Celebrity Caricature

At the National Portrait Gallery, American Icons Revealed

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Wendy Wick Reaves, curator of prints and drawings at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, was poring through aged issues of the old Vanity Fair. Although she was researching another subject altogether, she found herself drawn to the magazine's "lively india-ink" images of famous figures.

America," at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery through August 23. Reaves is also the author of the accompanying book of the same title, published by Yale University Press.

The new breed of caricaturists working in America during the 1920s and '30s brought a distinctly pioneering approach to their subjects. Historically, caricature had served the purpose of social or political satire, probing the deficiencies, or corrupt depths, of a particular public personality.

Mae West, H. L. Mencken and Babe Ruth set their sights instead on America's emerging celebrity culture. The expanding mass media, fueled by the rise of radio, and including magazines such as Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, was creating this century's obsession with fame.

A generation of gifted draftsmen, from Al Hirschfeld to Miguel Covarrubias, depicting the icons of their era with wit and whimsy, focused more on star worship than on skewering. As a result, their creations were amusing and, to some extent, even affectionate. When once confronted with a Hirschfeld-generated portrayal of his persona, playwright Arthur Miller mused that the image seemed to confer "a style and a dash you were never aware of in yourself."

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