Now Mr. Dunkus? that wasn’t the right thing to say by Barbara Shermund

After her art education in California, 26-year-old Barbara Shermund moved to New York City in 1925, where she began working as a cartoonist and story illustrator. She quickly became one of the first female cartoonists at the newly-founded The New Yorker. Over the next twenty years, she contributed nine covers and hundreds of cartoons to the magazine, usually writing her own captions. Her drawings also appeared in Esquire and LIFE, as well as in books of humor. She regularly exhibited her work in New York galleries, in the company of contemporaries such as James Thurber and historic artists such as Honoré Daumier. In fact, a 1931 review referred to her as “a modern Daumier.”

2012-33 Shermund entered the field in a period when sophisticated readers appreciated satires of the world of moneyed privilege. Cosmopolitan city dwellers, urbane suburbanites, private club members, and other denizens of the social scene were among Shermund’s subjects. In this cartoon, she skewers both the pompous older generation and the fashionable young set. With lines ranging from sweeping to angular, she depicts a dyspeptic man who has made a social faux-pas, at least according to the daringly-dressed socialite correcting him. Shermund often drew women who broke social barriers, such as the speaker here―a caricature herself―who shows no respect for her dignified elder. As one critic noted, “Miss Shermund’s style is worldly.  The foibles of various proud elements of society and intelligentsia are natural targets of her wit.”

Shermund did not have a studio, preferring to draw on her kitchen table. She was a world traveler and often created her art while on the go in Europe, Canada, and the Western United States. Lively and sociable, she never married. One of her friends commented that she reminded him of a flapper, conjuring up the fun-loving young women of the 1920s.

In 1946, the constitution of the newly-founded National Cartoonists Society stated that any male cartoonist who signed his name to his published work could apply for membership. Three years later, cartoonist Hilda Terry challenged the rule, and after more than six months of debates and votes, Terry and Shermund were two of the three first women finally admitted to the society.

One of the challenges of the art of illustration is the immense number of works published in books and magazines. If a work has no identifying marks or related documentation (which is the case with this cartoon), research involves searching through magazines, some with online archives and many not, to identify the date and place of publication. This process may eventually tie Shermund’s cartoon to a magazine; it’s also possible that she decided not to submit the work, or that it did not make the editor’s cut. Still, the drawing allows us to enjoy a glimpse into the mood and style of a long-gone era.

Shermund’s drawing is on view in the Brock J. Vinton Galleries through mid-December.

Now Mr. Dunkus―that wasn’t the right thing to say.
Barbara Shermund (1899-1978)
Date and place of publication not identified
Ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper
19 5/8 x 14 1/2 inches
Acquisition Fund, 2012

This Curator Corner was posted on August 29, 2013.