It could be said that all art is political in some manner or another. But political cartoons are undoubtedly the best example of this. Political cartoons first emerged during the early 1500’s in Germany with the Protestant Reformation and have continued to be relevant five hundred years later. But what are political cartoons? What is their purpose?

Political cartoons, aka editorial cartoons, are meant to inform and influence whoever reads them. It takes a stand on current political events. Political cartoons are meant to make a viewer think about the subject matter. It achieves this by using several methods: symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, analogy and irony. Symbolism
is the use of symbols to represent something like an idea or a quality. For example, A giant bag of money in a suit in a political cartoon could be symbolism for a person that the cartoonist feels is greedy or has too much money. Exaggeration is taking a certain quality about something or a person and blowing it out of
Join or Die (May 9, 1754) Benjamin Franklin
Join or Die (May 9, 1754) Benjamin Franklin

proportion like if a politician has a larger than average nose, a political cartoonist may draw that person’s nose much larger than it is in real life. Labeling is used in political cartoons to clearly label objects and allow the reader to more quickly figure out what an object is meant to represent. In the first American political cartoon ‘Join or Die’, Benjamin Franklin showed severed segments of a snake and labeled each segment with different colonies. Analogies are comparisons between two things that share something in common, so a political figure that is sneaky and conniving may be compared to a snake in an editorial cartoon. Irony is the difference between the way things are and the way things should or are expected to be. It’s frequently used by cartoonist’s to further express their feelings towards an issue in current events. All these methods are used together to get an idea or opinion
across and if used right, can be extremely effective.


The first political cartoons were created during the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Visual images were extensively used as propaganda against the church due to the high illiteracy rates. The best example of this is a booklet that was published in May 1521 titled Passional Christi und Antichristi. This was a series of 26 woodcut images designed by Lucas Cranach that compared scenes from the life of Jesus Christ to the church and how it strayed from God. The pope was
Passional Christi vnnd Antichristi (May, 1521) Lucas Cranach
Passional Christi vnnd Antichristi (May, 1521) Lucas Cranach
depicted as being the antichrist in a disguise. Images showed scenes like Jesus washing his disciples feet while on the image next to it, there would be scenes showing the pope having his feet washed. Comparing Jesus and the antichrist was not a new concept but the booklet was still wildly influential and deeply impacted the viewers.