Sunday, June 13

Clinton, Nixon era political cartoons showcased at Norman Rockwell Museum

A new exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Gallery features political cartoons by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Patrick Oliphant who has been called the most influential editorial cartoonist of his time.

“Pat Oliphant has been very influential because he has created extensive visual commentary inspired by the activities and antics of 10 American presidents and many other prominent political figures and events over the course of 50 years. His keen insights were expressed in masterful drawings that captured the essence of every issue that he has broached,” commented Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, deputy director/chief curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Oliphant’s syndicated drawings were distributed to some 250 publications in the United States and beyond.

Through the years, he has spoken on the importance of political cartooning worldwide, producing large drawings while on-stage and in conversation with his audience. He has made his way to venues and university campuses throughout the world. “His vision, talent and intellect imbue his work with a sense of authenticity and truth, imbued with the unique humor that is inherent in his art,” she said.

Now 85, his career spans more than 60 years. His finely-tuned drawings have reflected on global politics, culture, the economy and scandals; his caricatures of American presidents and other powerful leaders are world renowned.

The exhibit is on view through May 31 at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

The Oliphant collection features more than 300 artworks and an extensive archive focusing on four prominent aspects of the artist’s work – humorous but hard-hitting editorial drawings from the Nixon and Clinton years as well as personal drawings, paintings and large-scale sculptures inspired by the nation’s most prominent figures. Newly acquired through a donation by the Louis and Jodi Atkin Family, these works highlight political art as a powerful, persuasive and inspiring form of visual communication.

“I am amazed by the volume and quality of Pat Oliphant’s work, which is simply extraordinary,” Plunkett said. “His draughtsmanship, conceptualization and dedication to finding and portraying a deeper truth in his art is nothing short of extraordinary, an unrivaled visual record created by one man over the course of five decades.”

She contends that political cartooning is an integral aspect of journalism and has been so for centuries. “Images speak directly and can be more impactful than words alone because they concepts, issues and personalities into their most recognizable essence,” she said. “Tinged with humor and sarcasm, political drawings are accessible conversation-starters that make challenging subjects approachable, whether we agree with or push back on the ideas reflected in the art. Clever and amusing, they recast the day’s events while informing and entertaining us. As in Oliphant’s work, political cartoons become a potent aspect of the historical record that reflects temperature of the times.”

Though political cartoonists have been influential for centuries, she said they are more endangered today. She pointed to a report from Drawn and Quartered, a history of American political cartoons by Stephen Hess and Sandy Northrop, that 2,000 editorial cartoonists were employed a century ago; estimates of the number of staff cartoonists working today may number less than 40. Major and regional newspapers still publish political cartoons, as do such online outlets as Counterpoint, Reddit, Humor Times, Political Tunes and blogs by individual artists.

“Since the late 19th century, the editorial cartoon portrait has played a provocative role in presidential politics, countering partisan advertising with irreverence,” Plunkett said. “Oliphant hones a distinctive, repeatable caricature of each incoming president that evolves during his tenure. When each fails to live up to expectations, exaggerated figures begin to age, sag, shrink, weaken or bloat, impacting the way we understand and see each figure.”

His images of Richard Nixon as a haunting and malevolent Napoleon, Gerald Ford as a hollow mask, Jimmy Carter as an insignificant miniature and George H.W. Bush as a wizened horseshoe player, “remind us of the powerful impact of satiric portraiture,” she added.

Political cartoonists always have seized upon the collective anxiety of the moment, emphasizing the fractious nature of virtually every period in history, she continued. “Many political cartoonists consider themselves to be equal-opportunity offenders, though their presence in distinct outlets can reflect their personal leanings. Humor often makes incendiary commentary palatable for those who might find certain viewpoints challenging.”

By revisiting the issues of the past through the art of Australian-born Oliphant, visitors to the exhibit might realize that though times were different, many of the struggles that emerged in the past are similar today. The exhibition focuses on two presidents who were impeached, Nixon and Clinton, drawing parallels to today.

“Topics that emerge in Oliphant’s sharply-conceived and drawn cartoons include focus on lack of political leadership and transparency, financial missteps, social inequality, the influence of big business on public policy and many other themes that remain relevant today,” Plunkett said.

Advance timed tickets are required, and the museum requires all visitors to comply with the Massachusetts COVID-19 Travel Order.

Online programs focusing on the art of Pat Oliphant will be scheduled for spring; visit for more information.

Then President Richard Nixon was the subject of this political cartoon by Pat Oliphant. It is part of an exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. (Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum)

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