A Brief Trek Through Political Cartoon History

In honor of Daumier’s birthday, we bring you a brief history of the political cartoon.

Political cartoons have become a given in media today. They allow us to laugh and think about our current political climate in ways we may have not considered before through hyperbole. So, what are the origins of political cartoons? Who has been major contributors to the art form through history?

Five Caricature Heads by Leonardo Da Vinci


Political cartoons fuse caricature and context. Caricature or the exaggerated representation of something isn’t a new concept. In fact, it can be traced clear back to the Renaissance with sketches by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo exaggerated the features in order to find  “the ideal type of deformity” in order to understand the concept of beauty. Caricature took off during the 16th through the 18th century and artists were respected if they were proficient in the art form.

Protestant Reformation

Years later, during the Protestant Reformation, people put caricature to work by using them to make fun of the Catholic Church and publishing them in newspapers and pamphlets. An example would be two woodcuts from the pamphlet “Passional Christi und Antichristi”, originally drawn by Lucas Cranach the Elders. These prints contrast the actions of Jesus Christ casting the money changers out of the Temple with the Pope writes indulgences while peasants pay tribute.

American Colonization

Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die” is considered to be the first American political cartoon. It depicts a snake with each colony representing an individual part of the snake. His hope is this cartoon would be a call for colonial cooperation against the Iroquois.

Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast gained his fame through his patriotic drawings during the Civil War. However, he made a splash in his political cartoons against William M. Tweed, who became notorious as “Boss Tweed” in New York City. He used his cartoons to expose Tweed and his organization, known as “The Ring,” which collected millions of dollars in illegal graft to the public.

Gargantua by Honore Daumier

Honoré Daumier

Honoré Daumier was a French painter and printmaker best known for his caricatures critiquing of French society and politics in the 19th-century. His most famous cartoon was of King Louis Philippe portrayed as a pear-shaped giant called “Gargantua” which later got him imprisoned.

20th Century Wartime Cartoons

During World War I, a major influential political cartoonist was Louis Raemaekers of Holland. Raemaekers extensively created cartoons that commentated on the brutality of war. He often used Kaiser Wilhelm to portray the atrocious war practices of Germany.

While it seems out of character, our childhood pal Dr. Seuss made political cartoons during World War II. For example, one cartoon critiqued America’s indifference to the Nazi threat. It’s a dark and haunting commentary that leaves an imprint on the viewer.

Modern Cartoons

Political cartoons are easily accessible online and in newspapers everywhere. They have become a staple of modern political culture. Most cartoonists use visual metaphors and caricatures to illustrate complex, nuanced, and relevant issues going on in society. For example, Matt Davies is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist that often critiques the Republican party through his illustrations.

Matt Davies cartoon

Political cartoons have seen quite a lot of change over the centuries. They’ve changed forms overtime but they maintain a single idea: to share commentary on society with the public. Some may choose to create constructive conversations with this art form. Others may use it for chaos. But one thing’s for sure, it causes us to critically think for ourselves about the world around us.

Do you have a political cartoonist you love? Feel free to share it with on social media or in a comment!

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