Friday, July 1, 2011

"Cartoons" - Substance & Shadow

John Leech (1843 Punch Magazine)

Following the vein of historical nuggets in the prior post, I once again proved to myself that you never know half of what you should, and that one can never tell where you'll end up when you start turning pages of the past. I've been researching, for reasons related to Islesford and Acadian regional history, about the Hudson River School of artists and their relationship and role with the National Park here. Also of interest is a comparatively lesser-known group called the Three Islesford Painters: Scott White, Harold Warren and Charles Edwin Kinkead, who annually exhibited watercolors in loft shows at one of the buildings (the "Blue Duck") I'll be stationed at out on Little Cranberry Island. More on these guys later.
So a new world of artsy-fartsy has been opening up, and it's also uncovered some of the lingering aftertaste of petty divisions in Fine Art - not to ever, ever be confused with Cartooning. In point of fact, I was reminded of the traditional definition of "cartooning" with regards to art history:
"Cartoon", named for the sturdy cartone paper on which they were generally executed, is usually used of working drawings, often at full scale."
The heretofore missing link between that historical usage and the more contemporary term as applied to the funnies, hinges on a piece drawn by John Leech. The venerable British publication "Punch" ran thousands of his drawings and hundreds of his cartoons over twenty-three years starting in 1841. They can be credited with "inventing the cartoon as we know it today" and one panel in particular by Leech punned on the provocative nature of the word... and a new label was born:
It was not until 1843 that the term "cartoon" was used to refer to anything but preliminary sketches for fine art. The modern use of the term was coined by the British magazine Punch, well known for its satirical drawings. At the time, the Houses of Parliament were being rebuilt after a fire, and artists were encouraged to submit preliminary drawings, or cartoons, to help select new paintings and murals. A series of drawings given the title "cartoons" (including John Leech's "Cartoon, No.1: Substance and Shadow") used sarcasm to attack the government's expenditure of money on needless opulence while the poor went hungry. The term "cartoon" stuck as a description of pictorial satire. In time, the term came to be used in reference to any form of humorous drawing, and, in the early twentieth century, to animated drawings.
As a way to help me connect with "where I'm at," this has all inspired me to begin another round of trying to ferret out some local cartoonists of yore and see what examples exist for humorous depictions of historical Maine. In the meantime, back to both the books and the drawing board.
"No one blames themselves if they don't understand a cartoon, as they might with a painting or "real" art; they simply think it's a bad cartoon." - Chris Ware


  1. Post-script: sad to see and sadder to say that one-hundred-seventy years after this panel was penned, nothing much has changed about the core issue: the mark of a good editorial... and an worse statement on society.

  2. Plus ca change...Please imagine the little French thingie under the "c" that makes it soft.

    And check out Maine Coast Fisherman for some cartoons dating back to the 1960s. Not deep history, but a while back. The Maine coast in the mid 1960s was probably close to a decade behind the rest of the country socially and culturally anyway. It was a huge shock moving to Maryland in 1967 after drifting northeastward for the three years prior to that.

  3. Thanks for the tip - I'm on it.