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  • Visual Burlesque:Ralph Barton and Puck Magazine
  • Kristine Somerville (bio)

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Ralph Barton (1891–1931), American illustrator and cartoonist, 1926. © Ralph Barton/PVDE/Bridgeman Images

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Jazz Age illustrator Ralph Barton sported an exaggerated urbanity. Elegant and handsome, with dark hair, blue eyes, and a slight frame, he dressed in flawlessly tailored suits with striped shirts, matching collars, a cravat, and suspenders. Often he carried a walking stick and in his wake left a trace of Chanel No. 22. He bought the finest champagne, wine, and cigarettes and in his work was particular about pens, paper, and ink. After his first visit to France in 1915, he returned a full-bore dandy, outfopping the French. But his cultivated sophistication and aspirations were born of provincialism. Even when he lived in a penthouse filled with rare books and art, was one of the highest-paid illustrators in New York City, and married and dated an array of beautiful, rich women, he never stopped fighting his way out of the "Kansas City mud."

Ralph Waldo Emerson Barton, born in 1891 in Kansas City, Missouri, was the youngest of four children. His father, Abraham, a farm boy from a family of eleven, had worked his way through college and law school, and his mother, Catherine, who had attended a prestigious women's college, established herself as a respected portrait painter and ran a popular art studio. As a child, Ralph went to work with his mother, where he learned to draw, publishing an illustration in a children's magazine when he was six. In high school, he illustrated the covers and stories of the school magazine while conducting what he called "a serious self-study" of old masters. Feeling like an "off-horse" in a town steeped in traditional nineteenth-century American values, he was determined to escape the Midwest. When he was sixteen, the Kansas City Star and later the Post hired him to illustrate stories. His drawings were bolder, sassier, and more visually striking than the usual newspaper fare. Kansas City department stores took notice and gave him advertising work. Briefly, Barton attended the Art Institute of Chicago but disliked the school's strict, traditional curriculum of drawing Greek and Roman sculpture casts. He returned to Kansas City, filling the pages of the entertainment and society sections of the local newspapers while sending his drawings and cartoons to large-circulation magazines in New York City, the place where serious artists moved to find fame and fortune.

In 1910, Puck, America's first humor magazine, offered Barton $3 for an illustration, which gave him confidence to move to New York City. It was the beginning of two important relationships for him: one with the city, the other with the magazine. Instantly smitten with his new locale, he wrote home that it wasn't the modernity of the skyline that enchanted him; it was the "air and the things you see on the street every day, the [End Page 94] little things." His letters included quick sketches of people who interested him—a night watchman, an English sailor, a series of European immigrants—set against the backdrop of brownstones, skyscrapers, and boat-filled piers.

Puck burst onto the scene in 1876 as a German-language magazine that proved so successful, it was launched in English the following year. Modeled after the political cartoon weeklies in Europe, such as the British Punch, the French Le Charivari, and the American magazines Yankee Doodle and the Lantern, under the guidance of cartoonist Joseph Keppler and printer Adolph Schwartzman, Puck quickly distinguished itself as America's cleverest, most irreverent magazine, particularly in its approach to presidential politics and political leadership. At its peak, circulation reached 125,000, and it had no real rivals. By 1912, when Barton started illustrating for the magazine, Puck was transitioning from a purely political publication to one with broad interests. The editorial shift suited Barton's burgeoning talent as a cynical and witty social observer with an intense style, particularly when it came to lampooning the foibles and indulgences of New York's young, beautiful, extravagant people. The magazine, known for showcasing the country...


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