Women in Anticlerical Caricature

Caricature is well known for satirising women and, with the introduction of censorship of political caricature from 1835, women became a popular and safe topic for caricature journals. Their habits, their bodies and their power over men are all well romanticised in the more or less satirical illustrations. However, the nineteenth century was also a period of feminisation of religion1 as the process of decatholicisation2, started in earnest in the French Revolution of 17893, was considerably more pronounced among men; women continued to hold on to their faith. They even found more personal power and social responsibility in joining a religious order and foregoing marriage with the relinquishment of all property and power to the husband that such a commitment entailed. The hold that religion continued to have over women alarmed the secular minded men who believed that the Church would use the women, and through them the children, to weaken the progress of separating the Church from the State. These concerns were reflected in the caricature journals the bulk of whose readership was the anticlerical men who felt themselves to be under threat. The caricaturists reflected the fears of their readers in their caricatures which pretended to expose the cleric’s corrupting influence in action, thereby perpetuating the myths associated with the Catholic church and the Jesuits in particular. The purpose of this article is to show some of the ways in which caricaturists turned the clergy into bogey men who preyed on women in order to weaken and reconvert to Catholicism the institution of the bourgeois family and the French Republic as the symbolic family of France.


The themes of caricatures portraying women are generally restricted to the social and private, familial spheres. Generally, women only appeared in political caricatures as allegorical figures standing for the Republic, Paris or abstract principles like truth and justice. The differences between the two are stark. The allegorical women are powerful, muscular and flawless. The ‘real’ women, while often pretty, are stereotyped in the following ways. Firstly, the foolish housewife, diminutive and subservient to her husband was a favourite of Daumier. An older woman, she rarely had much sexual appeal. She did, on the other hand, suggest the ideal of maternal devotion and domestic peace, quietly and competently caring for her household4. Gavarni, in a very different style, had much success with his lightly pornographic illustrations of loose women, Lorettes or adulterous wives, who were both beautiful and mischievous. Their influence over men through love and the heart was a central part of their appeal. It suggested a tantalising breach in men’s self control and a challenge to their virility that was both arousing and alarming. The alarm, however, was not a reaction to a genuine loss of control. The working women of the nineteenth century were typified as actresses and whores, glorified when young and beautiful but ultimately pitied and rejected as social outcasts once past the bloom of their careers and their influence over men5.

"Women citizens, it is rumoured that they are going to refuse us our right to divorce... let us stand here together in permance and save the fatherland!", caricature by Honoré Daumier in Le Charivari, 4 August 1848. Accessed at http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/charivari1848/0874?sid=c6ed75261bced9c795aac77a0531d637
“Women citizens, it is rumoured that they are going to refuse us our right to divorce… let us stand here together in permanence and save the fatherland!”, caricature by Honoré Daumier in Le Charivari, 4 August 1848. Accessed at http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/charivari1848/0874?sid=c6ed75261bced9c795aac77a0531d637.

Without the sexual appeal, this suggestion of female power was ugly and ridiculous. The bluestocking and, particularly towards the second half of the century the Feminist or New Woman, became more important as a focus for ridicule. Daring to challenge the role of housewife the patriarchal society had created for her, she was made to appear absurdly masculine, dangerously negligent of children and home and sexually deviant6. The belittling ridicule aimed at this type of woman show to some extent the normalising power of insults. Historians can interpret the expected norms of behaviour and appearance through caricatures which expose what was considered inappropriate. In the above caricature by Daumier,  Les Divorceuses, the woman speaking to the crowd appears wild and unkempt, her boney jawline jutting out in a very masculine way which strips her of her femininity and her attraction. The other women around her have bulging eyes and bosom, ridiculing in quite a different way their femininity by over-exaggerating it. The overall effect of the writhing, disorganised mass of bodies is to make these women appear utterly inappropriate in the politically active roles they have chosen to adopt. The caption, adopting the voice of the lead woman to argue that by demanding divorce the woman are saving the Patrie, ironically points out the danger to the newly formed French Republic should such a woman be given charge in politics. The woman in the centre struggling up the stairs with a baby in one arm provides a prominent reminder of the role that women should have, that of mothers and home-makers. Indeed, her gaze, which is focused on her child, is one point of stillness in a field of motion and commotion. This is the only womanly woman in the composition and the only one actively protecting the Patrie by bringing up the future generation.


Caricatures of religious women and women in the presence of members of the clergy were less common. Caricatures touching religion, along with members of the ruling family or ministers, were among the most frequent topics to be forbidden7. It is interesting to speculate for a moment what might have been the issue had this not been the case. Novels, pamphlets and articles, both satirical and serious, abounded throughout the nineteenth century presenting the threat that a religious wife or mother could have on the sanctity of the family and the Republic or the political family of France. The religiosity of women did not go unnoticed in the French political sphere which, especially after 1877, liked to see itself as secular. The faith that women had in their confessors turned them into the weakness of the Third Republic, a weakness that the Catholic Church and in particular the Society of Jesus could exploit to reconvert the French public to Catholicism and redirect its loyalty to the Pope away from the national government’s control. The literature told stories of married women or widows who were seduced by their confessors to relinquish their menfolk’s secrets or their children’s inheritance to the detriment of the family. Young girls radicalised in convent schools would abandon their families to join holy orders. Thus the convent swallowed their dowries and any hope the family may have had of making usual connections through marriage. Most often, women were presented as the victims of Jesuit or more generally Catholic political meddling. Writers like Michelet warned men to take more responsibility of their womenfolk to guard against the corrupting influence of the Jesuit confessor who threatened to sap their paternal authority8.


Caricature could not really reflect these themes in the period between 1835 and the late 1870s after the steady relaxation of censorship and liberalisation of the republican government.  In La Caricature from 1830 to early 1835, anticlerical caricatures wer a demonstration of the newfound freedom the caricaturists had after the fall of the Restoration monarchy. Catholicism was closely associated with the Bourbon family and with the ancien régime political system. The journal’s predecessor, La Silhouette, caused a scandal because of a caricature which redrew the then king Charles X as a Jesuit the year before the fall of the Bourbon monarchy9. The preferred targets of La Caricature were the aristocratic elites of the clerical hierarchy, the pope and the archbishop of Paris. When women did appear, they were used as beautiful contrasts to the ugliness of the Jesuits confessors or to embarrass the supposedly  austere and abstinent elites. Though these were ‘real’ women in the sense that they were not allegories, they were nevertheless idealised to better show off the hypocrisy and sanctimony of the clerical system.  They were not presented as threats to men but as beautiful foils to the ugly trolls and monsters that stood for the Jesuits in particular.

"God made man in his image". Caricature by Numa in La Caricature, no. 76, 12 April 1832.
“God made man in his image”. Caricature by Numa in La Caricature, no. 76, 12 April 1832.

The physical appearance of the caricature’s subjects is meant to be read like a code. The readers, well versed in the popular science of physiology could interpret the curé’s hunched back as a demonstration of his internal wickedness, associated, as this deformity was, with a decrepit, unreliable character10.


It wasn’t until later in the century when the themes of the threatened family and the gullible woman were more fully exploited. Le Grelot, more sympathetic than most papers to women’s rights, perpetuated the narrative of the clerical threat to the family. In Le Chant du Départ, the caricature as a whole is organised as a metaphor to represent France’s self-defence against the clerical onslaught. Le Grelot pays tribute to the expulsion of the Jesuit’s in 1880, celebrating a decision made in parliament to eject the unauthorised order as a dangerous threat to French unity and loyalty to the Third Republic. France here takes on symbolic significance as the national family, the women and men on the ramparts the ideal family figures. Both the mother and the daughter figures are given a voice to reject the Jesuits and the danger they represent. In the mother’s solo, she accuses the Jesuits of child abuse (“fesser” or to smack the child’s bottom) and infiltrating families as the tutor and the confessor. She is drawn in a defensive pose, protectively shielding her child’s head and body from the Jesuits’ corrupting influence on his mind and physical well-being. Her attention to “fesser” or violation of the child’s buttocks reflects the suspicion that the Jesuits were dangerous paedophiles obsessed with children’s bodies for  sexual ends.

Le Chant du Départ, by Moloch in Le Grelot, 27 June 1880, accessed at http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/grelot1880/0105?sid=c6ed75261bced9c795aac77a0531d637
Le Chant du Départ, by Moloch in Le Grelot, 27 June 1880, accessed at http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/grelot1880/0105?sid=c6ed75261bced9c795aac77a0531d637.

The young girl’s solo, in the following stanza, highlights the Jesuit’s hypocrisy as she accuses them of being unnatural for outwardly insisting on celibacy. In light of the fears that many had of their daughters being converted against their will or against the will of the family to enter into religious orders, it is significant that the young girl is chosen to voice this issue. By rejecting the vow to celibacy, she is deliberately refuting the appeal of joining a convent and so reassuring the anticlerical men in their conviction that a young woman would only willingly choose such a vocation as a result of brainwashing11. The renunciation of celibacy also had a patriotic subtext. In the aftermath of the defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, the popular opinion was that France had revealed herself to be weak and behind the great European powers of Prussia and Britain. A national campaign to build up the population meant that choosing to be celibate was equivalent to being unpatriotic.  The young girl is being used as a mouthpiece to reject the Jesuits not just on the behalf of young women but on the behalf of the country.

L’Assiette au beurre reflects the fear that gullible elderly widows would bequeath their fortunes to the Jesuits, convinced that such an act would absolve their souls and the souls of their families of sin. The tone taken by the journal targets both the religious orders and the women who are so easily taken in. Given, the anarchic, anti-establishment and socialist agenda of the paper, it is not surprising that it invites the readers to hold the wealthy bourgeois in contempt. But it also shows that the fear of clerical influence in society was still prevalent at the turn of the century. The caricatures in L’Assiette are distinctively more menacing, the clergy presented as looming spectres rather than ridiculously burlesque. This indicates the fear many had of the clerical influences over the consciences of the most vulnerable in society: the elderly and infirm. It was widely held to be true that the sick and dying most frequently turned to religion or held onto their religion more closely as they became increasingly frightened of death. In the following caricature, a Jesuit confessor sanctimoniously stands over an elderly woman, preaching the importance of trusting her estate with a religious solicitor. The irony of his piety would be obvious to the contemporary reader. It would seem to confirm their suspicions that the Jesuit was acting only to enrich his order with no interest at all in the well-being of his charge’s soul.

It is not wise of you, my dear sister, to confide your money in an irreligious solicitor. Caricature by Heidbrinck appearing in L'Assiette au beurre, 16 November 1901. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1047870v/f2.item
It is not wise of you, my dear sister, to confide your money in an irreligious solicitor.
Caricature by Heidbrinck appearing in L’Assiette au beurre, 16 November 1901.

The consequences of his duplicity and the greed of the order overall are demonstrating in the subsequent caricature, appearing on the following page of the same edition of L’Assiette. Here, presumably after the old woman’s death, the Jesuit’s handiwork is revealed to her descendants whose shock and horror indicate that they do not share their relative’s piety. The sanctimonious reassurance that the money has been invested in the religious community to save the descendants’ souls does not appear to allay their dismay. The irony of the caricature is clear: the family’s greed and disappointment to be denied their inheritance make them as bad as the Jesuits. Whereas the family members’ exaggerated expressions of dismay invites disdain and ridicule, however, the Jesuit’s caricature is more sombre and sobering. While the bourgeoisie may be ridiculed, the threat of the confessor and religious advisor is absolutely serious. For the socialist paper, this concern was probably more focused on what the Jesuits would do with their ill-gotten income. The greatest fear was that they would use it to divide the Republic, overshadow the social progress since the enlightenment with an obscurantist and reactionist doctrine and return the people’s loyalty to the Pope in Rome, an absolutist ruler.

To secure your entrance into paradise, your pious relative bequeaths her entire fortune to a religious community. Caricature by Heidbrinck appearing in L'Assiette au beurre, 16 November 1901. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1047870v/f3.item
To secure your entrance into paradise, your pious relative bequeaths her entire fortune to a religious community.
Caricature by Heidbrinck appearing in L’Assiette au beurre, 16 November 1901.

Caricatures featuring women in non-religious contexts show women as easily tamed and returned to their rightful roles as wives and mothers. It is only when they are put into a religious context that they are shown to hold a power that could have dangerous consequences for the secular patriarchy. Progressive women could be insulted and ridiculed and so safely put back in their place. They did not have the feminine charm and appeal of their more dutiful sisters. Yet it was in the domestic sphere that the clerical threat was most feared. Vulnerable, soft and gullible, these devoted wives and mothers could be persuaded that the interests of their families was best served by listening to their confessors’ advice. The caricatures reflected this looming influence, the danger of the masculine political world infiltrating and contaminating the safety and privacy of the family home. In the family, it undermined the control of the father figure and the coherence of the family. In the Republic, it undermined the unity and loyalty of the citizenry. To the anticlerical mind of the Third Republic, the Catholic Church was the last influential bastion of the ancien régime and reactionary politics. Different caricaturists took different approaches to the narrative of the encroachment of religion. Some showed idealised figures who stood up against the clergy and recognised them for their evil. Others ridiculed or pitied the victims who did not recognise the danger until too late. A similar aim, however, emerges: the caricatures are provocative, seeking to alert the readers to the latent danger and to inspire more proactive responses to counter a religious takeover. For the historian, these caricatures provide an insight into what motivated the caricaturists to draw and the narratives that inspired them. This in turn reveals most clearly which topics were preoccupying the minds of their readers to the extent that they seeped into their leisure and consumer habits.


1 Ford, pp. 4-6. Ford describes the feminisation of religion as both “the general association of Catholicism and religious practice … with the sphere of the feminine” and “the massive numbers of women who entered Catholic religious orders and congregations during the nineteenth century, in contrast to men.” p. 5.

2  Corbon, writing in 1877, made the important distinction between dechristianisation and decatholicisation. He argued that while the Catholic faith was less practiced, the people still held onto their own, spiritual forms of Christianity. See McManners, p. 18.

3Anticlericalism itself dates back as far as the Medieval period in the form of popular distrust and resentment of the clergy. Satirical texts such as Rabelais’ novels already displayed these sentiments. The philosophes of the eighteenth century continued this irreverent tradition by mocking the Catholic Church and went beyond it to target Christianity directly. It was not until the French Revolution, however, that dechristianisation became a government policy and this was interrupted by Napoleon’s concordat in 1802 until the late 1870s. For more on anticlericalism and anti-biblical caricature, see Doizy.

4 For more information on the portrayal of women in Daumier’s caricatures in particular, see Powell, Kirsten, Femmes d’esprit : women in Daumier’s caricature, (1990).

L’Assiette au beurre published some very poignant caricatures about the fate of these women, blaming the capitalist, patriarchal system for its exploitation of the poor.

6 It should be mentioned here that Le Grelot was early in its acceptance and support for feminism. Presenting feminists as both funny and powerful, they made as much fun of the men as their wives and daughters, ridiculing their inability to adapt to the situation.

7 Images, much more than the written word, was feared as a more direct medium of communication with the masses who were more likely to riot or rise up against the elites if incited by the journals. To a certain extent, dread of the power of the angry revolutionary mob was justified: the 1830 revolution is widely supposed to have been incited by the press who were angered by the increased press censorship that Charles X tried to introduce in his July Ordonnances. Yet this was mostly the work of the written, and not graphic, press. For more on censorship of caricature in nineteenth century France, see Robert Goldstein.

8 Cubitt, pp. 235-236.

9 This caricature, drawn by Philipon, earned for the journal’s director, Bellet, a fine and imprisonment; the issue itself was seized. While the precise reasons for this reaction cannot be clear (the censors were not obliged to give reasons and caricatures of the King were forbidden as much as of religious figures), the harsh treatment demonstrates the sensitivity that these subjects had for the government. See Kerr, p. 12.

10 Menon, p. 64.

11 Ford, p. 44.



  • Cubitt, Geoffrey, The Jesuit Myth: Conspiracy Theory and Politics in Nineteenth Century France, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993).
  • Doizy, Guillaume, « De la caricature anticléricale à la farce biblique », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], 134 | avril – juin 2006, mis en ligne le 18 octobre 2009, consulté le 10 octobre 2012. URL : http:// assr.revues.org/3660.

  • Ford, Caroline, Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France, (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2005).
  • Goldstein, Robert Justin, Censorship of Political Caricature in nineteenth-century France, (Kent, Kent State University Press, 1989).
  • Kerr, David, Caricature and French political culture, 1830-1848 : Charles Philipon and the illustrated press, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • McManners, John, Church and State in France, 1870-1914, (London, SPCK, 1972).
  • Menon, Elizabeth Korbinger, The Complete Mayeux: the use and abuse of a French icon, (Bern, Peter Lang, 1997).

Caricaturists versus Ultramontanism and its supporters: La Lune versus Veuillot.

Nineteenth century caricaturists sought to undermine popular respect for the figures they opposed politically or socially by ridiculing them in the public eye. Their caricatures exposed through mockery the worst side of the targeted individual, in the process making him or her appear both morally and physically disgusting. They made allusions to their target’s malicious character or behaviour by symbolically representing moral flaws through belittling physical deformity. Many caricaturists supported the opposition parties to first the Restoration and July monarchies, then the second Bonapartist empire and finally the conservative governments of the early Third Republic. They also participated in the various revolutions and anarchic movements over the nineteenth century. Their social and political enemies came from the traditionally privileged classes of the ancien régime (the aristocrats and the clergy) and the more recently elevated industrial wealth of the upper bourgeoisie and the military.

A favourite target was the Catholic Church and, in particular, the members of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits, more than any other Catholic denomination in France, were accused of desiring world domination, of being power hungry manipulators who ingratiated themselves amidst the ruling and wealthy elite to govern from behind the throne. Their strong connection to the pope and Ultramontanism also suggests an encroaching force likely to wipeout French independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope. For Republicans, the encroaching influence of the Jesuits, especially over education, also signified a threat to the progress made by the French Revolution1. More generally, the Catholic Church, through its historical links with the monarchy and the aristocracy, represented the absolutism and obscurantism of the ancien régime which, to the enlightened politicians of the nineteenth century, were the anathema of the democratic system they wanted to protect2. One particular fear inherited from the 1789 Revolution was the danger of smaller associations breaking apart the unity of the French society. The Republic was built on the ideology of a single sovereign body of citizens to replace the ancien régime sovereign united and embodied in the King. Catholic congregations like the Jesuits threatened this unity by offering an alternative identity for its votaries, dividing their allegiance from the Republic itself to the Pope in Rome3. While the Catholic Church itself was recognised as the religion of the majority of the French people, Republicans distrusted the Pope’s influence and sought to undermine the clergy’s influence in education so that the next generation of French children would be raised seeing themselves primarily as French citizens rather than Catholics.

Louis Veuillot (1813-1883) was a principal spokesman for the Catholic Church in the lay press and fought against this secularising campaign. A devout catholic after his conversion in 1838, Veuillot was greatly enamoured with Rome and the Pope4. He coordinated the Jesuit comeback and the Ultramontanist (literally ‘over the mountains’ or taking direction from the Pope) campaign against Gallicism, a French Catholic denomination entirely independent from the Pope. His mouthpiece was l’Univers, a journal of which he took over the editorship in 1840. It was suppressed in 1860 (for criticising the emperor Louis Napoléon) and relaunched in 1867 after the relaxation of press laws under the Second empire5. Through this organ, he repeatedly smeared and criticised the Republican press and, in particular, the profession of caricature as an unworthy subform of journalism.

On the 22 November 18706, Veuillot wrote a letter to Jules Favre (the vice-president and minister of foreign affairs of the government of national defence during the Prussian occupation of France 1870-1871) to complain about the rampant caricature journals insulting Pius IX (p. 311)7 and the former empress Eugénie (p. 309). In this letter, Veuillot does not just criticise caricaturists, who he calls “un drôle pétri de boue, de soif et d’envie” (p. 307), but the whole concept of caricature as a degraded form of entertainment showing the extent of moral deprivation in republican France. Caricature, as he described it, is a madman’s view of the world, one better kept behind bars in lunatic hospitals and not released to be examined in the street. Veuillot graphically explained that such a dangerous influence risked releasing “[d]’épouvantables contagions éclateraient aussitôt, qui emporteraient la police, la civilisations et le genre humain.” (p. 306). France, and Paris in particular, was thus threatened by a pernicious disease, a theme which is reinforced by his evocation of prostitutes as an example of moral depravation. He described caricature journals as wholly devoted to prostitution and pornography. They legitimised prostitution as a profession and as a moral code, making prostitutes more influential on popular morality than the Church.

It is clear in his letter that he saw the more relaxed morality presented in the caricatures as a direct threat to the pedagogical influence of the Catholic Church. As a visual medium, caricature could replace the religious iconography and architecture of the churches as an influence over the people. In the climax of his letter (coming right at the end after a long rhetorical preparation, see p. 311), he hyperbolically expressed his shock and horror that the caricaturists were allowed to insult the Pope. The attack’s the government’s honour by asking why the pope was not spared when the government was able to prevent itself and its international allies from slander. This suggested that members of government were conniving with the madmen so that they were shown in praiseworthy poses while he and his fellow Catholics suffered “le soufflet qui tue plus surement que l’épée” (p. 310).

This diatribe represents the vulnerability he felt as an ultramontane Catholic, alienated from the Republic and the society that was more or less unfavourable to renewing close ties to the Pope. Ultramontanists, as Veuillot denounces in his letter, were generally persecuted by anti-religious comments from republic’s leaders: Garibaldi, Mazini, Sénart, Jules Simon etc. (p. 312). Several attempts were made over the century to enshrine in law a perceived separation between the Jesuits and other Catholic groups8. Such persecution was seen as the victory and legacy of the 1789 revolution over the true Christian doctrine, leading to, in Veuillot’s view, the inevitable destruction of France’s moral and social fabric. Veuillot’s letter used the Prussian conquest as an example of France getting her just deserts.

Accepting caricatures, for Veuillot, ultimately meant forcing citizens to accept without protest insults widely disseminated for public mockery. These same insults, he protests, would not have gone unchallenged should they have been made to the victims’ faces. Caricaturists, he claimed, came from and were in league with “la populace” (p. 308) or the scum of the city9. The humour for which the caricaturists were proud belonged only to the sewers, so to speak, making caricatures no better than ignorant and rude graffiti. Veuillot’s grievances were probably motivated by a desire for personal as well as institutional revenge. For his criticisms, he was repeatedly target of the caricaturist André Gill (Louis-Alexandre Gosset de Guînes, 1840-1885) and the writers of the caricature journal La Lune and its successor L’Éclipse.

Possibly, he felt threatened by such ridiculing exposure before the masses, including his fellow catholics whose support he sought in his ultramontanist campaigning. He had good reason: the nineteenth century marked a boom in public consumption of and appetite for images. As the lithographic technology gradually improved to make the creation and dissemination of prints more and more accessible, enjoying caricatures became the occupation of a much wider pool of readers10. As the top line of La Lune suggests, its print runs went up to 40 000 or more. As issues of the journal were sold to reader cafes, the actual readership would probably have been much higher. Veuillot’s fears for the damage an unflattering caricature might do to his reputation were not unfounded.

Veuillot used the law to avenge the offence of being caricatured (La Lune, 21st April, 1867, no. 59), exploiting a rule which insisted that the caricaturist had to get permission from the subject to do a portrait chargé or a caricature directed at a single person. Veuillot, in an article condemning caricature as an illegitimate form of journalism11, claimed that his permission had not been adequately sought because he only gave verbal, not written consent. Despite La Lune’s defence that Veuillot had indeed given consent and the vocal backing of several left wing journals12, Veuillot successfully won his prosecution case. In fact, as Veuillot himself revealed in L’Univers, he had said, when he gave his “consent”, that he would not bring the caricaturists to court for whatever they published despite not giving them the written consent required by law. The head editor of La Lune, François Polo, was condemned to a month in prison and a 100 fr fine on the 10th May 186713. Veuillot claimed that his reason for offence was not personal but on behalf of his religion which he saw as grossly ridiculed and belittled in the caricature. For this reason, he claimed, he wanted the caricature to be banned by the censors, that they should only permit insults to his person and not to his religion.

Louis Veuillot
Figure 1: Louis Veuillot by Gill, (La Lune, no. 59, 21st April 1867, dir. F. Polo).

In the caricature of Louis Veuillot (figure 1), he has been given wings and a halo whilst taking the stance of a boxer, apparently fighting off attacks on Catholicism14. Veuillot used these props to pretend outrage that the archangels of God should be so diminished by the inclusion of a mere human being in their ranks. This was a show of mock humility that was quickly exposed as such by La Lune. The journal claimed that Veuillot was only making recourse to such formal reasons for prosecution to hide his own very personal mortification. They ridiculed him by exposing him as a hypocrite capable of making offensive criticisms but incapable of receiving the like in return. Amongst the portraits chargés in other issues of La Lune whose subjects graciously accepted the satirical attacks made on them, the pugilistic journalist appeared disarmed by the revelation that he was too sensitive to thoroughly engage in the fight.

La Lune, it its ironic comebacks, revealed the depth of the anger and sense of purpose felt by the Republican caricaturists who targeted the Catholic Church through its most vocal spokespeople. By evoking the persecution of protestants in Flandres and their response of turning the insult back on the Catholics15, the journal implied that it was assuming the historic role (“à notre tour”) of fighting religious repression and obscurantism. 

Far from accepting Veuillot’s criticism that caricature was a debased form of journalism, they assumed the condescending title he gave them (“les gens de ces choses-là”) as a badge of honour:

“Si par “ces choses-là” il entend le courage qu’il y a toujours eu, dans le Paris de M. Louis Veuillot, comme dans la Rome de Pasquine, à se moquer de ce qui est ridicule, grotesque, mesquin, vil, faux, étroit, rampant, oblique, vaniteux, insolent, brutal, hypocrite et odieux, tout en respectant ce qui est réellement respectable et en conservant dans l’exercise de cette prérogative de la santé, de l’esprit et du corps, – le rire – la mesure, el tact et le goût dont ne se départ jamais l’écrivain bien élevé, sincère jusqu’en son ironie, soucieux de sa dignité et de celle des lettres… Si, dis-je, c’est cet ensemble de qualités – ou de défauts qu’il a prétendu désigner … a raison … Nous sommes en effet LES GENS DE CES CHOSES-LA.

The criticisms levelled at Veuillot echo more general objections to hypocrisy, self-righteousness and casuistry perceived to be inherent in Catholicism. Veuillot was a greater target than most because he seemed to betray the profession of journalism by promoting an order which encouraged obscurantism and censorship. For the journalists and caricaturists still fighting against government censorship, Veuillot’s campaign threatened to undermine the Republican freedoms they were trying to protect. This sense of purpose implies that the Republican satirists and caricaturists felt themselves to be the direct descendants of the Revolutionary journalists and enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century. Veuillot, on the other hand, descended from their enemies in the privileged orders of the aristocracy and the higher echelons of the clerical hierarchy.

Imbued with this revolutionary back story, the fight between the caricaturists and Veuillot takes on a starkly black and white tone from the eye of the caricaturist. They saw the sabotage of Veuillot through ridicule as critically important, not just for their own protection from censorship and critics of their profession but for the protection of enlightenment progress and the Republic itself. Veuillot’s caricature, in which he is disfigured through pockmarks which suggest disease, is highly indicative of these fears. The pockmarks suggest the highly infectious smallpox, which in turn relates to fears of contamination, sickness and death. It is obvious that La Lune wanted Veuillot’s pockmarked nose to become a symbol for the journalist because they repeat just that part of the caricature in later issues, in defiance of the court ruling against them (see figure 2).

Nez de Louis Veuillot
Figure 2: André Gill, “This nose is wrong!” (La Lune, no. 64, 26th May 1867, dir. F. Polo). Subtitled: Ecce Homo: Here is the nose of the man. A little gilt-framed picture for the use of well-meaning people.

Thus Veuillot and the Catholics are made to appear disgusting in the analytical sense, posing a physical threat to society. The very active missionary efforts of the Society of Jesus was frequently represented metaphorically by a spreading plague16. Multiple conspiracy theories abounded, suspecting the Jesuits of planning world domination, overthrowing the Republic to reestablish absolutist power directed from afar by the Pope and generally converting French society to Jesuitism17. The caricature assumes its dual function of ridiculing the targets, so that their authority and potential to intimidate the public is lessened, and making the targets appear revolting so that the public is warned to keep away from them physically as well as intellectually.

The nineteenth century was particularly susceptible to theories suggesting that a person’s physical features could indicate their moral character or personality. Eighteenth and nineteenth century studies in physiology and comparative anatomy made fashionable explorations of social type and personality. It was believed that science had demonstrated how a person’s physical appearance were reflections of his or her intellectual and spiritual mind. Publications that broadcasted these theories were highly popular and similar discussions and explanations were frequently used by artists and writers interested in the themes of humanity and social variety (see Balzac’s La Comédie humaine)18. Readers of La Lune would be accustomed to looking for particular facial and bodily features that theorists of physiology and phrenology had listed as indicative of particular personality types. They would be easily convinced that the exaggeratedly ugly external features of the caricaturists’ targets reflected a malicious mind and intent.

The caricaturists and writers of La Lune believed they had a dual role: to entertain in the lighthearted spirit of the jester and to expose hypocrites and hidden enemies of the Republic. Their caricatures and satirical articles picked out antiliberal commentators and polemicists like Veuillot in an effort to undermine the authority of their arguments through ridicule and suggestion of ulterior, self-interested motives. Portrayal of ugliness was instrumental to convincing the readers that the caricaturist was unmasking an internal ugliness. This conviction could fuel or consolidate public suspicion that their Republic or their personal freedoms were vulnerable to attack. The caricaturists’ ridicule, so they believed, helped to empower the people through laughter to undermine the effectiveness of this attack. The caricatures prevented the authoritative statesmen and public commentators from appearing intimidating and inevitably powerful by making them laughable. It was a reminder to those in power that the sovereign power of the Republic was found in the people and not in the leaders. The polemical strategy of La Lune and other satirical journals is thus to gain popular support by making the readers believe that they are laughing at their worst social and political enemies. Consuming caricatures is thus a highly amusing form of risk-free (for the reader) revenge.


1. McMillan, James, F., ‘Remaking Catholic Europe: Louis Veuillot and the Ultramontane Project’, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, vol. 14, no. 1 (2001), pp. 112-122.

2.  This is particularly true of the more moderate Republicans who saw the new Republic of the 1870s and 1880s as being a finished product whose system would provide a trustworthy, well working government so long as it could be defended. For the more radical politicians on the Left, the Republic was only in its early stages and still needed considerable reform. See Cubitt, pp. 169-170.

3. For more information on the stakes of religion and political power in the run up and during the French Revolution, see Doyle, William, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002).

4. McMillan, James, F., ‘Remaking Catholic Europe: Louis Veuillot and the Ultramontane Project’, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, vol. 14, no. 1 (2001), pp. 112-122. See p. 115.

5. Goldstein, Robert Justin, Censorship of Political Caricature in nineteenth-century France, (Kent, Kent State University Press, 1989), p. 16.

6. Veuillot, Louis, Mélanges , 3; 5; pp. 304-313. Veuillot’s Mélanges is a compendium of the various articles, letters and miscellany by the journalist from 1842 to 1913 compiled by his nephew Eugene Veuillot. Among the writings collected here are the various commentaries and editorials published in L’Univers. Veuillot, Louis, Mélanges religieux, historiques, politiques et littéraires, (1842-1913, Paris), sourced from http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/ cb31568258d.

7. All intext page references refer to Veuillot’s Mélanges.

8. See Cubitt, pp. 165; 173.

9. Favre denied that Paris had a “populace” though Veuillot challenges him to find another name for the caricaturist industry – worse than normal scum because full of self-importance and pretended republican virtue.

10. For more information on the progress of printmaking and lithography in France, see Farwell, Beatrice, The Charged Image: French Lithographic Caricature 1816 – 1848, (Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1989).

 11. l’Univers: 28th April 1867, no. 12.

12. Le Siècle, 13 May 1867, no. 11735; Le Figaro, no. 167 (2 May 1867).

13. La Gazette des Tribunaux, no. 12496, (11 May 1867).

14. This explanation was given in a later article by the caricaturists of La Lune. This article, highly satirical in tone, suggested several other interpretations for the wings and the halo, reminding the readers that geese also have wings and that the halo could also be a ring used in a clown’s circus act. The implication is that Veuillot was actually shown jumping through hoops in an attempt to appear dignified, evoking the bad faith of the arguments made in the prosecution. A repeat of this explanation was also given by Charles Fontane in his biography of André Gill and the caricature journals he worked in, Fontane, C., Un maître de la caricature: André Gill, (Paris, Éditions de l’Ibis, 1827), p. 201.

15. La Lune, no. 61, 4 May 1867, p. 2.

16. Cubitt, p. 186.

17. Cubitt, p. 146.

18. For more on the influence of physiognomy and phrenology in nineteenth century popular culture, see Wechsler, Judith, A human comedy : physiognomy and caricature in 19th century Paris, (Chicago and London, Chicago University Press, 1982).


  • Cholvy, Gérard and Hilaire, Yves-Marie, Histoire Religieuse de la France Contemporaine, 1800-1880, (Toulouse, Éditions Privat, 1985).
  • Cubitt, Geoffrey, The Jesuit Myth: Conspiracy Theory and Politics in Nineteenth Century France, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993).
  • Devlin, Judith, The Superstitious mind: French peasants and the Supernatural in the Nineteenth Century, (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1987).
  • Fontane, Charles, Un maître de la caricature: André Gill, (Paris, Éditions de l’Ibis, 1827).
  • Ford, Caroline, Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France, (Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2005).
  • McManners, John, Church and State in France, 1870-1914, (London, SPCK, 1972).
  • McMillan, James, F., ‘Remaking Catholic Europe: Louis Veuillot and the Ultramontane Project’, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, vol. 14, no. 1 (2001), pp. 112-122.
  • Veuillot, Louis, Mélanges religieux, historiques, politiques et littéraires, (1842-1913, Paris), sourced from http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/ cb31568258d. Accessed 8 May 2016.    
  • Zeldin, Theodore, Conflicts in French Society: anticlericalism, education and morals in the nineteenth century, (London, George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1970).

laughing with disgust

This is the paper given by me at the Thinking Critically about society conference held at the University of York on the 5th of May 2016.

The fictional representation of ugliness and disgust in art plays a central role in polemical caricature. Society restricts the public display of subjects relating to the internal processes of the human body. This protects its members from regularly having to encounter their own incontrollable bestiality and inevitable mortality. It also allows the society to determine and perpetuate a hierarchy of its members in which those judged least able to hide their animality are humbled before those adept at disguising their biological reality. Disgusting images transgress these taboos and force the reader to contemplate what has been deemed disgusting by the prevailing culture. It allows artists to undermine the political hierarchy and destabilise the elite class of the dominant culture while claiming to only produce harmless fiction. Deformed and ugly characters and images enter into a shared, humorous vocabulary between the caricaturists and their regular readers from the lower classes. The humour reinforces the group identity because the initiates enjoy mocking their social superiors with like-minded individuals. This paper will review how ugliness and deformity were used and discuss the associated risks and incentives to better understand the subjective position of caricaturist as political actor and as an artist.

Nineteenth century caricaturists had an ambiguous relationship with the bourgeoisie on whom they depended both for the material of their work and for their principal readership. Though caricaturists’  social criticism could be intense, the caricaturist prepares the reader to accept it by creating a rapport through humour. Reading caricatures is turned into a visual game in which the reader is looking for hidden meaning left by the caricaturist. Caricaturists use their  irony to turn their criticism into creative insights for reimagining their world. The caricaturist adopts a jester-like persona whose silliness means he or she can deny full responsibility for the consequences that may arise from touching on political and social controversies. He or she sacrifices conventional social recognition for the particular prestige and freedom of having an opinion which has no weight, letting the caricaturist say anything and nothing about his or her peers.

Our understanding of disgust as a social emotion and how it is used greatly informs us on the importance that the ability to offend might have had for the caricaturist. Anthropologists see disgust as a preservative reaction to what might be harmful or otherwise dangerous to the social order. In nineteenth century France, this order was built on the belief that humans were intellectually sublime and able to abstract from their bodies vulnerable to change and degeneration. Reminders of the closeness between humans and their bodily nature interrupts this way of thinking with an unlimited potential for difference and change.

To restore its integrity, a society shuns discordant experiences that could change its way of thinking. A taboo vocabulary is established to identify by forced avoidance the dangerous border areas, typically nakedness and bodily functions, between the spiritual human and her earthly body. The authorities in a society teach its members to react with disgust to public displays of the human body by shaming those who transgress the barriers between public and private, the visual and the hidden. They can then tautologically use disgust as the reason that these taboos should be kept in place. This is because they want to preserve their authority from any who might go against the customs which have let them rise to the top. By controlling which behaviours and symbols of worth are valued by society, the dominant group can label those who disagree as morally disgusting and so marginalise them as a warning to the rest to remain within the same limits. Immorality becomes complexly interwoven with symbols of defilement, contamination and pollution to the extent that it appears a physical threat to society.

Despite the fear associated with transgressing taboos and indulging in “immoral” or disgusting behaviour, transgression is fascinating because it shows the possibilities that are denied by the rigid social structure. Disorder creates new opportunities, it empowers by its freedom just as order restricts by its categorising system which puts certain behaviours out of reach. In taking steps to embrace disorder, the individual, in this case the caricaturist, is empowered by the new possibilities to challenge the existing social order and offer alternatives to undermine the authorised patterns.

The nineteenth century and the advent of mechanised reproduction of images marks the beginning of a boom in the consumption of visual culture, fed by a huge public appetite for images. The satirical prints opened a window to an ever widening public into how the reader’s social peers and betters lived and allowed the reader to indulge in a socially acceptable form of voyeurism and narcissism.

A caricature by J.J. Grandville subtitled "The part was magnificent and the delight was universal". Published in La Caricature, no. 95, 30 August 1832.
A caricature by J.J. Grandville subtitled “The part was magnificent and the delight was universal”. Published in La Caricature, no. 95, 30 August 1832.

In this caricature, we see a society ball hosted by the government who is well represented both by its ministers and the King, Louis-Philippe. The implication is that this is an exclusive event to be enjoyed by the VIPs of the day belonging to circles not normally accessible to the reader. A suggestion of bad behaviour, on the right, adds to the titivation as it implies that the readers have a privileged access to the undignified side of the authorities not normally on public display.

The reader’s enjoyment is interrupted, however, by a polar opposite scene of squalid, unwashed, near naked human bodies. The pathetic ugliness of prisoners and the lower classes in general is both distasteful and menacing, exposing through visual metaphor, the dark underside of society. The caricature disorders the social order by showing what has been deliberately hidden, highlighting this breach in taboo. The purpose is to incite moral disgust, not with the prisoners but with the fawning ministers and king. The caricaturists wanted to erode the readers’ respect and thereby fear of the authorities, a campaign which lead to legal battles with the government to whom images did not come under the law of freedom of opinion and so were vulnerable to censorship. To defend themselves, the caricaturists tempered the violence of their attacks through humour, gaining popular support to back their suit against the government in the process.

Understanding how caricaturists used humour is key to understanding how they made and kept their place in society. Theorists have shown how a sense of humour depends on a pre-existing community built from shared life experiences and vocabularies that come from belonging to similar social situations. Take as an example the bourgeoisie, whose education, professional opportunities and family ethics established a common vision and expectations of the world. Caricaturists undermined this commonness by developing a specialised sense of humour with a subgroup within the community, fractioning the bourgeois identity. Their regular readers came to recognise cues where the caricaturist twisted the expected to create incongruous situations, typically involving famous political or social figures.

A caricature by C. J. Traviès subtitled "A simple and easy way to catch and tame turkeys". Published in La Caricature, no. 91, 2nd August 1832
A caricature by C. J. Traviès subtitled “A simple and easy way to catch and tame turkeys”. Published in La Caricature, no. 91, 2nd August 1832

In this caricature, Daumier has appropriated the symbols of hierarchy by distorting them or changing their meaning so that baseness represents worth while symbols of honour are associated with disgrace. A turkey, in nineteenth century slang, meant a fat and stupid glutton, a dupe and a pompous boaster. Here, members of the upper classes are transformed into turkeys, demeaning them to appear as grasping social climbers blinded by their sense of entitlement and easily tempted by the government’s corrupting bribes (like belonging to the order of the Légion d’honneur).


These cues are not necessarily explicit but depend on referring to previous caricatures and second-guessing how the caricaturist might perceive the situation referred to. Spotting and interpreting these symbols becomes a game. In learning the rules of the game, the readers establish a bond with the caricaturist that goes beyond their original social affinity. They come to appreciate, value and share the specialised ironic sense of humour. Creating this rapport is a cyclical process as the more the reader appreciates the ironic humour, the tighter the bond between reader and caricaturist and the greater the sympathy with the caricaturist’s rebellion.

This is important because the caricatures do not just vilify the dominant classes in whom their readers might easily recognise an enemy. They also present reflect back the readers’ lifestyle for critical re-examination. The readers are encouraged to laugh at themselves and their peers in grotesque versions of themselves. The grotesque represents pathetic visions of humanity, sometimes mixed with animal features, which play with reality to make the familiar absurd. The shared sense of humour creates a convivial, lighthearted atmosphere to temper any insult. Instead, the grotesque evokes pity and empathy, putting into plain sight the injustices that the dominant culture tries to hide through its moralising taboos.

The grotesque can also portray a popular re-appropriation of society.

11th January 1902 issue of L'Assiette au Beurre drawn by François Kupka
11th January 1902 issue of L’Assiette au Beurre drawn by François Kupka

In this caricature, the caricaturist exposes the unpleasant or hypocritical behaviour of this industrial baron, using this dominant class’ established symbols of defilement to portray him as both physically and morally revolting. His nakedness is only hidden by his grossly distended belly. The reader, appreciating the irony, can enjoy a moment of smug satisfaction as her moral  and social status seems to rise in proportion to her former superiors’ disgrace. The caricaturist turned this transformation into a running joke, disarming the subjects ability to avenge themselves legally by hiding the violent intention behind an innocuous desire to entertain like a court jester. In this position, caricature has the potential to empower the reader with the freedoms and alternative visions of society inspired through the reversal of order it presents.

The caricaturists who, in the nineteenth century, were typically among the middle, educated classes with significant privileges to lose, found themselves in an ambiguous social state. Illustration and caricature in particular were seen as a profession for failed academic artists despite their commercial success. This implies that caricaturists were forced to be polemical because they could not attain social recognition through their artistic talents alone. This was not the case. Nineteenth century caricaturists belonged to an artistic and creative network deeply involved in political debate and enthusiastically in support of caricature both as a political and artistic medium. The Romantic mood of the time fostered an alienation with the classical aesthetics promoted by the Académie française and looked to the grotesque and comedy as a way of expressing the unexplored potential of human creativity. To some caricaturists, particularly when the government’s pursuit of offensive political caricature was at its most fierce, the risks involved were too much and led many to abandon journalistic satire for safer options like book illustrations, children’s literature and non-combative social satire. To others, however, their ambiguity gave them social prestige and notoriety unavailable in other artistic milieu.