Caricatures: The Art of Capturing Character

If you have ever been on a family holiday, it is likely that you have come across a caricature artist in the streets, offering to create stylised portraits of you and your family. The caricature is a popular style in today’s art world, and many of us will be familiar with the delightful genre. As a general definition, the caricature is an image of a real-life person (or sometimes an animal) with distorted or overly exaggerated features whilst still retaining familiarity and likeness. Caricatures can be insulting or complimentary, as they are usually created with the intention of satire, humour or sometimes ridicule and are often designed as entertainment for the spectator.

Though the term caricature itself was not introduced officially until a lot later, it is said that a form of the caricature can be found in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, who actively sought people with deformities to use as models for his work. His series of ‘grotesque heads’ from the 1490s poked fun at his subjects by characterising extreme versions of themselves. The point of this was to present an impression of a person that was more striking and compelling that a realistic portrait. Even earlier still, it has been argued that artists of the Late Middle Ages, who were drawing biomorphic animals like gargoyles, were the original caricaturists as they present similar features of the genre. The caricatures that we are more familiar with today though, would not be recognised as a genre until the 17th century. 

The word itself, derives from the Italian verb caricare, which means ‘to load’ or ‘to surcharge’ with exaggerated detail. This term seems to have been first used by G. A. Mosini ( a pseudonym, of Giovanni Antonio Massani), who published a series of 80 character engravings in 1646, titled Diverse figure al numero di ottanta (‘Eighty different figures’). A sculptor and architect of the 17th century, named Gian Lorenzo Bernini, then introduced the word caricatura into France when he travelled there in 1665. From there, the idea and practice of caricatures spread to Great Britain in the 18th century and, in the modern day, has became a broader terminology to describe character creation (both people and animals) with an exaggerated and often humorous appearance. Expanding on this, the idea of a cartoon has also become a popular form of art and entertainment, all deriving from the original caricature.

Caricatures have had a powerful significance throughout history. With the initial appearance of the genre, used to transmit messages without the need for the written word, which was particularly prevalent during a time when very few could read and write. These characters were mostly used as an insight into a satirical commentary on politics, politicians, news and current events and this is something that is still very prevalent even today. However, caricatures have developed into something more in todays society and they are not only used to convey political satire. Now, the art of creating a cartoon stylised character has become a reputable genre in itself. The skill of capturing an identifiable character whilst overdramatising certain features and removing others is now a popular and well-loved art form and hopefully will continue to bring joy to the creative community for years to come.

Artwork by Jan '22 ScrawlrBox featured artist Roots

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