A caricature is a rendered image showing the features of its subject in a simplified or exaggerated way through sketching, pencil strokes, or through other artistic drawings.
In literature, a caricature is a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.
Caricatures can be insulting or complimentary and can serve a political purpose or be drawn solely for entertainment. Caricatures of politicians are commonly used in editorial cartoons, while caricatures of movie stars are often found in entertainment magazines.
Some of the earliest caricatures are found in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, who actively sought people with deformities to use as models. The point was to offer an impression of the original which was more striking than a portrait.
Caricature took a road to its first successes in the closed aristocratic circles of France and Italy, where such portraits could be passed about for mutual enjoyment.
James Gillray’s The Plumb-pudding in danger (1805), which caricatured Pitt and Napoleon, was voted the most famous of all UK political cartoons.
While the first book on caricature drawing to be published in England was Mary Darly’s A Book of Caricaturas (c. 1762), the first known North American caricatures were drawn in 1759 during the battle for Quebec. These caricatures were the work of Brig.-Gen. George Townshend whose caricatures of British General James Wolfe, depicted as “Deformed and crass and hideous” (Snell). were drawn to amuse fellow officers. Elsewhere, two great practitioners of the art of caricature in 18th-century Britain were Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and James Gillray (1757–1815). Rowlandson was more of an artist and his work took its inspiration mostly from the public at large. Gillray was more concerned with the vicious visual satirisation of political life. They were, however, great friends and caroused together in the pubs of London.
In a lecture titled The History and Art of Caricature, the British caricaturist Ted Harrison said that the caricaturist can choose to either mock or wound the subject with an effective caricature. Drawing caricatures can simply be a form of entertainment and amusement – in which case gentle mockery is in order – or the art can be employed to make a serious social or political point. A caricaturist draws on (1) the natural characteristics of the subject (the big ears, long nose, etc.); (2) the acquired characteristics (stoop, scars, facial lines etc.); and (3) the vanities (choice of hair style, spectacles, clothes, expressions, and mannerisms).
Beside the political and public-figure satire, most contemporary caricatures are used as gifts or souvenirs, often drawn by street vendors. For a small fee, a caricature can be drawn specifically (and quickly) for a patron. These are popular at street fairs, carnivals, and even weddings, often with humorous results.
Caricature artists are also popular attractions at many places frequented by tourists, especially oceanfront boardwalks, where vacationers can have a humorous caricature sketched in a few minutes for a small fee. Caricature artists can sometimes be hired for parties, where they will draw caricatures of the guests for their entertainment.