Cover illustration for L'Éclipse, 26 January 1868

André Gill was a 19th-century French caricaturist who pioneered drawing celebrities with huge heads on tiny bodies. This practice influenced practically every cartoonist in his century and beyond. During his lifetime he was known for his controversial political cartoons, which led to court cases and - on one occasion - the emprisonment of his chief editor. A champion of freedom of expression, Gill also drew an early text comic, 'L'Amateur de Violon: Étude Musicale' (1866). Sadly he spent the final years of his life in a mental institution and died in poverty.

André Gill was born in 1840 in Paris as Louis-Alexandre Gosset de Guines. He came from high social standing. His father was a count and his mother a couturier. He studied at the Parisian Academy of Fine Arts and considered James Gillray his main graphic influence. As a tribute to his hero Gosset de Guines he adopted the pseudonym "André Gill". His first drawings appeared in 1859 in the pages of Le Journal Amusant, Le Hanneton, the socialist journal La Rue and satirical magazines like Le Charivari, La Lune and L'Éclipse. Gill also co-founded the magazines Gill-Revue (1868), La Parodie (1869-1870), La Lune Rousse (1876), Les Hommes d'Aujourd'Hui (1878), La Petite Lune (1878-1879) and L'Escale Ivre (1881). His best known work was done for the satirical weekly La Lune (1865-1868), where he became a regular collaborator from the fifth issue on. Gill's caricatures of celebrities decorated the front pages of many issues. He portrayed several famous politicians (Adolphe Thiers, Napoléon III), novelists (Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas père, Victor Hugo) and composers (Georges Bizet, Richard Wagner) of the day. He was the first cartoonist to draw celebrity faces as huge, detailed, page-filling caricatures and display them on tiny bodies. This gave him the opportunity to draw their faces as grotesquely as possible and further ridicule them by turning these self-important people into pathetic little men. These images were so popular that they were imitated by many 19th-century caricaturists, even outside France.

Cover for La Lune by André GillCover for La Lune by André Gill
Cover drawings for La Lune of 16 December 1866 and 6 June 1867

While regular people laughed at Gill's hilarious caricatures, the authorities were less amused. On 3 November 1867 he drew a cartoon depicting Pope Pius IX and Italian politician Giuseppe Garibaldi as masked wrestlers, which caused enormous controversy. A few weeks later, on 17 November 1867, Gill drew another scandalous cartoon which portrayed French emperor Napoléon III as the literary character Rocambole. The chief editor of La Lune, François Polo, was fined and sentenced to two months of jail. On 19 January 1868 his magazine was therefore forced to close down. Polo established another satirical magazine, L'Éclipse, which quickly became Gill's new home publication. Yet only eight months later, on 9 August 1868, another of his cartoons sparked new public outrage. 'Monsieur X…?' (1868) depicted a pumpkin with a slice removed in which the face of a magistrate could be recognized. The issue was immediately restrained from circulation and Gill charged with the crime of "obscenity". He promptly wrote an open letter to the editor of Le Temps in which he claimed: "My drawings often had a mischievous intention, but never an obscene one. If L'Éclipse must be prosecuted, let it be for its actual intentions, not the ones attributed to it." During a court case Gill managed to convince the jury that the charge was merely what others wanted to see in it. Nevertheless, L'Éclipse still had to pay a fine.

André Gill's Rocambole cartoonMonsieur X…
Two of the most infamous André Gill cartoons

In 1870-1871, during the Prussian siege of Paris, Gill joined up to defend the city. As the French capital was temporarily occupied by the extreme-left Communard movement for three months he supported their cause. He worked for the socialist newspaper Rue and joined the Féderation des Artists who promoted artistic freedom of expression. The artist was also associated with the Cercle des Poètes Zutiques ('Circle of Zutist poets'). On 17 April 1871 he was elected to protect the local Luxembourg Museum and named its provisional administrator a month later. As the Communard movement got surpressed, Gill returned to his humble cartoonist profession, but nevertheless kept fighting censorship in his cartoons. In 'L'Enterrement de la Caricature' (1873) a cartoonist follows a funeral vehicle carrying a pen and paint brush. Even more direct was 'Le Journaliste et L'Avenir' (1875) which showed the future fate of journalism: a man tied up and gagged. In 1876 L'Éclipse was discontinued and Gill joined the periodical La Lune Rousse instead as a cartoonist as well as editor.

Amateur de Violon by André Gill
Amateur de violon (La Lune, February 1866)

While Gill is first and foremost remembered as a caricaturist he also made a contribution to comics history with a six-panel text comic named 'L' Amateur de Violon: Étude Musicale' ('The Amateur Violinist. Musical Study', 1866), which was published in La Lune. The story depicts a violinist who gets drunk and is eventually thrown in jail. Each moment of his low-life behaviour is accompanied by sarcastic descriptions in the style of a violin movement, with the first image being called '1st Étude' and so on. In 1882 Gill drew 'Deux Dessins' for the cover of La Nouvelle Lune, which portrayed the artist himself sleeping in his studio. The images are shown in two sequences, one showing him from the front, the other from the side. In 1883 he made a cover for La Nouvelle Lune titled 'Nouveaux Coquis', which depicts three images of his face with a date written underneath them. The first two are simple line drawings, while the third one is a more sketched out self-portrait. While not a comic strip they can still be read as a thematical series of sequences.

André Gill was also associated with the cabaret milieu. He designed the sign for the Cabaret des Assassins at the Montmartre. Since it depicted a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan local citizens started referring to it as the "Lapin à Gill" ("Gill's rabbit"). The nickname stuck and today everyone knows it as the "Lapin Agile". Gill also performed as a singer in this club. The artist's final years ended in tragedy. In 1880 he succombed to mental illlness, losing all his former friends except for his loyal disciple Émile Cohl. Cohl had not only learned caricaturing from Gill, he furthermore imitated the maestro's graphic style and even wore a moustache like him. Cohl paid Gill's medical expenses and brought him to the mental asylum of Charenton in 1883, where Gill passed away in 1885. Cohl kept visiting him until the very end, although the legendary cartoonist already lived in a vegetative state.

On Camille Pissarro's painting 'Portrait of Paul Cézanne' a drawing by Gill from L'Eclipse can be seen. Another famous admirer of Gill was Arthur Rimbaud. In 2015 Toma Bletner and Romain Dutreix drew a humoristic tribute to Gill's fight against censorship in a series of gag comics, named 'Revue de Presse', published in the Libération. André Gill lives on in both a street and a hotel at the Montmartre, each named after him.

L'Enterrement de la Caricature by André Gill
L'Enterrement de la Caricature(1873)

Series and books by André Gill in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

X

If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.