November 8th, 2012 § Comments Off on Caricatures § permalink

Caricature, a branch of portraiture, is much more associated with drawing and printmaking than painting and sculpture. Caricatures are humorous in nature, often affectionately playful, but they can also be merciless in their ridicule. They are generally executed rapidly, and some of the best are drawn with the fewest lines.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) – Caricature of Pope Innocent XI – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 114 x 182 mm – Leipzig

Very often the portrayed doesn’t know they’re being caricatured, and the artist wishes to keep it that way. Bernini, who was deeply religious, would not have wanted his patron Pope Innocent XI to see his caricature of him. The pope, known as a sickly man, is propped up in bed, and his ant-like head is topped by a tiara, while his bony fingers signal orders. The sheet is small, and is meant for Bernini’s amusement, and for his friends. (The artist sometimes included caricatures in the margins of his letters.)

Bernini’s drawing and a drawing such as Pier Francesco Mola’s, just below,

Pier Francesco Mola (1612 – 1666) – Caricature of a Gentleman Viewing a Painting of a Monkey – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash on laid paper – 91 x 189 mm – Louvre

must have been satisfying to do. They must have had a therapeutic effect–there’s not much an artist can overtly do to get back at a powerful and difficult patron, but they could be cut down to size in a caricature.

The brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci are often considered the first artists to create caricatures. An example of “ritrattini carichi” or small loaded portraits is just below. Annibale Carracci covered the sheet with little heads, some might be exaggerated likeness of real people, while others look like invented comic heads, the product of nervous doodling. As with much caricature,  heads are in profile allowing for the nose to be exploited to the fullest. With profile caricature, chins also get important treatment, whether exaggeratedly big or small; while with frontal caricature, the ears and eyes come into their own.

Annibale Carracci (1560 -1609) – A Series of Caricature Heads in Profile – Pen and gray-brown ink – 194 x 135 mm – British Museum

This drawing of Agostino is of mascheroni, or grotesque masks. The Carracci enjoyed crossing human and animal heads, like the ancient artists with their fauns  and satyrs. It is both amusing and disquieting. It seems like a particularly good example of grotesque heads since they are studies for gesso sculptures, the descendants of antique stucco work which came to be known as grotesque, from the subterranean grottoes where they were discovered.

Agostino Carracci (1557 – 1602) – Mascherone Studies – Red chalk – 258 x 197 mm – Albertina

The word caricature was first used in print in 1646 and ever since the 17th century, there has been a lot of discussion about what a caricature is, when the practice began, if Leonardo’s testine mostruose are caricatures or grotesques. It’s well worth reading this essay by Gombrich (link to pdf here), which discusses why caricature should be considered an invention of the late 16th century because of the growing self awareness of artists and their place in society. That may be true, but it is certainly easy to find exaggerated and comic representations of people–even real people–earlier in time. Just because we don’t know their names, does not mean they didn’t exist. The twisted, and often funny, damned in representations of the Last Judgement, Romanesque capitals with their leering heads, medieval manuscript margin drawings, and then the graffiti of hated emperors in Roman times. One can only imagine all the caricatures done on wax tablets in antiquity.

It seems logical that prehistoric man would also have found amusement in the warping of features. The sun can play atmospheric tricks making our shadow impossibly long or crushingly squat. A fire or candle’s light is usually flattering, but at the wrong angle it can grotesquely amplify features.


Jake Spencer and the Mayflower

August 17th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

Provincetown’s Mayflower Cafe is the sort of place you could order a plate of spaghetti and a cup of coffee, or a shot of rye, without the waiter questioning you with words or looks. The name comes from the Pilgrims’ ship that anchored in Provincetown’s harbor for several weeks in November and December of 1620.

The Mayflower opened in 1929, when prohibition had all but ended in Massachusetts (1930 was the official year of repeal for the state, or more properly commonwealth, and 1933 for the entire country). The restaurant now calls itself a “family restaurant.” The caricature portraits along the walls speak of an earlier clientele, of a hard drinking group that made it their home in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s.

Mayflower’s Bar Area with Jake Spencer Self-Portrait, Caricature Portrait of an Unidentified Man, and Memorial Plaque | Drawings done in charcoal on wove paper

The drawings are by Jake Spencer. Over the bar there’s a memorial plaque to the artist, reading:


1899 – 1965



The artist’s real name was Jacob Kaplun, but he used Spencer for his professional work–portraits, caricatures, illustrations, and writing. He was a summer visitor to Provincetown, spending most of the year in Greenwich Village. Minetta Tavern on MacDougal Street has caricatures by Spencer, and evidently many other bars did too. In the 12 January 1965 New York Times notice of his death, it says “He painted portraits and did caricatures of so many celebrities for ‘Village’ establishments that he would refer to one as having been “wall-papered.”

Interior of the Mayflower, with booths and Jake Spencer Caricatures

The drawings at the Mayflower are signed, Provincetown is given as the location, they’re dated, but the names of the people are missing. For Spencer’s audience it was probably so obvious who the people were, that names were unnecessary. The words “FELLOW MAN” on the plaque might be indicating that they’re just regulars, and not the celebrities of the Times notice. Or, they may be celebrities that I’m unable to recognize.

Jake Spencer | Three Caricatures | Charcoal on wove paper | Mayflower Cafe, Provincetown

There’s a big “NO SMOKING” sign inserted in the long wall of caricatures. That too looks dated. Contradicting the sign are the caricatured, puffing away on cigarettes and cigars, contributing with age, light, and leaky air conditioners to the character of the drawings.

Jake Spencer | Profile Caricature of a Man | Charcoal on wove paper | Mayflower Cafe, Provincetown

Note of 15 September 2013

L. Drapin, a relative of Jake Spencer’s, wrote pointing out a Village Voice obituary on the artist. In her email, Drapin said that he grew up on Staten Island, a fact that is missed in pieces about him. The Voice obituary lists some of Spencer’s fascinating friends. It makes one think that an exhibition should be mounted on Spencer and such colorful people as his friend Romany Marie. She owned a Greenwich Village restaurant (it relocated a number of times, but always in the Village), frequented by artists and writers, including Eugene O’Neill and Arshile Gorky.