Wilson Building display of political cartoonist’s work shows long history of voting rights struggle

by Athena Naylor

This article was first published in The DC Line.

Last month’s pivotal midterm election provoked heightened frustration over DC’s lack of a vote in Congress. District residents on Nov. 6 may have found themselves longingly gazing across the Potomac River to spy on Arlington County, where ballots provided choices for voting members of the House and Senate and where residents did not drive to the polls with license plates that decry the continued condition of “taxation without representation.”

This scene of a lonely and left-out DC (minus the detail of motor vehicles) is reflected in one of the seven C.K. Berryman cartoons now on display indefinitely on the fifth floor of the John A. Wilson Building, which houses the offices of the District’s mayor and council. This tribute to Berryman, in addition to celebrating a distinguished DC cartoonist, pointedly illustrates the longevity of the city’s struggle for a political voice.

Clifford Kennedy Berryman was an influential political cartoonist who began his career during the Gilded Age, a post-Civil War period marked by superficial displays of wealth masking deep social inequalities. That time also coincides with the golden age of American political cartoons and the rise of print publications such as Harper’s Weekly, Puck and Judge.

In 1891, Berryman began working for The Washington Post before going on to work for the Washington Star from 1907 until his death in 1949. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial work in 1944.

Berryman is perhaps best known for penning the drawing of President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear that inspired the production of teddy bears. In fact, visitors who view the cartoons in the Wilson Building should keep an eye out for a trumpeting bear in one of the illustrations. This bear became a recurring character and mascot for Berryman’s career, often appearing as an additional commentator to his scenes and linking the artist’s later works to the famous cartoon that made teddy bears a national phenomenon.

Berryman also drew the 1898 cartoon that popularized the well-known rallying cry “Remember the Maine!” during the Spanish-American War. The tribute in the Wilson Building highlights another dominant motif of Berryman’s career: his frequent commentary during his tenure at the Washington Star on DC’s lack of congressional power.

Around the corner from the Council Chamber and near the office of DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, visitors can find prints of seven cartoons about “voteless DC” surrounding a painting of Berryman by Richard Sumner Meryman Sr. that was previously part of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s collection and is on long-term loan to the DC Council from American University, the current owner. In each illustration, Berryman represents DC as a stout man in 18th-century clothing, including a powdered wig, tricorn hat, buckle shoes, and small round glasses. DC’s relatively stout stature serves as a visual contrast to lanky Uncle Sam, who appears in several of the selected cartoons either ignoring DC or requesting taxes and soldiers despite DC’s complaints of taxation without representation.

This all-too-familiar slogan often appears on the image of a ball and chain that keeps Berryman’s DC anchored to Revolutionary-era sentiments and frustrations. In one cartoon, Berryman draws DC gazing up at a painting depicting the “beginning of the war against taxation without representation, April 19, 1775” while DC remarks, “That war was never won, if you ask me!”

Other illustrations directly reference the Boston Tea Party, including one cartoon recognizing the 163rd anniversary of the event and another showing a waterlogged DC in the tea-filled harbor exclaiming, “Hey! It was the tea, not me, to go overboard!”

Either cathartic or frustrating in their illustration of DC’s long and continued fight for voting rights, the Berryman cartoons in the Wilson Building — created more than seven decades ago — remain relatable to the modern eye. Considering their shared political content, the illustrations’ current location beside municipal offices is appropriate.

Visiting the Berryman tribute during its indefinite tenure in the Wilson Building is certainly worthwhile for an up-close view of Berryman’s detailed, cross-hatched pen illustrations, and to contemplate the history of political cartoons in a city where editorial illustration continues to thrive.

With only seven cartoons on display, the Wilson Building tribute that debuted this fall can hardly give a sense of Berryman’s prolific career. For those interested in further exploring Berryman’s extensive oeuvre and the other subjects his cartoons illustrated, the Library of Congress holds many prints, and the DC Public Library holds a digital collection of 108 Berryman cartoons that are accessible online.

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