James Gillray's name appears in books on the history of prints, though not on the history of fine arts. Yet his pictures overflow in fine art technique and in learned allusions to great painting and great literature. Such cultivated abundance served Gillray's savage wit as he excoriated the figures of the day. One wonders that Charles James Fox or Thomas Paine never went after Gillray with a pickaxe.
An enthralling exhibition of works by the brilliant English caricaturist and printmaker is now at the New York Public Library. A good deal of the topicality of these 150-plus etchings is lost upon most modern viewers. But even if one doesn't know his Pitt from his John Bull, the Baroque exuberance of these often vibrantly colored, technically masterful pictures casts a spell. This is one of the most sheerly enjoyable shows I've seen in a long time.
Gillray was one of the big three of caricaturists of that period, with Rowlandson (who was born in the same year as Gillray) and Sayers, and he mentored the next of the greats, Cruikshank. Dealers sold these prints. The Prince of Wales was among the collectors. Gillray was born in 1756 in Chelsea. He apprenticed with an
engraver, and attended the Royal Academy, which had been founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds only in 1768. Rubens influenced Gillray, and we see much of Hogarth in these prints.
The literary historian Donald Greene, in his book "The Age of Exuberance," about the 18th century, says of Hogarth that "he adumbrated a technique of caricature that was to develop late in the century into the fantastically grotesque idiom of such masters as Rowlandson, Gillray, and Sayers, hardly surpassed in savagery and repulsiveness by Goya and Daumier. Again, innocent students who have been told of the restraint and decorum of the century are astonished, indeed appalled, when they first encounter Rowlandson's and Gillray's apocalyptic visions of human folly and degradation."
Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Gillray overlapped with Gainsborough or Robert Adam. And unlike Stuart, who as a portrait painter had to flatter his subjects, Gillray chose a medium that sold precisely because of its naughty nature. Even so, Gillray had to choose sides. Gillray might eviscerate Fox, the Whig parliamentarian who lent his support to the French Revolution, but he could not
afford to be so savage toward Pitt. (Gillray once cheekily said of the Whigs that "they are poor, they do not buy my prints, and I must draw on the purses of the larger parties.") In one of the prints here Fox is shown beheading King George III, who is being held down by the playwright Sheridan. There is nothing in the satirical art of our day that is more savage than this.
Gillray was tough on mad King George, but tougher infinitely on the excesses of the French Revolution, the difficulties with which Gillray was as quick as anyone to recognize — and attack. His wit was aimed not just at the revolution but its apologists and fellow travelers. Here is "Tommy Paine, the little American taylor, taking the measure of the Crown, for a new pair of Revolution Breeches," from 1791. In 1793, Gillray depicted the beheading of Louis XVI. In 1795, Gillray showed Pitt as Apollo in his chariot. The same year brought a fabulous parody of Wolfe's "Death of General Wolfe," with Pitt substituted for Wolfe.Two years later, Pitt is Midas, and nine years after that Pitt is Elijah, while Canning is Phaeton. The year after that has Mrs. Mary Anne Clarke, the Duke of York's mistress, as Pandora.
Not all is political. Among Gillray's best-known works are the 1805 pair "Harmony before Matrimony" and "Matrimonial Harmonics," contrasting the sweetness of courtship with the unpleasantness of family life.
And, as I say, so much here can be enjoyed apart from its topicality. For one thing, Gillray had a mastery of the human form. An 1804 print of Napoleon and the Comte de Barras peeking through a screen at the naked bodies of Josephine de Beauharnais and of Madame Therèse Tallien is quite wicked, yes, but also an example of how printmaking's gain may have been painting's loss — for how many English painters at this time could do figures as well as Gillray? But we have the prints. They're plenty good enough.
These prints were among the possibly full set of Gillray prints — more than 800 in number — collected, together with many Gillray drawings, by Samuel J. Tilden, the corporation lawyer, bibliophile, onetime New York governor, and failed presidential candidate. The pictures came to the NYPL as part of the Tilden Trust, which with the Astor Library and the Lenox Library formed the nucleus of the original NYPL, which opened on Fifth Avenue in 1911. But this is the library's first-ever exhibition of prints unto themselves.
Gillray made his last print in 1809. With failing eyesight that prevented his continuing in his art, he grew depressed. For his last six years Hannah Humphrey, his dealer, cared for him. It's about time we got to see so much of his art.
Until Jan. 29 (Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, 212-704-8646).