Cartooning in the Age of Realism: Rediscovering Léonce Petit’s ‘Les bonnes gens de province’ & ‘Histoires campagnardes’

[Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. Vol. 14, ISSUE 3 (Autumn 2015)]

Abstract: Léonce Petit stands out for broadening the horizon of cartooning, both figuratively and literally. Recognized as a master in capturing the essence of rural life in lithographs and comic strips, Petit introduced landscape art and a fresh outlook on country folks to press cartooning. From 1863 to 1884, he delivered his gentle satire through a series of genre scenes known as Les bonnes gens de province (the good people of our provinces) and comic strips published as Histoires campagnardes (country tales). His captioned genre scenes were more poetic and naturalistic than the rest of the Journal amusant that hosted them; they swarm with action in comparison with the pictorial physiologies that had preceded them for three decades. His comic strips carried a sense of realism that did not exist in a narrative form then focused on caricatural characters.

This article highlights the singularity of Petit’s visual/textual narrative strategies and examines his work in relation to its cultural environment. Petit’s cartooning is relevant to issues at the core of today’s research on the comic strip, but his memory was not always kept well. This study notably aims to rectify an unreliable characterization that has followed his remembrance since the turn of the twentieth century. We retrace the evolution of his work and map out a network of influences and confluences in cartooning, literature, and painting that make it a rare body of poetic realism for nineteenth-century word/image studies. In the end, Léonce Petit’s work is a largely unrecognized landmark in French-language comic-strip history and in the history of cartooning as a whole.

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