By Robert Justin Goldstein

Conference of the Western Society for French History in Quebec City, november 2008.


On September 20, 1874, the French caricature journal L’Eclipse declared that, “One could, one day, write an exact history of the liberty which we enjoy during this era by writing a history of our caricatures.” This simultaneously wry, but acute, statement reflected the fact that both the existence and nature of nineteenth-century French caricature censorship was extraordinarily sensitive to the seemingly ever-changing nature of that country’s political regimes. Thus, as France transmogrified from Bonapartist dictatorship (1799-1815) to (with outside “assistance”) a constitutional monarchy, first under the Bourbon (1815-1830) and then the Orleans dynasty (1830-1848), then to a short-lived republic (1848-51), back to a Bonapartist dictatorship (1851-70) and ultimately to first a so-called “monarchist” (1870-77) and then finally to a “republican” republic (1877-), the nature of French political caricature censorship (censorship clearly overwhelmingly reflecting “moral concerns,” i.e. perceived or alleged obscenity/pornography are not dealt with here) repeatedly mirrored such shifts: caricature censorship was abolished with the change of regimes in 1815, 1830, 1848 and 1870 (and for good--at least in peacetime, in 1881, with the consolidation of the “republican republic”), and was, in the various interims, reinstated due to changes in either the regime or the political atmosphere in 1820, 1835, 1852 and 1871. Moreover, throughout the nineteenth century (using here the “historians’ definition” of 1815-1914) , the subject of caricature censorship was frequently a subject of lively political debate, and the exact nature of censorship (when it was in effect) or post-publication prosecutions (when prior censorship did not exact) typically closely reflected the changing political currents. Thus, in 1880, during one of the numerous French legislative debates on caricature censorship, deputy Robert Mitchell told his colleagues that :

Drawings which displease the government are always forbidden. Those which have gained official favor are displayed in the windows of all the bookstores, are sold in all of the kiosks. This provides a valuable indicator for the attentive observer, curious for precise information on the tastes, preferences, sentiments, hates and intentions of those who have control and care over our destines. In studying refused drawings and authorized drawings, we know exactly what the government fears and what it encourages, we have a clear revelation of its intimate thoughts.[1]

Between 1815 and 1880 about 20 French caricature journals were suppressed by the government and virtually every prominent nineteenth-century French political caricaturist either had his drawings forbidden, was prosecuted and/or was jailed, most notably perhaps the most famous caricaturist in history, Honoré Daumier, who was imprisoned for six months for his famous 1832 drawing “Gargantua” (other leading French caricaturists whose work was banned and/or who were arrested and/or jailed included Grandville, Traviès, André Gill, Pilotell, Charles Vernier, Charles Gilbert-Martin, Louis Legrand, Aristide Delannoy, Alfred Le Petit and Jules Grandjouan). No doubt the most famous harassment of caricature journals was carried out by King Louis Philippe against Charles Philipon, the editor of the two most famous nineteenth-century such outlets, La Caricature (1830-35) and Le Charivari (1832-93), during the 1830-35 period when theoretically caricature was freed from censorship; Philipon was prosecuted half-a-dozen times, convicted thrice, fined 4000 francs and jailed for 13 months. He later wrote, “I could no longer count the seizures, the arrest warrants, the trials, the struggles, the wounds, the attacks and the harassments of all types, any more than could a [carriage] voyager] count the jolts of his trip.” When the 1835 re-imposition of prior censorship forced him to close La Caricature, Philipon wrote in the final issue that “to break our [drawing] crayons has required a law made specially for us, which makes it materially impossible“ to continue.[2]

The purpose of this paper is to attempt to answer, in an admittedly preliminary way, the question, “How was the French experience with censorship of political caricature similar or different to that experienced in other major continental European countries (there was no censorship of caricature in Britain after 1695) during the nineteenth-century?” My attempt at an answer is “preliminary” in at least three ways: 1) there is far more scholarship available on nineteenth-century French caricature and caricature censorship than in other major European countries (which itself probably reflects, as discussed below, an important difference between France and elsewhere); 2) the present author can access textual materials only in English and French, which obviously poses significant constraints (however, as discussed below, the caricatures themselves are accessible regardless of “language” and provide a considerable amount of information, and, given the many English and French sources which survey European caricature, at least the basic outlines of developments in all major European countries are unquestionably available); and 3) due to limitations on space and time, only a basic outline of what is known can be presented here, as this subject unquestionably provides enough information for an entire book[3]


How nineteenth-century French political caricature censorship resembled that in other major continental European countries

In many ways, nineteenth-century French political caricature censorship resembled that in the other major continental European countries. All of these countries maintained caricature censorship for at least a major part of the nineteenth century, they were all motivated by similar concerns in maintaining and implementing political caricature censorship, the existence and nature of caricature censorship drastically affected both the number and nature of caricatures that were produced in every country, all of them abolished caricature censorship and then re-instated it at least once due to changing political developments, they all implemented the censorship (and post-publication prosecutions after its abolition) in ways that reflected their general political orientations and concerns, and caricature journals throughout Europe used similar techniques to try to evade and defy the censorship..

Political caricature was especially feared by the authorities in France and elsewhere in nineteenth-century Europe--often even more than the printed word--because visual imagery (like the theater) was accessible even to the especially feared “dark masses,” who were often illiterate, but rarely blind, and who could therefore “read” caricatures (and understand plays) even if they could not comprehend books and newspapers (just as they could understand paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows and the other extensive decorations which medieval churches so prominently featured, transforming them into what the late sixth century Pope Gregory I famously termed “bibles of the illiterate”). Moreover, imagery such as caricatures were viewed as far more powerful in impact that the printed word, to such an extent that European political authorities considered drawings (and the theater) as occupying a category of communications completely different than that represented by the printed word. The clearest evidence that caricature (and other visual imagery including theater--and subsequently the cinema) were viewed as categorically different and were feared far more than the printed word is that in many countries prior censorship of such visual sources was maintained well after prior censorship of print was abolished: thus, in France, print was never subject to prior censorship after 1822, yet caricature censorship was finally abolished only in 1881 (and theater censorship continued until 1906), while in Russia, most prior print censorship was abolished in 1865, while caricature censorship was effectively maintained (with a brief exception in 1905) throughout the entire tsarist regime.

This distinction was clearly expressed when French Minister of Justice Jean-Charles Persil, in successfully proposing the 1835 law which re-introduced caricature and theater censorship (both of which had been abolished in the aftermath of the 1830 July Revolution), explained that the 1830 constitutional ban on censorship only applies to the right to publish and have printed one’s opinions; it is the [written] press which is placed under the guarantee of the Constitution, it is the free manifestation of opinions which cannot be repressed by preventive measures. It would clearly go beyond that goal if the charter were interpreted to accord the same protection to opinions converted into actions. Let an author be content to print his play, he will subjected to no preventive measure; let the illustrator write his thought, let him publish it in that form, and as in that manner he addresses only the mind, he will encounter no obstacle. It is in that sense that it was said that censorship could never be reestablished. But when opinions are converted into acts by the presentation of a play or the exhibit of a drawing, . . . [t]hat is more than the expression of an opinion, that is a deed, an action, a behavior, with which . . .the charter is not concerned [emphasis in original].

During the legislative debate on Persil’s proposal, deputy Paul Sauzet, clearly referring to the notorious explosion of public caricatures portraying King Louis Philippe in the form of a “pear,” backed Persil on the grounds that to put an end to the “great scandals” created by the “outbursts which have profaned the art of illustration” and “everywhere” covered Parisian streets and squares with the “degrading spectacle of a mute, living revolt against the established order,” with the “most gross outrages against the king, the courts and the laws,” action was required by the “imperious commands of the necessities of public order” to end “these outrages which corrupt the spirit of the population in degrading with impunity the royal majesty.” He added that it would “force the meaning of words to consider drawings the same as opinions“ or to “establish a parallel between writings which address themselves to the mind and the illustration which speaks to the senses,” because the “vivacity and popularity of the impressions” left by the referenced caricatures created a “special danger which well-intentioned legislation must prevent at all costs.”[4]

Similar reflections of the perceived power of caricatures and other visual images were repeatedly expressed by French authorities during the nineteenth century. Thus, the French interior minister informed his prefects on September 8, 1829 that “engravings or lithographs act immediately upon the imagination of the people, like a book which is read with the speed of light; if it wounds modesty or public decency the damage is rapid and irremediable,” while the police minister told his subordinates in 1852 that “among the means employed to shake and destroy the sentiments of reserve and morality which are so essential to conserve in the bosom of a well-ordered society, drawings are one of the most dangerous,” since the “worst page of a bad book requires some time to read and a certain degree of intelligence to understand, while the drawing. . . Communicates with movement and life, so as to thus present spontaneously, in a translation which everyone can understand, the most dangerous of all seductions, that of example.” This not-so-subtle reference to the ability of drawings to communicate with “everyone” (i.e., even the illiterate) was frequently remarked upon: thus in an 1880 legislative debate, deputy Emile Villiers declared that while press freedom posed “problems and dangers,” the “unlimited freedom of drawings presents many more still,” since a drawing “startles not only the mind but the eyes” and was a “means of speaking even to the illiterate, of stirring up passions, without reasoning, without discourse.”[5]

Similar views of the particular dangers posed by caricatures can also be found (if perhaps not as frequently) in other countries (where, as pointed out below, in general caricature was not as common or as artistically well-developed). Thus, the Prussian interior minister successfully convinced King Frederick William IV to re-impose prior censorship of drawings (which the monarchy had abolished as a symbol of political liberalization shortly after his 1840 ascendancy to the throne) on the grounds that caricatures “prepare for the destructive influence of negative philosophies and democratic spokesmen and authors,” especially since the “uneducated classes do not pay much notice to the printed word” but do “pay attention to caricatures and understand them” and to “refute [a caricature] is impossible; its impression is lasting and sometimes ineradicable.” (Frederick’s decision to re-impose censorship apparently directly resulted from a caricature which depicted him as a drunken “Puss-in-Boots” seeking to vainly emulate his legendary predecessor Frederick the Great.) Similarly, late nineteenth-century German journalist Maximilien Harden, a leading critic of the authoritarian regime of Emperor Wilhelm II declared that, “No other sort of publication can have such an effect on public opinion as the illustrated satirical magazine, which appeals to the most brilliant and to the simplest mind, and, with its scornful challenge and raucous laughter, attracts attentions everywhere.” In the United States, the notoriously corrupt New York City politician William “Boss” Tweed, who was the frequent target of the brilliant caricaturist Thomas Nash during the post-Civil War period, declared, “Those damned pictures; I don’t care so much what the papers write about me--my constituents can’t read, but damn it they can see pictures!”[6]

While these comments make clear that the desire to protect the existing political, social, economic and, sometimes at least, the religious power structure, was clearly the main motivation behind nineteenth-century European caricature censorship, another common motivation throughout the continent was the fear that political cartoons might offend foreign powers. Thus, France and other European governments on numerous occasions sought to ban caricatures which they feared would endanger their foreign policy goals. Thus, during the 1870s the French government banned caricatures of some foreign leaders entirely and drawings of others without their permission, leading the journal Le Grelot to complain on December 22, 1878 that “we are free to say whatever we want--subject to the inspection of half a dozen French censors and 50 or 75 foreign ambassadors.“ In perhaps the most notorious French incident based on foreign policy considerations, the government, asserting the right to administratively ban the street sales of allegedly offensive caricatures even after the 1881 abolition of caricature censorship, imposed such a ban on the September 28, 1901 issue of L‘Assiette au Beurre, which bitterly attacked the British use of concentration camps during the Boer War and whose back-cover full-page color caricature depicted “impudent Albion“ (i.e. Britain) as a woman “mooning” the world with the features of British King Edward VII drawn upon her naked buttocks. The French street sales ban was imposed after Edward personally complained to French ambassador to London Paul Cambon, who wrote to his brother than the design was “scandalous” but displayed an “exact resemblance” to the king. The French action enormously increased interest in the issue, which eventually went through ten reprinting and sold 250,000 copies, which the journal termed a “success without precedent”; apparently in response to government pressure, each printing increasingly literally “covered up” the woman’s bottom, at first with a semi-transparent purple slip which allowed the king’s features to peek through, but eventually with a completely opaque dark blue skirt. The French authorities also banned street sales of at least threes\ other issues of L’Assiette au Beurre in 1905 alone, including one portraying Portuguese King Carlos I as a pig-like figure (November 25, 1905) and two which brutally attacked Russian Tsar Nicholas II, including a cover portray the tsar in a blood-spattered magnificent white military uniform in the aftermath of the January, 1905 “Bloody Sunday” massacre which touched off the 1905 Russian revolution.[7]

Similar actions were taken by other nineteenth-century European governments. Thus, in 1901 the German authorities confiscated an issue of the leading journal Simplicissimus which featured a cover caricature depicted a towering, obese British King Edward VII trampling Boer War concentration camp inhabitants while complaining, “This blood is splashing me from head to toe. My crown is getting filthy.” In another case involving Simplicissimus, leading caricaturist Thomas Theodor Heine was fined for a May, 1903 cartoon which depicted German diplomats as subordinate to the United States by portraying their training process as including a voyage through a large torso embellished with an American eagle, starting with their insertion into its anal cavity (of course this action may have reflected anger at criticism of the German government as well as a desire to avoid offending the United States, a motivation which, of course, only demonstrated the point of the caricature).[8]


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[1] Journal Official (JO), June 8, 1880, 6214.

[2] For general information on nineteenth-century French political caricature censorship, the reader is referred to the author’s 1989 book, Censorship of Political Caricature in Nineteenth-Century France (Kent State University Press). As this book is fully documented, and has an extensive bibliographical essay, I have generally footnoted in this paper, with regard to French caricature censorship, only specific quotations and references to material published since its appearance. Much of the same material is treated in Jean-Michel Renault, Censures et Caricatures: Les images interdites et de combat de l’histoire de la Presse en France et dans le monde (Pat à Pan, 2006), Despite the title, this volume overwhelmingly concentrates on (nineteenth-century) France; it has excellent illustrations, including (unlike my volume) many in color, but is very weak on the political context. Several recent works which focus or include considerable material on the extensive controversy over political caricature in France during the 1930s are David Kerr, Caricature and French Political Culture, 1830-1848 (Oxford University Press, 2000); Elise Kenney and John Merriman, The Pear: French Graphic Arts in the Golden Age of Caricature (Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, 1991); and Sandy Petrey, In the Court of the Pear King: French Culture and the Rise of Realism (Cornell University Press, 2005). Recent years, especially since 2000, have witnessed a literal explosion of books published (overwhelmingly) in France either focused on or touching on nineteenth-century political caricature, a number of which have appeared in connection with the 2008 two hundredth anniversary of Daumier’s birth. For reasons of space, only a few of some of the most significant of these can be listed here: Michel Dixmier, et al, Quand le Crayon Attaque: Images satiriques et opinion publique en France, 1814-1918 (Éditions Autrement, 2007); Noëlle Lenoir, La vie politique de Daumier à nos jours (Somogy, 2005); Bertrand Tillier, La Republicature: La caricature politique en France, 1870-1914 (CRNS, 1997); Bertrand Tillier, À la Charge! La caricature en France de 1789 à 2000 (Éditions de l’Amateur, 2005); Philippe Régnier, La Caricature entre République et Censure: L’imagerie satirique en France de 1830 à 1880: un discours de résistance? (Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1996); Henri Loyrette, et al, Daumier, 1808-1879 (National Gallery of Canada, 1999); Michel Melot, Daumier: L’art et la République (Belles Lettres, 2008); and Valérie Sueur-Hermel, Daumier: L’écriture du lithographe (Bilbliothêque nationale de France, 2008). On Daumier and “Gargantua,” see Elizabeth Childs, “Big Trouble: Daumier, Gargantua and the Censorship of Political Caricature,” Art Journal (1992), 26-37. For recent studies on other French caricaturists and their troubles with the authorities, see Robert Justin Goldstein, "Andre Gill and the Struggle Against Censorship of Caricature in France, 1867-1879," Journalism Monographs, 21 (Winter, 1995), 146-54, and Jules Grandjouan; Créateur de l’affiche politique illustrée en France (Somogy, 2001). For an excellent collection of caricatures published by a journal which frequently encountered difficulties with the authorities during the pre-World War I period, see L’Assiette au beurre (1901-1912); L’Age d’or de la caricature (Nuites Rouges, 2007). At the time of writing, I had not yet been unable to obtain copies of two important new works on Daumier; the first issue of a journal, Cahiers Daumier (2008) and Ségolène Le Men, Daumier et la cariacture (Citadelles-Mazenod, 2008).

[3] Two particularly useful French surveys of European caricature are Bernd Bornemann, et al, La Caricature, art et manifeste du XVIe siècle à nos jours (Skira, 1974) and Laurent Baridon and Martial Guédon, L’art et l’histoire de la Caricature (Citadelles- Mazenod, 2006). A survey of French and English materials on European countries other than France is provided in my 1989 book, Political Censorship of the Arts & the Press in Nineteenth-Century Europe (MacMillan); I have therefore documented here, with regard to such countries, only direct quotations and material drawn from subsequent publications.

[4]Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860 (AP), (Paul Ducatel, 1898), 741, 744.

[5] Archives Nationales, Paris, F18 2342; JO, June 8, 1880, 6212-13.

[6] Mary Lee Townsend, Forbidden Laughter: Popular Humor and the Limits of Repression in Nineteenth-Century Prussia (University of Michigan Press, 1982), 180, 196; Ann Allen, Satire and Soceityi in Wilhelmine Germany: “Kladderadatsch” and “Simplicissimus,” 1890-1914 (Lexington, MA, 1984), 11; Moshe Carmily-Weinberger, Fear of Art: Censorship and Freedom of Expression in Art (Bowker, 1986), 157.

[7]Generally on this subject, see Robert Justin Goldstein, “Political Caricature and International Complications in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” Michigan Academician (1998), 107-21. On L’Assiette au Beurre, the leading study is Elisabeth and Michel Dixmier , L’Assiette au Beurre (Maspero, (74); on “Impudent Albion,” see Raymond Bachollet, “Satire et Propaganda, ou le destin d l’Impudique Albion,” Le Collectionneur Française (December, 1980), 14-15, (February, 1981), 15-16.

[8]There is an extensive English-language literature on Simplicissimus, with perhaps the most detailed information to be found in Allen and in Robin Lenman, “Censorship and Satire in Munich, 1890-1914, with Special Reference to Simplicissimus and the Plays of Frank Wedekind,” (Oxford University Ph.D, 1975.

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