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What is a Caricature?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A caricature is an exaggerated portrait of a person or group in either a visual or literary form. Caricature is actually quite an ancient art, with some examples of caricature being thousands of years old, ranging from the plays of Aristophanes to the editorial pages of the local paper. This art form is quite diverse, with a number of famous practitioners throughout history, ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci to Thomas Nast. You can probably find an example of caricature in your vicinity, especially if you have a paper handy, because most political cartoons take advantage of caricature.

The word is derived from the Italian caricare, which means “to load or exaggerate,” and it has been used in English since the 1500s, although examples of caricature predate the word's introduction to the English language. As the Italian root suggests, a caricature is an exaggerated portrait with a loaded or dual meaning which can get quite complex, especially in the hands of a master.

One of the distinguishing features of caricature is the tendency to overemphasize well-known features of the subject. For example, someone who is famous for having a very distinctive nose might find the size of that nose grossly exaggerated in a caricature. Teeth, lips, and ears may also be blown out of proportion in a caricature, leading some people to call the resulting image grotesque or unpleasant.

Many political cartoons use caricature to drive home a point. For example, during the Edwardian Era, critiques of the wealthy showed immensely fat people lolling on beds of money, making a satirical and sharp comment about the upper classes. Many people are at least vaguely familiar with the physical appearance of major politicians, making caricature a highly effective form of commentary, as people recognize a feature in the drawing and make the connection with the politician, even if they don't fully understand the details of the issue the caricature is highlighting.

Like other forms of satire and comic art, caricature is protected by law in many areas, along with other freedoms of expression. This can sometimes result in quite a controversy, as in 2005 when a Danish newspaper printed a number of caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), igniting a global rage among Muslims who found the images offensive. Caricature has also been a famous forum for racist stereotypes, as can be seen in cartoonish versions of African-Americans published in the United States well through the 20th century, or in images of caricatured Jewish people used in propaganda campaigns by the German government during the Second World War.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By sunshined — On Apr 28, 2012

It is not uncommon to see political caricature pictures drawn in the newspaper. I don't keep up with the political scene all that much, so sometimes I have trouble figuring out who they drew a picture of.

If it wasn't for the caption that goes along with the picture, I might not know who it was supposed to be.

I know there is a difference in quality when it comes to caricature drawings. For an artist to have their work in major newspapers, they have to be pretty good at what they do.

They must also have a pretty good sense of humor to take an image and exaggerate it the way they do.

By John57 — On Apr 27, 2012

When my daughter saw caricature pictures being drawn at a carnival, she wanted to have a picture with the two of us.

I wasn't too excited about the idea and tried to talk her into her doing it by herself. I finally gave in and both of us posed for our caricature pictures.

When we looked at the picture when he was done, I wasn't upset or offended, but I was a little bit embarrassed.

It just wasn't a very flattering picture and I hoped it wouldn't stick around very long after we got home. My daughter thought it was great though, and kept it in her room for a long time.

I don't really know what ever happened to that picture, but I hope it was thrown away a long time ago. I don't plan on ever having another one drawn of myself.

By golf07 — On Apr 27, 2012

We have an amusement park close to our home, and would make at least one trip a year there when the kids were young. Every year, my son would look for the caricature artist to have his picture drawn.

He even saved his money knowing that was one of the extra things he wanted to spend it on. It doesn't take very long for a good artist to draw a custom caricature.

We have saved all of them through the years. It is interesting to look at all of them together and see the different features that were exaggerated.

Some of them look somewhat similar and others are very different. When we had his graduation party, we displayed all of them along with his other pictures.

I think more people commented on his caricature pictures than all of the other pictures we had displayed.

By LisaLou — On Apr 26, 2012

@lighth0se33 - I have seen people react both ways when they see their finished caricature drawing. The people who are standing around watching are able to see the finished picture before the person who is paying for the caricature is.

You will often hear interesting comments or people laughing as the artist is working on the caricature. If they have friends or family who is watching this being done, you can really hear some interesting comments.

I agree if someone is sensitive about their appearance, having a personalized caricature drawn may not be a good thing. They can take just about any feature and exaggerate it to the point where some people are offended or upset.

Others take it all in stride and are quite proud of the way the look when the picture is finished.

By cloudel — On Apr 26, 2012

@lighth0se33 – I have also seen those caricature artists set up at my local monthly flea market. They make a killing there!

It seems that the kids love them the most. They get a real kick out of seeing themselves in cartoon form. My little niece even took her caricature home and colored it, since it was made of black lines on white paper, and it made her think of a page in a coloring book.

There is always a long line of young kids at his booth. I have stood and watched him at work before, and I am always amazed at how quickly he can create a caricature.

By OeKc05 — On Apr 25, 2012

It might sound surprising, but the people who draw the best caricatures are usually awesome at drawing realistic portraits, as well. They have a very good understanding of facial structure and proportions of facial features, and they take that and amplify it.

I studied art in college, and a guy in my class often doodled caricatures during art history lectures. I had a drawing class with him, too, and he could definitely do the most accurate portraits out of everyone in the room.

He went the caricature route after graduation. He still does an actual drawing now and then for extra money, but he mostly sells his caricature cartoons to newspapers and magazines.

By Oceana — On Apr 25, 2012

Celebrity caricatures are always easy to recognize. I think it's funny how an artist can take even a beautiful actress and find something distinguishing about them to focus on, making the caricature obvious.

They often make the lips huge or the cheekbones very pronounced. If someone has a cleft chin, it will be a giant “W” at the bottom of their face.

Even when the artist is obviously drawing a beautiful person, somehow, the caricature itself is not beautiful. The style is ugly by nature.

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 24, 2012

Caricature artists are always present at fairs and festivals in my town. They charge around $10 to quickly draw an exaggerated portrait of a customer, and I have seen some people become offended at the drawings.

Caricature artists really do bring out the worst in people. Someone who is sensitive about having a big nose should not ask to have their caricature drawn, nor should someone self-conscious about their big ears.

I think that somehow, these people expect an accurate self-portrait with just a larger than normal head. They need to understand what they are getting into before they request the drawing.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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