made to make people smile, and many other expressions are now banned from the language of sketch artists.

Everything must be clean, smooth, without religion, without targeted sexual remarks, without worries, without this, without that, that I wonder if in the word CARICATURE today, it would not be necessary to remove the syllable "ri" which makes think to laugh of course!

Honoré DAUMIER: born in Marseille in 1808, took lessons in a drawing academy in Paris where he was noticed by Alexandre Lenoir, founder of the Musée des Monuments Français. The man is resolutely committed in favor of the republican cause. In 1828, Daumier produced his first lithographs for the newspaper "La Silhouette". In 1830, he drew his first caricatures for "La Caricature". It was in 1832 that he began his long collaboration with "Le Charivari". newspaper founded by Philipon.


- Censorship and Caricatures, forbidden and fighting images in the history of the press in France and around the world, by Jean-Michel Renault, Pat à Pan editions. An exhaustive reference on caricature. Very pleasant to read, and very rich in iconography.
- The Counter-Revolutionary Caricature, by Claude Langlois, Cnrs editions, 1988.
- Balzac and Philipon associés, major manufacturers of caricatures of all kinds, by Martine Contensou Paris Museums, Maison de Balzac, 2001.
- Daumier: The handwriting of the lithographer, by Valérie Sueur-Hermel. BNF, 2008.


(I) Blois archives

(II) Camille Lenient, La Satire en France ou la literature milante au XVIe siècle, Paris, 1866, p. 359.

(III) French comedy.

(IV) Morals and caricature in France ”p. 119, Paris, 1888, by John Grand-Carteret.

(V) Censorship and caricatures ”p.46 chronology, by Jean-Michel Renault, ed. Pat a Pan / Reporters Without Borders.




(IX) Victor Hugo by caricature ”, by Gérard Pouchain, Vice-president of the Society of Friends of Victor Hugo, Presence of literature, cndp

(X) Censorship Caricature »op.cit, back cover.

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