The greatest collection of Thomas Rowlandson prints in private hands, once owned by art dealer Francis Harvey, was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City when they went up for auction in London in 1959. Now, more than half a century later, they can at last be seen, together with the museum’s other masterpieces of caricature, in an exhibition at the Met called “Infinite Jest” (closing March 4). That title, borrowed from the graveyard scene in Hamlet, where the prince contemplates the skull of the court jester, seems just right for a five-century survey of man’s folly.
But the subtitle, “Caricature and Satire From Leonardo to Levine,” is, I’m afraid, a case of misleading advertising. It implies that the display of caricatures from the twentieth century—David Levine’s century—will be treated with the same respect and thoroughness as earlier centuries. They are not. The entire twentieth century is represented by a pitifully small group: Al Hirschfeld, Joseph Simpson, the tenor Enrico Caruso, Levine and a couple of Mexican woodcut artists. Nowhere on the walls of the Met will you see William Auerbach-Levy, Isabel Bishop, Ralph Barton, Ronald Searle, Feliks Topolski, Peter Arno, David Low, Will Cotton, Pat Oliphant, Philip Burke or the unique midcentury caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias.
And it doesn’t get much better at the Leonardo end of the exhibition. We have every right to expect that in an exhibition of comic art from the turbulent sixteenth century we would see the caricatures that Protestant artists were drawing of the Pope and that Catholic artists were drawing of Martin Luther. It was, in fact, the Reformation that made an industry out of political cartooning and inspired some of Europe’s greatest artists—Dürer and Holbein, to name but two—to join in this propaganda war. Their woodcuts and engravings were distributed across Europe.
But you would barely know that the Reformation existed from viewing the walls at the Met. There is exactly one print, an engraving by Pieter van der Heyden, ripping off some images of Hieronymus Bosch, that may, perhaps, be an indictment of the excessive trappings of the Catholic Church, but it’s a far cry from the powerful, pointed political commentary that was being produced in Germany and the Netherlands at that time. A great opportunity to display the first instances of anti-clerical cartooning has been missed, and with it some of the most famous woodcuts of that period.
But when we finally arrive at the English printmakers of the Georgian period—George and Isaac Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and James Sayers—we are almost ready to forgive the Met curators everything. For we are in the presence of the most brilliant cartoons ever drawn with an etching needle. The seeming effortlessness of their draftsmanship makes us smile even before we try to get the joke. And the pigments that were used to hand-color these prints is another miracle. How have they managed to stay so vibrant and strong over two centuries? If you have only seen a Rowlandson or Gillray in reproduction, you’ll be surprised by the vividness of the color in the originals.
It’s not surprising that the British caricaturists overshadowed their contemporaries on the Continent during the eighteenth century. They had more freedom to express themselves. In fact, Hannah Humphrey’s print shop, where she sold Gillray prints that she had published, was just around the corner from the palace where the king and his family resided. It was impossible for him to take a stroll with his family and not see the scurrilous images of himself that hung in her shop window. He was not amused. And every now and then he attempted to crack down on these seditious cartoonists. At one point Gillray landed in the slammer, and Rowlandson had to hide out with some distant relatives. (Gillray effected his release by promising the Crown that in the future he would take the Tory side in all political matters, and was even put on a retainer by the king to make sure he did just that.)