While the caricature may not always be taken seriously as a medium, the political cartoons featured here have had the power to inspire, outrage or amuse. Here’s a list of the best political cartoons of all time, from William Hogarth’s London-set ‘Gin Lane’ and the USA’s first political cartoon to Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Join or Die’.
Hailed by British cartoonist and writer Martin Rowson as “the greatest political cartoon ever”, James Gillray’s The Plumb-pudding in Danger is typical of the Georgian-era caricaturist’s biting satire. Drawn in 1805, the cartoon depicts French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and British prime minister William Pitt greedily carving a plum pudding shaped like the world in an amusing metaphor for the leaders’ battle for geopolitical power. It has been widely pastiched by later artists including Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell.
In New Zealand-born cartoonist David Low’s Rendezvous, Hitler and Stalin genially greet each other after their joint invasion of Poland with the words “The scum of the earth, I believe?” and “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?” A cynical critique of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, the cartoon outraged Hitler to which Low responded, “No dictator is inconvenienced or even displeased by cartoons showing his terrible person stalking through blood and mud…What he does not want to get around is the idea that he is an ass, which is really damaging.”
Published on VE Day in the British newspaper The Daily Mirror, Philip Zec’s 1945 cartoon is a visual call for peace, depicting an exhausted, injured soldier offering a laurel representing victory with the caption: “Here you are – don’t lose it again!” Despite having angered Labour politician Herbert Morrison three years prior with an earlier cartoon he denounced as “worthy of Goebbels at his best”, Zec’s Don’t Lose It Again was enough to prompt the politician to apologise to the cartoonist and ask permission to republish the cartoon as part of the Labour Party’s 1945 general election campaign.
Often praised as “the father of the American cartoon”, Thomas Nast is best known for his works satirising politician William Magear “Boss” Tweed and Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine frequently accused of nepotism that Tweed led. By highlighting the so-called Tammany Ring’s corruption and cronyism, Nast is credited with influencing the negative public perception of the organisation, with considerable support lost in the USA’s 1872 election.
Published in the radical, left-wing magazine The Masses in 1916, Robert Minor’s At Last a Perfect Soldier shows a delighted army medical examiner presiding over a hulking, headless recruit – an ideal fighter for his brawn and lack of a brain. The cartoon, amongst other controversial caricatures by fellow cartoonists including Art Young and HJ Glintenkamp, prompted the US Post Office to stop delivering the magazine, citing a violation of the Espionage Act, resulting in a legal battle and the eventual closure of the publication.
Canadian-born cartoonist Barry Blitt’s 2008 cover for The New Yorker – titled The Politics of Fear and depicting then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in full Muslim garb accompanied by wife Michelle decked out in military gear – caused such outrage that thousands of readers complained while Obama’s spokesman Bill Burton denounced it as “tasteless and offensive”. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, defended Blitt saying: “The fact is, it’s nota satire about Obama – it’s a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices aboutObama.”
Eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth’s Gin Lane depicts a nightmarish scene of Londoners crazed and debauched by the evils of drinking gin – in the foreground, a gin-addled mother allows her child to fall to its death while an inebriated ballad-seller ironically sells flyers entitled “The Downfall of Mrs Gin”. Published in support of Britain’s Gin Act of 1751 – which sought to limit the consumption of spirits – Gin Lane was accompanied by a second illustration, Beer Street, which by contrast depicted happy, healthy folk responsibly enjoying the far less intoxicating brew.
Gargantua – created by French caricaturist Honoré Daumier, a fierce opponent of King Louis Philippe in 1831 – portrayed the royal as a money-guzzling incarnation of 16th-century novelist François Rabelais’ titular giant. Condemned as ‘arousing hatred of and contempt of the King’s government, and for offending the King’s person,’ the publishers of La Caricature – the satirical publication the image was intended for – were prosecuted several times while Daumier was jailed for six months at Paris’ Sainte–Pélagie prison.
Published in the aftermath of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre – during which hundreds of protestors who gathered to demand parliamentary reform were injured and a further 15 killed when cavalrymen charged the scene – The Political House That Jack Built, published by satirist William Hone and illustrated by George Cruickshank, was a radical tract denouncing the authoritarianism of the British government. An extremely popular publication based on the similarly named nursery rhyme, The House That Jack Built sold an estimated 100,000 copies between 1819 and 1820.
Following the publication of American writer and psychologist CA Tripp’s 2005 book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln – in which he suggested the president may have been homosexual – cartoonist Robert Grossman was prompted to draw his controversial cartoon Babe Lincoln, depicting him in a bustier, bloomers and high heels. Letters of outrage poured into The Nation, who published the cartoon, with readers incensed by the image’s homophobic nature and stereotyping of gay men. Grossman later issued an apology stating: “In the impoverished mental landscape of a cartoonist this is what passes for true inspiration.”
Quite possibly the most influential cartoonist of the First World War era, Dutchman Louis Raemaekers anti-German drawings had such an impact that the German government attempted to push the Netherlands to take the artist to trial for “endangering Dutch neutrality”. Although Raemaekers was never prosecuted for his cartoons, rumors surfaced that Germany had placed a bounty of 12,000 guilders for the artist, dead or alive, and he would eventually flee to London. Amongst his controversial cartoons is To Your Health, Civilization! – a critique of modern warfare in which Death toasts mankind with a goblet of blood.
American author, printer and founding father Benjamin Franklin’s cartoon Join or Die, first published in The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754, emphasized the importance of the country’s then-disjointed colonies joining together against the threat of French expansion and Native Americans. Often cited as the USA’s first ever political cartoon, the image was extremely popular and was widely reprinted throughout the colonies, becoming a symbol of colonial unity and freedom and later used again during the American Revolutionary War to encourage solidarity against the British.