Marie Duval was a successful and prolific cartoonist in Victorian London, and a cozy new exhibit at the Society of Illustrators in Manhattan showcases the breadth and lasting humor of her work in “Marie Duval: Laughter in the First Age of Leisure.”
Marie Duval: Laughter in the First Age of Leisure
Society of Illustrators
New York City
January 7-March 7, 2020
In the exhibit, we are introduced to Duval as a figure who was important in her time, but has largely been ignored since, and who is being reclaimed. Working in the 1860s-1880s for a variety of publications, she is most known for her extensive cartooning for the magazine Judy: or the London serio-comic journal, and the creation of “Ally Sloper,” a character who would become a stock figure of the cartooning pages.
The exhibit, which is associated with the Marie Duval Archive, emphasizes the way that Duval’s drawing style was akin to outsider art. Since Duval did not receive formal training, her work feels loose, fresh and modern to contemporary viewers. The exhibit has printed paper copies of texts with her work framed on the walls, and photographs of open books with her printed work, some illuminated from behind. The range of topics in her published work is indicated, but nothing is on display that is not her published work or a reproduction of it.
For this exhibit, I felt I was exactly in the target audience. I know the major players of the Victorian publishing scene and how various printing processes worked, but I wasn’t aware of Marie Duval or the specific magazine to which she generally contributed.
Therefore, I was interested to learn about her and her work, and able to think about how she and her work would fit into the cartooning landscape of the time. For instance, I understood references to the Dalziels as key figures in the publishing industry, and references to the process of “drawing on the block.” From studying John Tenniel, I already had a knowledge of the general format for Victorian cartoons and the importance of humor magazines in Victorian society. All this foreknowledge served me well in enjoying this exhibit, which seemed designed for a viewer with my level of information on the topic. I hadn’t known there was a magazine called Judy, but I sure already knew about Punch.
However, on the flipside, I think it is for the best that I wasn’t going in with a lot of pre-existing expertise on Marie Duval and her work. This exhibit is a good introduction to her, but would probably be disappointing to someone who already knew of her and wanted more. There are references to the pseudonyms she used, but no exploration of them. Similarly, she is referred to as an actress as well as a cartoonist but that side of her life is not included in this exhibit. There are no known surviving originals of her work for Judy, so it wouldn’t be fair to expect any in this exhibit, but perhaps juvenalia, or something in her hand like a letter or laundry list?
The exhibit is on the second floor of the Society of Illustrators’ building, in a space that is one long hallway. The last time I wrote about an exhibit in this space I used the word “intimate,” and this time I’m using “cozy.” While these are both Realtor Euphemisms for a space that is too small, the Society of Illustrators uses its space extremely well for focused exhibits examining the work of one cartoonist. Walking down this hallway allows a viewer to get right up close to the work on the walls with no barrier, and feels like reading a chapter devoted to the topic of the exhibit.
As is the case for any exhibit at the Society of Illustrators, each exhibit space is small so I feel it is best to go when you want to see the other things on display as well. This time around I greatly enjoyed the diverse annual exhibit, “Illustrators 62” on the larger bottom two floors and “Fashion Illustration: The Visionaries” in the dining room on the third floor. Both of these exhibits are up through March 7 as well, so it is a good time to plan a trip to the Society of Illustrators.