Pygmy caricatures in Pompeii  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The French artist and architect François Mazois (1783-1826) and the English illustrator William Gell (1777 – 1836) recorded by hand (by drawing) a number of frescoes at Pompeii which are now forever lost.

Among those, there were pygmy caricatures, described in the second chapter of History of Caricature and Grotesque in Literature and Art as:

Let us return to Roman caricature, one form of which feems to have been efpecially a favourite among the people. It is difficult to 'imagine how the ftory of the pigmies and of their wars with the cranes originated, but it is certainly of great antiquity, as it is fpoken of in Homer, and it was a very popular legend among the Romans, who eagerly fought and purchafed dwarfs to make domeftic pets of them. The pigmies and cranes occur frequently among the piftorial ornamentations of the houfes of Pompeii and Herculaneum ; and the painters of Pompeii not only reprefented them in their proper character,but they made ufe of them for the purpofe of caricaturing the various occupations of life domeftic and focial fcenes, grave conferences, and many other fubjects, and even perfonal character. In this clafs of caricatures they gave to the pigmies, or dwarfs, very large heads, and very fmall legs and arms. I need hardly remark that this is a clafs of caricature which is very common in modern times.

No. 21. A Painter's Studio. [1]

A private houfe in Pompeii furnifhed another example of this ftyle of caricature, which is given in our cut No. 21. It reprefents the interior of a painter's fludio, and is extremely curious on account of the numerous details of his method of operation with which it furnifhes us. The painter, who is, like most of the figures in thefe pigmy caricatures, very fcantily clothed, is occupied with the portrait of another, who, by the rather exaggerated fulnefs of the gathering of his toga, is evidently intended for a darning and fafliionable patrician, though he is feated as bare-legged and bare-breeched as the artift himfelf. Both are diftinguifhed by a large allowance of nofe. The eafel here employed refembles greatly the fame article now in ufe, and might belong to the fludio of a modern painter. Before it is a fmall table, probably formed of a flab of ftone, which ferves for a palette, on which the painter fpreads and mixes his colours. To the right a fervant, who fills the office of colour-grinder, is feated by the fide of a veflel placed over hot coals, and appears to be preparing colours, mixed, according to the directions given in old writers, with punic wax and oil. In the background is feated a ftudent, whofe attention is taken from his drawing by what is going on at the other fide of the room, where two fmall perfonages are entering, who look as if they were amateurs, and who appear to be talking about the portrait. Behind them ftands a bird, and when the painting was firft uncovered there were two. Mazois, who made the drawing from which our cut is taken, before the original had periflied for it was found in a state of decay.

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