Tag Archives: nineteenth century

Baudelaire’s theory of humour

Baudelaire was among the first to make a truly critical study on the art of caricature as an art form in itself from the artist’s point of view. His study suggests that caricature has some intrinsic worth as art. Before, during and after his time of writing (the mid-nineteenth century), art critics continued to see caricature as only a marginal art form, low-brow and beneath their contempt. Baudelaire’s extensive criticism and contemplation of caricature and its sense of humour is therefore both radical and deviously subversive. Baudelaire uses his commentary to exemplify his theory that laughter and irony stemmed from a feeling of superiority by mocking the very critics who believe themselves to be superior to caricature.1 Yet Baudelaire’s theory itself is divergent from the most popular theories of humour of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Hazlitt and Kierkegaard were all describing the essence of humour and laughter to be non-threatening incongruity between a person’s expectations and the reality before them. To them, laughing in superiority was only a partial cause for laughter and not one which was to be encouraged, for ethical reasons.2

Laughter is a mark of perceived superiority: the laugher recognises in the object of his or her humour an unconscious ridiculousness which only the laugher can see. To Baudelaire, laughter is essentially satanic and so natural to humans who defiantly mark their difference to animals by stating their superiority to them. Laughter and particularly irony requires this feeling of superiority while not realising that, by laughing, the laugher is being ridiculous and opening him or herself to be an object for another’s ridicule. This self-ignorance blinds the person to their essential duality. While s/he may feel superior to some fellow humans and animals, s/he is always inferior to the absolute. The wise do not laugh because they are aware of the danger laughter entails. They see in the laughing object a being who is out of control and so avoid this state, choosing only to laugh quietly, prudently and, importantly, with a degree of self-control.

The comedian is a comic genius who has the key to provoking others to laugh by appearing inferior while maintaining control over the situation and so secretly being superior to the audience. This intentional display of ludicrous inferiority reflects back at the audience their own ridiculousness. The comedian encourages others to learn of their own dual superior/inferior existence and, through this, realise the latent dangers of laughter and ridicule.

Baudelaire praised in particular the English clowns of pantomimes and music halls as the epitome of the comique absoluComique absolu refers to a type of comedy which is completely spontaneous, free and ultimately pleasurable. Baudelaire makes an insightful point when he writes that the source of the comedy is not in the object – the object does not laugh. It is from the laugher’s own sense of humour that the comedy arises and so is to a certain extent torn from him or her in a release of tension and control. The comique absolu comes from a feeling of superiority over nature and is expressed in a violent, exuberant laugh which consumes the laugher, making them incapable of anything else. This type of laughter is distinguished from the comique significatif which, according to Baudelaire, was a lower, less complete form of comedy.

In the comique significatif, the comedian is trying to make a moral point through humour. An object is made to appear comic through irony which is only appreciated at a distance. This comedy is not all-consuming as the comique absolu and so fails in what Baudelaire considers to be the moral imperative of comedy – to teach the audience of their own duality and essential inferiority in relation to the absolute.  In the comique absolu, the moral idea is one with the act of laughter – the comedian inspires laughter in his or her audience to make them aware of their own ridiculous. In the comique significatif, the attention is placed on an external moral idea, away from the laughing subject and so ignoring the ridiculousness of laughter itself. The audience is encouraged to feel superior over their fellow human beings rather than to perceive their dual superiority/inferiority. Because of the distance the ironic approach to an amusing object makes, the significatif comedian invites his or her audience to view the object on the same level as him or her. This means that the audience is made aware of the mechanism of the comedy and so does not understand the comedian to be in any way superior to them. This comedian is neither aware of his or her own inferiority nor capable of making his or her audience aware.

The place of the caricaturist in all this is to be the comedian – to act the fool and to show off the foolishness of others. French comedy was criticised for being too significative – Baudelaire only really admired the spontaneous comedy of buffoons, grotesques whose effortless foolishness inspires laughter where as the purpose behind caricaturists’ irony is too transparent. Of all the French caricaturists, Daumier comes closest to the real spontaneous comedy (comique absolu) because his goodnatured ironic commentary of society appears accidental. By admiring in English pantomime an example of real comique absolu, Baudelaire again diverged from his contemporaries who looked down on the coarseness and clumsiness of English clowns when compared to the refinement and delicateness of the French mime, Deburau.4 To Baudelaire, Deburau was too obviously staged and so significative. His comedy could not teach the audience of the inherent inferiority in laughter – too much attention is placed on the significance behind the irony. Audience is on a par, sharing in the irony and so revelling in their perceived superiority whilst ignoring the ridiculousness of their laughter. Similarly with the French caricaturists, the political messages heavily underlined through their grotesque reconstructions of the caricatured subjects drew the readers’ attention away from their own state as laughers to more thoroughly ridicule the targets.



  1. Maclnnes, John W., ‘Essential Laughter: Baudelaire’s De l’essence du rire’, French Forum, Vol. 12, No. 1 (January 1987), pp. 55-64, published by: University of Nebraska Press, stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40551324. Accessed: 29-12-2015. 
  2. See Morreall for a full overview of the various theories of humour running contemporary to Baudelaire.
  3. For more information and for a thorough interpretation of Baudelaire’s critique of caricature and comedy, see Michele Hannoosh.
  4. For more information on Deburau and the imagery of the French mime, see Judith Welscher.


  • Beaudelaire, Charles, Variétés critiques, volume I: La Peintre romantique et volume II: Modernité et surnaturalisme, 3˚ édition, (1924), accessed at gallicalabs.bnf.fr/Bibliothèquedel’INHA on 30/06/2015.
  • Hannoosh, Michele, Baudelaire and caricature: from the comic to the art of modernity, (University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).
  • MacInnes, John, “Essential Laughter: Baudelaire’s De L’Essence du Rire” in French Forum, Vol. 12: no. 1 (January, 1987), pp. 55-64, accessed at http://www.jstor.org/stable/40551324 on 29/12/2015.
  • Morreal, John, The Philosophy of Laughter and Humour, (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1987).
  • Wechsler, Judith, A human comedy : physiognomy and caricature in 19th century Paris, (1982).

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).