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Sense of Humor

Leonardo was the first artist to explore facial appearance for its own sake. It is doubtful that these drawings were caricatures of actual individuals. Rather, they represent types. Some suggest an attempt to capture the physical manifestation of an emotion and relate to figures in his paintings. Most, however, seem to arise from the imagination, with no specific source or purpose. This pair of studies was surely created in Leonardo’s studio, probably by his most faithful pupil, Francesco Melzi.

Francesco Melzi, after Leonardo da Vinci, Two Grotesque Heads, 1510s?, pen and brown ink, Gift of Mrs. Edward Fowles, 1980

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The inscription says, in essence, you can send an ass to school but it will not come back a horse.

Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Ass at School, 1557, engraving, Gift of Mrs. Jane C. Carey as an addition to the Addie Burr Clark Memorial Collection, 1958

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Jacques Callot, Gobbi and Other Bizarre Figures, 1616 /1617, pen and iron gall ink with a partial sketch in graphite at upper left, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 2003

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In Greek mythology, Silenus was the son of Pan, guardian of the young Bacchus and steady companion in his entourage. In Renaissance art he is usually depicted as an older human figure inebriated and mocked by satyrs, and thus a comical emblem of what happens when man surrenders reason to the senses. In René Boyvin’s earlier interpretation of a similar subject, hanging on this wall, Bacchus is an idealized figure, impaired but imposing. A half-century later, with a naturalism as accurate as it is funny, Ribera presents Silenus as a sloppy drunk, plied by satyrs and ridiculed even by a donkey.

Jusepe de Ribera, The Drunken Silenus, 1628, etching and engraving, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2004


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Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait in a Cap: Laughing, 1630, etching, Rosenwald Collection, 1943

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The playbill in the lower left reveals that the troupe is holding its last performance before a new law takes effect banning unlicensed theater. Much of the humor here derives from contrasts between the actresses’ roles as Roman goddesses and the earthy realities of their lives. The central figure, playing the chaste goddess Diana, strikes a pose reminiscent of classical sculptures depicting Diana as a huntress. Here the lack of bow and arrow renders the gesture meaningless and the actress uses one hand to hitch up her shift to her thighs. Contemporary associations of actresses with prostitution would have added to the irony of her role. All around Diana humble props and activities strip away the illusions of the stage: in the lower right, for example, Juno practices her lines, her book resting on a makeshift noisemaker, while another goddess mends her stocking.

William Hogarth, Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, 1738, etching and engraving, Rosenwald Collection, 1944


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This is one of a series of anamorphoses — distorted images that are intelligible only when seen reflected in a cylindrical mirror. An architect and leading scenographer in mid-eighteenth-century Venice, Costa pursued related theoretical interests, publishing a treatise on perspective. The etchings in this series represent a playful application of that study. Here two old men are stooped over tomes, one a book of geometric figures, with the drawing instruments beside it — a pun on the act of creating and viewing such images.

Giovanni Francesco Costa, Scholars Consulting Books and a Globe, c. 1747, etching, hand-colored with watercolor and gouache, New Century Fund, 2014

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This parody of Henry Fuseli’s painting, Weird Sisters (misspelled “Wierd” in the print), alludes to the bout of madness suffered by King George III (1738 – 1820). He appears as the dark and waning face of the moon, while his wife, Queen Charlotte, is shown on the bright and waxing side. Although Fuseli’s painting depicts the three witches from Macbeth, Gillray transformed the figures into three politicians — identified in this impression by an inscription in Gillray’s own hand — who watch anxiously to see whether the king’s health will return. Their gestures and tense expressions betray their fear that the king will be declared unfit to rule and the Prince of Wales, their opponent, will replace him.

James Gillray, Wierd-Sisters; Ministers of Darkness; Minions of the Moon, 1791, etching, engraving and aquatint, with publisher's hand-coloring and inscriptions by Gillray, Anonymous Gift, 2017

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Like many of the prints from Los Caprichos (caprices), this image relies in part on a pun: the Spanish word desplumar, “to pluck,” has the same connotations that “to fleece” has in English. These prostitutes have finished fleecing their customers and are shooing them out of the way in anticipation of new clients. Their baldness, a further play on desplumar, may also mean they are suffering from syphilis, which was associated with hair loss.

Francisco de Goya, Ya van desplumados (There They Go Plucked), 1797/1798, etching, burnished aquatint and drypoint [working proof, before letters], Rosenwald Collection, 1953

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Alexander Calder, The Dance, 1944, pen and ink, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1996

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Robert Crumb, Zap, no. 1, 1968, paperback with half-tone and offset lithographic illustrations, Gift of William and Abigail Gerdts, 2014

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Pop artist Richard Hamilton’s interest in household appliances takes a biting comedic turn in The critic laughs. This glossy print plays on a hand-size sculpture by Jasper Johns, The Critic Smiles (1959), in which four teeth replace the bristles of a toothbrush. (“A smile involves baring the teeth,” Johns noted.) Hamilton brings the “smiling” critic into the electric age by showing a set of dentures mounted on a Braun toothbrush, suggesting that the laughing critic is, in fact, toothless.

Richard Hamilton, The critic laughs, 1968, lithograph laminated with plastic film, screenprint, collage additions, and touches of enamel paint added by hand, Gift of William M. Speiller, 1976

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Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were televangelist superstars who rose to fame in the 1970s. By 1987, however, when Chicago artist Roger Brown created this image, their evangelical empire was crumbling amid sex and embezzlement scandals. Positioning the Bakkers on what appears to be a theater or television stage, Brown conveys the message that the coiffed and makeup-caked couple had become the stars of a personal, less-than-godly soap opera.

Roger Brown, The Jim and Tammy Show, 1987, lithograph, Gift of Bob Stana and Tom Judy, 2016

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Guerrilla Girls, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, 1988, offset lithograph, Gift of the Gallery Girls in support of the Guerrilla Girls, 2007

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