Monday, July 17, 2006

David Ruggles: First Realistic Caricature of Black Political Figure

American caricature prior to the age of widespread photography and the illustrated press (1850 onward) emphasized accuracy in the delineation of features not exaggeration. The caricaturists of the day plied their trade as directors of a graphic play of their own making, placing well-known politicians and personalities in mostly naturalistic settings and putting words into their mouths to score political points. The first great American cartoonist was Edward W. Clay who worked during the 1830s and 40s mainly for H. R. Robinson, lithographer, of 52 Cortland Street, NY. Because Clay worked on 75-pound slabs of limestone, he executed his cartoons on the premises of Robinson's print emporium. This meant that he had to know Ruggles or at least know him on sight. For the cartoon to work, Clay would have drawn Ruggles (and the other principals in the Darg case) faithfully, down to the style of clothing and head wear.

The cartoon was sold in Robinson's shop and on the streets of lower Manhattan, probably for 25 cents. It is unlikely such a cartoon had a print run of more than a few 100 or that it circulated outside of the city, as was common for cartoons devoted to presidential campaigns, unless a partisan of the slavery issue sent a copy to a friend in another city. This is the first American cartoon to feature a recognizable Black personality, as opposed to a generic caricature. Other cartoons of the same period depicted officials of the new Black government of Haiti, but these tended to be crude and monkey-like, not actual likenesses.

Comments of Richard West proprietor of Periodyssey, sellers of rare periodicals and ephemera
Image is a detail of graphic in prior post showing Isaac T. Hopper, David Ruggles, and Barney Corse


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