Who Invented Modern Political Satire?


Review of The Birth of Modern Political Satire: Romeyn de Hooghe and the Glorious Revolution, by Meredith McNeill Hale

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021



What do we talk about when we talk about “modern political satire”? Here’s what comes to my mind. It was late 2017—Saturday, December 30, to be precise—just under a year into Trump’s presidency. The day prior the New York Times had published a gobbledygook interview with the president before printing in the same issue, in an increasingly familiar cycle of mendacity and correction, a hand-waving follow-up piece: “10 Falsehoods From Trump’s Interview With The Times.” I was in Portland, Oregon, for the weekend, visiting friends over the new year, and we had decamped in the evening to a local dive bar for a few drinks. Suddenly, at 11:30pm, the too-loud music was turned off and everyone, to my surprise, turned to the TV set over the bar. There, on the dumpy little screen, in the corner above the bottles of liquor, was Saturday Night Live. The cold open featured Alec Baldwin doing his usual Trump schtick. I don’t remember whether the episode was a new broadcast, what the precise skit was, or even what SNL was sending up—no surprise, perhaps, given the “tornado of news-making” we were all getting used to that year, which one NYT journalist called “Mr. Trump’s greatest trick.”

It probably doesn’t even matter so much what that cold open was about. What mattered was that SNL and Baldwin were doing something, anything at all, such was the sense of helplessness so many Americans (and so many international onlookers, like me) felt in the face of the president’s rampant shamelessness. There was someone fighting fire with fire—manifest idiocy attacked through mimicked imbecility—rather than the fussy get-it-right journalism that proved totally useless at staunching the black sewer of Trumpian bile that engulfed anything that might approach useful reporting. “If a lie be believed only for an hour,” Jonathan Swift observed in 1710, “it has done its work…Falsehood flies, and Truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late, the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect.”

Trying to correct the record proved a feeble rearguard action, and too often journalists’ finger-counting and fact-checking had the opposite effect: of rebroadcasting Trumpian falsehoods without actually displacing them. The reason why is equally disheartening. Humans are bad, really bad, at overriding informational errors. As the psychologists Joseph P. Forgas and Roy F. Baumeister write, in their dispiritingly ominous collection The Social Psychology of Gullibility, humans suffer from a kind of “metacognitive myopia”: an “inability to recognize and correct…epistemological mistakes.”

What shocked me, though, even in late 2017, was less the total Trumpification of all media—the hourly packages of “news” delivered to our smartphones, like a bottomless hamper of soiled baby diapers—than the fact that a bunch of Portland hipsters were actually watching SNL, live-ish on tape delay, at a bar, on a Saturday night. I loved SNL as a teenager in the 1990s. That’s no surprise, as even Lorne Michaels, the show’s longtime producer, has claimed that everyone’s favorite cast was the one from their teen years. But in the intervening years, and even through the haze of nostalgia, I had come to think of SNL as tedious, old fashioned, and even (gasp!) plainly unfunny.

Baldwin’s Trump, at least for me, was no exception. “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live,” Trump tweeted in December 2016. “Unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad[.]” Here’s a gross admission: I agree with Trump. Baldwin’s impersonation was not particularly good—though he did a decent job of capturing Trump’s bizarre mechanical robot-jawed pronunciation of “China”—and the satire of the whole thing felt weak to me, a lot of dumb mockery and cheap mudslinging, rather than something approaching a concrete remedy or even a substantive critique.

Admittedly, I was probably alone—or, even worse, in camp with Trump—as Baldwin’s impersonation seems to have satisfied a deeply primordial urge in other viewers. As Robert C. Elliott writes in The Power of Satire, his classic 1966 anthropological study of the satirist’s use of “primitive magic and incantation,” ridicule is a “social weapon,” a way of threatening those who violate “social order and custom” and of (hopefully) “enforcing conformity.”

Perhaps that’s why Baldwin’s impersonation felt so important, even efficacious, at that moment of baffling helplessness, of near-constant imposition—not because it changed the world or even reformed the incorrigible Trump, but because it gave voice to a widespread and pronounced communal sentiment that the president was no longer playing by the agreed-upon rules of engagement. And Trump’s very response hinted at the possible value of Baldwin’s impersonation: the visible irritation, the this-is-so-bad effrontery of the thing. It bothered Trump, and that was small consolation, the paradoxical registering of a symbolic victory in its overt denial.

Here’s the other thing that I saw that night: one man attacking another man, who is in many ways a lot like that first man. Most satiric theory tends to presuppose a pretty sharp distinction between the satirist and his or her satiric object. But that sense of difference is sometimes less crisp than we might always notice at first glance, as the literary scholar Fredric V. Bogel has argued in his excellent book The Difference Satire Makes. That perception of difference between satirist and satiric object is actually produced, rhetorically, through the satiric act itself. Satirists do not “find folly or wickedness in the world and then wish to expose that alien something,” Bogel explains. “Instead, satirists identify in the world something or someone that is both attractive and curiously or dangerously like them, or like the culture or subculture that they identify with or speak for…—something, then, that is not alien enough.”

Again, think for a moment about what SNL was bringing to our attention on an almost weekly basis: A self-involved older white male, from New York, who is immensely wealthy, with numerous public platforms to air his tendentious opinions, who is involved in politics, who is thin skinned, who often lashes out at his critics, and who has a terrible reputation for his behavior around women. Trump pretty well fits that description. But so too does Alec Baldwin. “The ‘first’ satiric gesture,” Bogel writes, “is not to expose the satiric object in all its alien difference but to define it as different, as other.” This is precisely what SNL permitted Baldwin to do: to magnify those political differences between a fairly centrist Democrat and a protectionist Republican president, occluding in the process all of the personal qualities that actually bring those two men closer together rather than setting them further apart.



Let’s go back to that first question: How might we define “modern political satire”? Ask Meredith McNeill Hale, and you get a pretty clear sense of when it first emerges, who is responsible for it, and what she means by “modern political satire.” The old story goes something like this, Hale writes in the introduction to The Birth of Modern Political Satire: “Political satire has long been considered to be an eighteenth-century British phenomenon, generated by London’s news-driven coffee-house culture, and differentiated from earlier political prints by iconography, audience, critical function, and the status of the satirist” (1). By her own accounting, though, “modern political satire” emerges earlier, at a specific moment between 1688 and 1690. And it happens not in England but in the Netherlands, under the satirical interventions of the Dutch printmaker Romeyn de Hooghe, during William III’s invasion of England and the ensuing Glorious Revolution.

Probably a fair question, at least for the Anglophones: Who, you might ask, is Romeyn de Hooghe?

Born in 1645, de Hooghe was the son of a button maker. He was baptized in Amsterdam, where he spent the first years of his career. We don’t know much about de Hooghe’s early education, but he was likely admitted to the St Luke’s Guild in 1667, where he learned printmaking. That same year he became an independent master, and over the succeeding decade grew into the most sought-after printmaker in Amsterdam. de Hooghe’s output was not art prints but commercial works, and his large studio proved hugely successful, garnering him an annual income of roughly 8000 guilders a year (a tidy €100,000 in today’s currency). Even early on, de Hooghe hobnobbed in the service of his social superiors, including at the court of William III and, in 1668, through several commissions seemingly for Louis XIV, but for the most part he stayed home in the Netherlands.

Between 1673 and 1683 he shuttled between Amsterdam and Haarlem, eventually becoming a citizen of Haarlem in 1685. In 1691, he moved into a large new house with his wife, Maria Lansman, whom he had married in 1673. Despite his early connections to the court, de Hooghe never produced a single print celebrating William between 1678 and 1688. With the Glorious Revolution, de Hooghe’s Orangist sympathies kicked into high gear. The fruits of this newfound enthusiasm include the satires Hale studies as well as a series of laudatory pieces celebrating the Glorious Revolution and honoring William and Mary. For his services, William rewarded him with a sinecure in 1689. Not satisfied with being a lowly commercial printmaker, though, De Hooghe earned his law degree that same year and eventually held several judicial positions in Haarlem.

Of the roughly 4300 prints de Hooghe produced, his “political satires” constitute only “a small part” (6), as Hale readily admits. The collection she studies is even smaller: roughly a dozen satires published between 1688 and 1690 and attributed to him (of a potential 18 from this same period, though all of these raise questions about authorship, as none is signed and all were produced within a studio system), alongside one satire by de Hooghe from 1674 and one “anti-Williamite satire” from 1690 by a “printmaker working in de Hooghe’s style” (123).

This small catalogue of textual-visual satires, however, does some heavy argumentative lifting. These “satires are among his most significant contributions to European visual and material culture,” Hale claims, and de Hooghe’s “radical innovation of the well-established genre of the political print not only served a critical function at one of the most significant historical moments of the early-modern period, but it also paved the way for the flourishing of the genre, both materially and functionally, in eighteenth-century Britain” (13). In all of this, Hale “places Romeyn de Hooghe’s satires at the heart of the most important development of printed political imagery,” with “a single goal” in mind: “to identify the fundamental qualities of a genre that is as potent today as it was in the late seventeenth century” (16-17).

This is a bold claim, and one that I am not certain is borne out by the evidence. One issue is terminology. By “modern political satire,” Hale actually means “political prints” (1), works that feature images, even images accompanied by extensive text, and not political satire more generally. Then there’s the question of satire per se. By her own admission, “satire…as a genre…is notoriously difficult to define,” and yet she enumerates a “few general principles to which it adheres,” including the “manipulation of a recognizable entity”; “the involvement of a viewer in an unresolved, even chaotic, moment” (3); and the presence of “material outside its textual and visual boundaries” (5).

The first principle she lists, however, is perhaps the most intriguing: satire is a “genre” that “assumes the forms of other genres, such as portraiture and history painting” (3). For many theorists, to call satire a “genre” might constitute a claim in itself. Alastair Fowler, for instance, in his Kinds of Literature, has written that satire is a “problematic” category because it has seemingly never corresponded to a strictly formal definition. A sonnet is a sonnet is a sonnet, the logic goes, because we can define it through its formal qualities, no matter the subject: 14 lines of iambic pentameter composed in a single stanza that possesses one of two intricate rhyme schemes, which in turn determines whether it is an Italian or English sonnet. But what is important is that these formal characteristics constitute a poem generically as a sonnet irrespective of the poem’s content, whether it is about unrequited love or a chicken wearing pants.

Satire, on the other hand, might have some recurrent formal qualities—a reliance on irony and sarcasm, for instance, or a humorous approach, or a critical viewpoint—but none of these is entirely essential to satire and none is sufficient to determine whether a given object is satiric. For many theorists, in fact, satire is not a genre but a mode, something not defined by its formal qualities but by its tonal nature and its occupation of other genres. As Paddy Bullard writes, for instance, in The Oxford Handbook of Eighteenth-Century Satire, satire is like a “cultural virus, a ‘mental position’ that infects different sorts of art and literature, different kinds of speech and action, in many different ways”—a mode that can take “an extraordinary variety of shapes and manifestations, spilling out across the media.”

Hale, conversely, tends to couple form and content in her definitions, a not unsurprising choice given her method of analysis and her central contention that the political is the grist of the satiric mill. The critical factor to understanding de Hooghe’s satires is “context,” Hale writes, a word that echoes dozens of times throughout her book. As she reminds us again and again, “context—historical, political, social, and visual—is essential to understanding all political satire” (2); “the printmaker’s biography…furnish[es] some basic context for our examination of the satires” (8); one requires “a larger context” (21) to discuss de Hooghe’s satires; “all political satire…is imbricated in a specific context” (26); “context…is essential to understanding any political satire” (70); “context…is essential to understanding the satires produced by Romeyn de Hooghe” (239); and so on. And Hale is right. For most viewer-readers not steeped in the politics, history, and iconography of the late seventeenth century, de Hooghe’s satires are probably utterly opaque. In fact, even the number of scholars able to decipher the precise agenda and allusions in a satiric print by de Hooghe is vanishingly small.

Yet we might ask what the right ratio is between historical context and satiric analysis. Hale’s emphasis on context tends, one might argue, to undermine the strength of her central contention that de Hooghe invented modern political satire. Her entire second chapter, for instance, focuses on the so-called “roots of modern political satire,” a historical context that goes all the way back to the beginning of the sixteenth century—roughly a century and half before de Hooghe took to printmaking and almost two centuries before he produced his satires around the Glorious Revolution.

By Hale’s own accounting, one of those “satirical strategies” is “animal imagery,” which takes two forms: animal fables and “animal hybrid[s], in which human and animal are conflated.” The second satirical strategy features “human protagonists”: images of “identifiable individuals” that feature “radical shifts in the treatment of the body” (21). This dyad of satirical strategies seems right to my eye, but both also belong to much more generalized representational strategies—approaches tied intimately to a centuries-long history of not only satire, but also other literary, textual, and aesthetic forms—so that picking a starting point for modern political satire, in the late seventeenth century under a single practitioner using such general representational strategies, feels to some degree arbitrary.

The larger problem with this context-laden approach is that the formal aspects of de Hooghe’s visual satire—the very thing that Hale’s training as an art historian might elucidate, in a way that scholars of satire from literary studies rarely can—tend to get pushed to the analytical wayside. Take, for instance, the Fabel van de Koeyen, de Herder, en de Wolf (Fable of the Cows, the Shepherd and the Wolf), signed by Marlais, the name of de Hooghe’s former pupil (Jan Marlais or Marlois) and, according to Hale, a pseudonym for de Hooghe (Hale also convincingly dates the image to 1690, not 1684, as the Rijksmuseum suggests). The scene depicts a shepherd (William III) protecting his cows (the seven United Provinces) from an approaching wolf (Louis XIV) and a lurking fox (the French ambassador, le Compte d’Avaux). But the image itself hardly discloses the fable’s allegorical logic. It is the appended prose, compositionally equal in proportion to the image, that does the exegetical work of intimating how a seemingly generic pastoral scene aligns with the intricacies of Amsterdam’s anti-Orange, pro-French-trade bloc.


Marlais [pseud. Romeyn De Hooghe], Fabel van de Koeyen, de Herder, en de Wolf (1690). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


No surprise, then, that Hale dedicates about seven pages to the print, spending the vast majority of that space elucidating not the visual aspects of the satire but in translating the Dutch text and in recounting the historical and political context for the print, including Dutch-French relations throughout the 1660s, 1670s, and 1680s, the backroom dealings and double-crossings of various Dutch and French actors, and the thorny thicket of contemporary Amsterdam party politics. In all of this, Hale’s focus tends to be on the text of the satire, not the image, and even then her reading of the print often takes a backseat to her recitation of arcane historical details.

Hale is right that such political satires contain themes and approaches that warrant comparison with later developments in visual satire. But De Hooghe’s prints, formally speaking, are only in part visual satires—they are often compositionally at least half text. As Hale observes, these intricate, intermedial objects need to be read synthetically. But the extent to which the visual component in de Hooghe’s satires is largely reliant on the verbal component is also clear, so much so that the visual component’s connection to Dutch politics is almost inexplicable without the textual component.

As a result, these images hardly offer easy continuities with our own forms of visual political satire. The political cartoons of today’s newspapers are perhaps the obvious point of comparison, which aesthetically and formally, in their verbal economy and physiological distortions, share more in common with British caricatures from the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, and the Cruikshanks than with de Hooghe’s images, with their extensive text, dense compositions, monochromaticity, and reliance on the allegorical and iconographic.

For all of her claims to a specifically intermedial approach, one that refuses to isolate either text or image in her understanding of de Hooghe’s satire, Hale’s bibliography features a few surprising omissions, especially for a work about textually rich satires, a topic central to literary studies for the past century, and especially for a book about satire from the late seventeenth century, when textual satire flourished in England, during its so-called Golden Age. Dustin Griffin’s Satire: A Critical Reintroduction (1994); Charles A. Knight’s The Literature of Satire (2004); Bogel’s The Difference Satire Makes—none of these oft-cited and hugely important works is mentioned. Jonathan Greenberg’s Cambridge Introduction to Satire (2019) and John T. Gilmore’s Satire (2018) are brought together in one footnote, but only to discount the validity of both and, by extension, the “vast majority of [the] theoretical literature on satire [, which] refers to literary satire,” for the sake of visual analysis: “When visual satire is addressed, the discussion is both generalized and insensitive to the particularities of visual representation” (18n8).

More surprising is the absence of scholarship that takes up the specific relationship between visual and textual satire. Ronald Paulson receives only one mention, in this case to his 1971 biography of William Hogarth, an artist who is a comparative touchstone for Hale throughout her chapter on the satirist and “moral conviction,” though Paulson’s carefully attentive readings of Hogarth’s satires are otherwise not present. Vic Gatrell’s City of Laughter (2006) and David Francis Taylor’s The Politics of Parody (2018) are likewise missing, as are classic works of scholarship on the image-text problematic and intermediality, perhaps most notably W. J. T. Mitchell’s Iconology (1986) and Picture Theory (1994), Peter Wagner’s Reading Iconotexts (1995), and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s Remediation (1998). As we have already seen, de Hooghe’s satires, like the Fabel, are highly textual works for which some literary scholarship might have offered some theoretical scaffolding, beyond a 1987 article by Rick Eden, cited only a few times in the last 35 years and from which Hale quotes repeatedly in her discussion of satire and “truth” (209-10), even though Eden’s article is ultimately missing from her bibliography.

Admittedly, the general absence of scholarship on Anglophone textual satire is in part understandable: Hale’s book centers on one Dutch printmaker’s visual-verbal satires from a very narrow two-year slice of history. But Hale’s most general argument about the birth of modern political satire transcends this narrow moment in time. Moreover, she is eager to include general commentary on satire and the satirist—the explicit focus of her sixth chapter—and to conceptualize more broadly the relationship between visual and verbal satire. And throughout she turns to English textual examples, including Alexander Pope, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Jonathan Swift, and John Dryden (though his famous Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire was first published not in 1735, as Hale writes [210], but in 1693).

Satiric theory has simply not been central to art history in the same way that it has saturated eighteenth-century studies in particular and literary history and theory more generally. What some of these field-adjacent works on textual satire and intermediality would have offered, perhaps, is a more sophisticated approach to questions of rhetoric, form, and tone and how we might think about satire more generally, or at least the relationship between image and text and satire, the satirist, society, and politics.



How influential was de Hooghe? That’s a tough question, and one that Hale handles with tremendous caution, even coming down on the side of saying: not much. One the one hand, de Hooghe was certainly famous—and later infamous—in the Netherlands, where his name was common stock and where he savored tremendous commercial success throughout his career. That changed later in life, when he was routinely subjected to nasty attacks and counter-satires by his countrymen, especially after his anti-Orangist turn in the early 1700s.

De Hooghe was also pretty good at fighting back. As he wrote to the Orangist pamphleteer Ericus Walten while they were preparing Copye Authentijck van de Liquidatie van Reeckeningen (1690), a short pamphlet enumerating those bribed to testify against de Hooghe, “If [our opponents] opt for the road of justice, we are familiar with it; and if they opt for libel, we are better at it than they are.” Despite such efforts, de Hooghe’s reputation witnessed a precipitous drop-off after his death. In 1754, the painter Jacob Campo Weyerman called his birth a “reproach” to the city of Amsterdam; for the historian Johan Huizinga, de Hooghe was “a coarse spirit” and further evidence for the decline of Dutch art after the Golden Age.

At the same time, we can find plenty of evidence for de Hooghe’s satires and prints traveling abroad. His news sheets and book illustrations were available in seventeenth-century Mexico City; his Williamite imagery became the basis for a propaganda school for etching established by Peter the Great in Moscow in 1698 and set up by de Hooghe’s former pupil, Adriaen Schoonebeek. Collections of De Hooghe’s prints can also be found all over the world today, including in Brooklyn and Tepoztlán, Mexico, and in the British Museum, though this latter group was obtained only in the later nineteenth century thanks to the somewhat idiosyncratic predilections of one keeper of the collection, George Reid.

Numerous art historians, including E. H. Gombrich, and scholars of English satire and of Hogarth, such as Paulson and Jenny Uglow, have likewise tendentiously claimed that Hogarth must have been familiar with de Hooghe’s works based on their own stylistic analysis rather than evidentiary or documentary proof. Even then, the point of greatest contact between de Hooghe and his supposed English successors is visual-compositional, not in the text-image hybrids that characterize so many decades of his work.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, Hale is pretty skeptical about such influence, and again and again emphasizes that that de Hooghe’s satires were intended for an intensely local Amsterdam audience: the “cosmopolitan elite” (239) and undecided moderates. Moreover, she notes, we lack any real evidence that de Hooghe’s prints actually made it much beyond the Dutch borders, even if they eventually found their way into far-flung collections, writing that “the satires do not seem to have circulated broadly beyond the Dutch market in the seventeenth century” (239). Hale even throws some cold water on the potential stylistic influence of de Hooghe on his contemporaries and successors. His prints might have sold in massive numbers domestically, but there are “only a handful of contemporary and near-contemporary Dutch examples in which other printmakers cited aspects of De Hooghe’s distinctive political-satirical iconography” (240).

Hale’s caution and skepticism should be lauded, but the end result is that her central thesis is at least partially undermined by the rigor of her own historicism. De Hooghe might have been the first political satirist, but he seems to have exerted a meagre influence after his death, especially outside of the Netherlands and beyond the direct championing of his former apprentices. His influence on other artists, and especially later British satirists, who have been unfairly credited with having invented modern political satire in Hale’s view, is perhaps diffuse at best. The result is that the firstness of his contribution to visual satire possesses a tree-falling-in-woods quality: maybe he was the first political satirist, but no one seems to have noticed beyond the late seventeenth century, especially besides the Dutch, and even they weren’t in love with him.

That de Hooghe invented “modern political satire” is perhaps, then, too grand of a claim, at least in my view. But what Hale has done is even more important than insisting upon the originary position of an artist often ignored by scholars outside of the Low Countries: she has brought attention to one of the most important printmakers of the later seventeenth century, a figure too often if not almost completely overlooked in Anglophone scholarship and an artist at the center of international relations during a critical moment in European politics and when the very nature of monarchy was being ferociously debated. One of the great pleasures of reading this book, in fact, was examining some of the roughly 1300 works linked to de Hooghe that have been digitized by the Rijksmuseum in conjunction with Hale’s illuminating historical analyses.

A greater appreciation, beyond Dutch-language scholars, of de Hooghe’s contribution to visual and textual culture is needed, and The Birth of Modern Political Satire is one concrete step towards a better understanding of this inventive, provocative, and at times infuriating artist. More generally, Hale’s book should encourage us to rethink what we talk about when we talk about “modern political satire,” how it operates, when it emerges, and what its legacy is today—and how we might glimpse an alternative, more subtle formulation of a visual-verbal satiric practice, one that pushes us past the simple us-versus-them of Saturday Night Live and Alec Baldwin’s “sad” impersonations.



Posted on 10 February 2021

ANDREW BENJAMIN BRICKER is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Ghent University in Belgium. His first book, Libel and Lampoon: Satire in the Courts, 1670-1792 (forthcoming from Oxford University Press, January 2022), focuses on the development of defamation law in relation to written and visual satire during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Britain.