Drawing From Life
introduction by kent c. boese
biographies of artists
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Introduction by Kent C. Boese

The Smithsonian Institution Libraries has a substantial collection of cartoon and caricature books. While these materials can be found in several branch libraries - such as the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Library or the National Museum of American History Library - the largest concentration is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library (AA/PG). The collection at AA/PG includes general collections, rare, and special collections titles which date from 1800. Currently numbering over 600 volumes, this growing collection has a strong focus on the works by American artists - the oldest dating to the Civil War period.

The significance and importance of cartoons and caricatures are often overlooked in preference to their humorous aspects, yet their power and pervasiveness cannot be ignored. The English cartoonist, William Hogarth (1697-1764), especially with his print series', shed light on the seedier and immoral face of London as a commentary on societal ills. The widespread popularity and distribution of Hogarth's work encouraged English lawmakers to act and address the social problems of their age.

From Hogarth's time, the power of cartoons has increasingly been used to full advantage. Artists have used them to help topple governments, imprison corrupt politicians, win elections, address societal ills, win support for wars, and to just help readers laugh at themselves. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) recognized this power when he referred to the drawings of Thomas Nast (1840-1902), and commented that Nast was one of the best recruiting sergeants the Union Army had. Nast's drawings in Harper's Weekly also assisted in Lincoln's re-election. Not surprisingly, cartoons have accompanied, chronicled, and commented on every war and election in American history.

The power and popularity of cartoons derives from a couple of elements. First, they are largely or entirely graphic. This was especially important before universal literacy and made them accessible to all who saw them, regardless of social class, race, or national origin - and this is still important today. Second, cartoons are widely distributed and easily accessible to all. The popularity they enjoy in magazines and newspapers are just as visible today as they were in the nineteenth century. Nineteenth century newspapers, in fact, recognized the popularity of cartoons and often sought to outdo each other to increase circulation. While this competition began with merely trying to publish the best cartoonists' work, it eventually led to the creation of the daily comics, the comic strip, and the use of color on Sunday.

Fortunately, cartoonists and publishers have been acutely aware of the cartoon's importance, and re-published many of the better examples of this art in book form. Were it not for their foresight, much of what we currently have would either have been lost due to the ephemeral quality of newsprint, or be known only through reproductions in microfilm. Instead, we have a rich image legacy providing modern viewers a glimpse of the important issues of the past.

Smithsonian Institution Libraries On Display
Selections of Caricatures and Cartoons from The American Art / Portrait Gallery Library Collection
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