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Standards for Caricature: The Franco-Prussian War

In some ways, the creation of humour and laughter in the form of a cartoon image is a very natural process and phenomenon, suggests The American Magazine of Art (N.A, 1919). While gaining widespread recognition and print through the industrialisation of the printing press in the 19th century, caricature, particularly political caricature, has existed since the reign of Tutankhamen and the satirised carvings of his uncle. From this ancient age up until contemporary editorials, cartoonists have satirised politics down to its simplest form: crass but often hilarious drawings of politicians, political gambles, and societal norms or realities, made to sway one's opinion towards that of the cartoonist through common ridicule and laughter. However, there are some eras of caricatures that do not seem to conform to this interpretation, such as the caricatures that came from French cartoonists in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and the hectic regime of the Paris Commune that emerged. What this article seeks to understand then is threefold: the general purpose and intent of political caricature, what works were produced during the conflict, and in what ways they align or go against the standards of political caricature as understood by modern scholars and professionals of the era.

Figure 1: Le dècrotteur du roi Guillaume (La Charge, 1871).

The Purpose of Political Caricature

Writing in 1992, Sandback highlighted an important feature of cartoons and caricature that at first bears a problem for the historian; that they are "hugely bias, irreverent, far from objective or balanced, and often in poor taste" (Sandback, 1992, p. 53). As has been highlighted here and by many other scholars, caricature is definitively negative towards its target, "it laughs the subject out of court, going from natural smiles and ranging all the way to gallows humour" (Streicher, 1967). So far, then, there is the indication of two functions for caricature; humour for the audience and the ridicule of the target by often vicious satirisation. The last function proposed by Demm (1993), who focuses on WW1, is reserved for wartime, where the political caricature remains humorous but also becomes a weapon of the state in mobilising the population for war and the hope of victory. The purpose of this humorous approach is very simple, highlight the failures of individuals, governments, or groups and convince the readership of the fallibility of the target. The effectiveness of caricature in the context of the 19th century lies in the lack of printed words. In an age of limited literacy amongst the lower classes, but an increase in government, foreign, and societal affairs, political caricature was easily accessible to all and increasingly widespread (Kemnitz, 1973).

Coming to the use of these sources as historical documents, McCarthy (1977) brings to light that cartoonists are an excellent primary source, as most were satirising events they were themselves apart of, which was especially the case in the Franco-Prussian war as many of the most popular editorials were being published in Paris during the war and later siege. So whilst exaggerative in their nature, caricatures are useful as historical documents for several reasons; their existence highlights the importance of a portrayed event, displays the opinions of a certain group, and showcases the public enemies of the time (Kemnitz, 1973). To summarise; political caricature then functions as a window into events, showcasing theoretically widespread discontent through humour that, for the historian, can be highly valuable. What must be concluded next is how this applies to the case of the Franco-Prussian War.

Caricature in the Franco-Prussian War

To briefly summarise, the Franco-Prussian War was a colossal moment in global history. Prior to the conflict, the increasingly disliked leader of France, Napoleon III, had brought the nation to arms over an edited telegram by Chancellor Bismarck that created the casus belli for the war. Amidst this, the North German Federation had been formed from two previous wars with Denmark and Austria and was fast becoming a perceived threat to the balance of power globally. At its conclusion, the industrialised and militarily terrifying new nation-state of Germany was born, Europe’s traditional military superpower of France was humiliated, and the ingredients that would ferment the First World War were set in the seizing of Alsace-Lorraine. To look at caricatures in this context then is to see a process in which the French people were increasingly displeased with military defeats throughout the war, growing displeasure with the leadership of Napoleon III, and a growing sense of dread of Germany.

Taking Napoleon III as a first case, caricatures of the age are unforgiving in their depiction of him, despite a documented censorship spree in France towards unfavourable material since the 1820s (Goldstein, 1998). Writing shortly after the conclusion of the war, partially in defence of the defeated emperors move to a war footing, Walker (1871) notes that the contemporary image of Napoleon III was one of a man whose head was inflated with his ego and his head held high. This depiction is very consistent in many of the caricatures, such as in Figure 2:

Figure 2: Le brave Leboeuf, se prêparant a aller à berlin, (Duclaux, 1870).

Within Figure 2, we can see many of the traits established for a caricature; the ridicule of a political figure, the situation of the war and how he is preparing for it, and the gallows humour of such a concept in wartime. With the inflated head and accentuated features, it is easy to see the humour in such an exaggeration; the Emperor dances in full military regalia and rejoices as the country prepares to face a real military threat. Such depictions of Napoleon III continued throughout the war. Most humiliating for France and the emperor himself was the defeat and surrender of over 100,000 men at the Battle of Sedan, depicted below in Figure 3:

Figure 3: La dégringolade, (Klenck, 1870).

The subjects of ridicule increase in this particular image here, as the still satirised Napoleon is outnumbered and bested by his German counterpart Wilhelm II and his chancellor Otto von Bismarck, as they clamber for their 'place in the sun', a term popular in reference to the imperial powers. This particular image carries some humour with it; the portrayed scramble is a laughable satirisation of, as Walker (1871) points out, a man gambling the nation's image for the sake of his own. However, it is important to note a sense of darker realisation growing here within the setting this image is coming from. France, at this point, has no real standing army, their Emperor is the captive of the enemy, and German forces are marching on Paris. In comparison to Figure 2, the standardised purpose of the caricature established earlier is harder to see. While humourous in its satirisation, it is hard to believe that the image does not also invoke a feeling of dread also. However, it does succeed in pinning its subjects as fallible figures chasing the satirised idea of "a place in the sun". Both images, too, do not aid the French cause in mobilising the people in favour of their nation, instead hyper-focusing on the failures of its leadership.

Moving to the exclusively German targetted caricatures, we also see drastic changes in how the standards formulated can become harder to apply to some caricatures. As in the depictions of Napoleon III, Figure 4 is more conformative:

Figure 4: Courses de 1870: Grand Prix de Berlin (Jany, 1870).

In Figure 4, we can see the standard purposes of the caricature fulfilled in their entirety. The exaggerated, bloated, and ridiculed figures of the Kaiser in Bismarck fleeing to Berlin as the French army follows in pursuit. At the start of the war then, despite examples such as Figure 2, political caricature for the French was also fulfilling the purpose of fueling the French population with the hope of victory whilst holding to comedic aspects in order to portray a satirical worldview. However, later depictions of the Germans by the French take a very dark turn.

Figure 5: Bismarck (Duclaux, 1871).

In comparison with the earlier examples, Figure 5 has very little of the original standards left within its portrayal of the siege of Paris. For context, the siege of Paris was a long and bloody downfall, in which the Paris Commune revolt rose from idleness and bloodshed in a city that had felt much of the worst aspects of the conflict after it was shelled on the orders of Bismarck (Price, 1972) Whilst Bismarck retains those exaggerated features that make for a humorous portrayal, the rest of the image is full of dread instead of even dark humour, and can hardly be seen as a rally for the French people to fight back against the supposed monster and his pile of skulls.


Political caricatures are, in many ways, a true depiction of events in a way, exaggerated and satirised for widespread appeal and viewership that simplifies complex themes and events into a more digestible format. Whilst political caricatures of the Franco-Prussian war do contain many elements of the established standards of humour, ridicule, and a call to action in wartime, it is important to note that even from the small pool investigated in this article, there is a deviation from established ideas of what a caricature should contain. Many of the images, by nature, employ an early depiction of dark humour in such portrayals of wartime; an occasion always filled with tragedy, and ultimately many later depictions are instead windows into feelings of dread for the French nation. A much deeper dive into this particular collection would provide even more examples of the varying tonal shifts present within a body of work that goes from the merely humourous to outright hellscape. With comedy so often at the forefront of the analysis, there is a gap needing to be filled in scholarly understanding then of further uses of political caricature in this time period, with a focus on darker themes or the complete absence of humour so that a true understanding of caricatures purpose can be formulated.

Bibliographical References

Demm, E. (1993). Propaganda and Caricature in the First World War. Journal of Contemporary History, 28(1), 163–192. Goldstein, R. J. (1998). Fighting French Censorship, 1815-1881. The French Review, 71(5), 785–796. Kemnitz, T. M. (1973). The Cartoon as a Historical Source. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 4(1), 81–93. McCarthy, M. P. (1977). Political Cartoons in the History Classroom. The History Teacher, 11(1), 29–38. Price, R. D. (1972). Ideology and Motivation in the Paris Commune of 1871. The Historical Journal, 15(1), 75–86. Sandback, A. B. (1992). To the Point: Political Cartoons. The Print Collector’s Newsletter, 23(2), 53–54. Streicher, L. H. (1967). On a Theory of Political Caricature. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 9(4), 427–445. Walker, A. (1871). Moral of the Franco-Prussian War. Advocate of Peace (1847-1884), 3(28), 38–39. War and Caricature. (1919). The American Magazine of Art, 10(5), 183–185.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: La Charge. (1871). Le dècrotteur du roi Guillaume. [Caricature]. Figure 2: Duclaux. (1870). Le brave Leboeuf, se prêparant a aller à berlin. [Caricature]. Figure 3: Klenck (1870), La dégringolade. [Caricature]. Figure 4: Jany. (1870). Courses de 1870: Grand Prix de Berlin. [Caricature]. Figure 5: Duclaux. (1871). Bismarck. [Caricature].

1 ความคิดเห็น

Pork Lyly
Pork Lyly
26 เม.ย.

This is a fascinating work slice master on the political cartoons of the Franco-Prussian War! It sheds light on how these images work beyond bad jokes.

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