"I try to capture the character of the play or the individual, rather than making a caricature for caricature's sake," artist Al Hirschfeld (1903–2003) was quoted as saying in USA Today. Perhaps that was the secret of the man widely regarded as the greatest caricature artist of modern times.
Most caricatures poke fun at their subjects, exaggerating their physical features for comic effect. Hirschfeld's drawings of stage actors and other entertainers, by contrast, often seemed to find the essence of a performer's creativity. Over a 75-year association with theNew York Times, Hirschfeld drew performers ranging from dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the 1920s to hit television comedian Jerry Seinfeld. His style never became old-fashioned, and for decades his caricatures seemed like permanent fixtures of the Times arts pages.
Albert Hirschfeld grew up in St. Louis, Missouri in a house without electricity, gas, or running water. His father was a third-generation German-American, and his mother was born in Ukraine. Hirschfeld took to drawing from the start, telling Time's Andrea Sachs that "I don't remember doing anything else. I can't do anything else." His parents moved to New York after a teacher told them there was nothing more he could learn in St. Louis. But they maintained their simple lifestyle, moving into a farmhouse near what was then the rural northern end of Manhattan Island.
Hirschfeld took art classes at the Vocational School for Boys during the day, continuing his training in the evening at the influential Art Students' League. He focused on painting and sculpture, and from the start he apparently showed the ability to work quickly and come up with convincing images: at the age of 18, he was hired as art director at Selznick Studios across the river from New York City in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He worked there with future movie-industry giant David O. Selznick, creating the publicity post for the silent film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. After the studio hit hard times, however, Hirschfeld suffered financially and resolved to work for himself from then on.
In 1924, Hirschfeld joined a large migration of young American artists and went to Paris. Lacking the kind of financial cushion many of his friends enjoyed, Hirschfeld supported himself as a tap dancer. Still primarily a painter, he flirted with modern styles. Back in New York in 1926, however, he attended a play with agent Dick Maney. During the performance, he doodled a sketch of French actor Sacha Guitry. The agent, impressed, asked Hirschfeld for a fresh copy and sent it to several New York newspapers. The following Sunday morning, Hirschfeld awoke to find his drawing on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune's theater section. He traveled to the Soviet Union as a theater correspondent for that paper in 1927.
Career with the New York Times
Assignments began to flow in from other papers, including the Times, where Hirschfeld was forced to drop his work off at the front desk for nearly two years—the doorman would not admit him to the rather stuffy newspaper's august halls. But editors began to notice his work, and finally they made it known that they wanted to have his work appear in the Times exclusively. "Just cross my palm with silver and I'm your fella," Hirschfeld answered (as he recounted to Neil A. Grauer of American Heritage). Thus began one of history's most durable freelance associations; Hirschfeld's drawings would appear in the newspaper for the next three-quarters of a century, but he did not sign his first contract until 1990.
Hirschfeld still had not settled definitively upon the style that made him famous; he did satirical political drawings for several leftist-oriented magazines, creating a cartoon showing the emerging German dictator Adolf Hitler in front of a chorus line of goose-stepping female dancers. His real artistic breakthrough came in 1931 when he traveled to the island of Bali, in what is now Indonesia, at the suggestion of his friend, the Mexican-born Vanity Fair illustrator Miguel Covarrubias. "The sun bleaches out color, leaving shadow and black and white, leaving these wonderful walking lines and great hieroglyphics," Hirschfeld was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. Asian artists, such as Japan's Hiroshige and Utamaro, influenced Hirschfeld's work.
After absorbing these experiences, Hirschfeld developed the ability to convey a performer's personality in a few deft strokes. Working in darkened theaters, he would make rudimentary sketches and verbal notes of his of ideas, such as the word "Brillo" to describe his image of a subject's hair. Asked one time whether he did more complex drawings when he had extra time, he answered (as quoted on the alhirschfeld.com website), "No, when I'm rushed I do a complicated drawing. When I have the time I do a simple one." Critic Tom Rubin, quoted in England's Independent newspaper, wrote of "the Rorschach-like experience of discovering, say, that Carol Channing's nose and mouth can be perfectly represented by an umlaut hovering over a parking-meter dial."
Started the Nina's
Hirschfeld married dancer Florence Hobby in 1927, but the marriage broke up in 1939. A second marriage to Dolly Haas in 1943 produced a daughter, Nina, born in November of 1945. That event gave rise to an ongoing reminder of Hirschfeld's skills: to mark his daughter's birth, he included a tiny poster reading "Nina the Wonder Child" in a drawing for a musical (called Are You With It?) that had a circus setting. At first, Hirschfeld was quoted as saying in the Times, he thought that only "close friends and immediate family enjoyed a mild snicker over this infantile prank." After a few weeks, however, readers were hooked on trying to find the "Ninas" that subtly interrupted the lines with which Hirschfeld represented hair, eyebrows, shoelaces, or articles of clothing. When he attempted to retire the Nina device, letters of protest poured in.
Searching for the Nina name became a favorite American Sunday-morning pastime. Even the United States Defense Department found the search worthwhile, testing pilots for their ability to pick targets out of camouflage by measuring their speed in finding the Ninas in Hirschfeld's caricatures. In 1960 Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger passed on a reader suggestion that the number of Ninas be specified as an aid to the searchers. Hirschfeld responded by adding to his distinctively tall, narrow signature a number that indicated how many Ninas were in the drawing. If there was no number, that meant there was only one Nina.
Hirschfeld did over 7,000 drawings during his long career, and the signed originals began to command premium prices after he began a relationship with the Margo Feiden Galleries in 1969. Among his most frequent subjects were Carol Channing and Julie Andrews, but there was hardly a major theatrical or film performer from the 1930s on whom he did not draw at one time or another. Some of Hirschfeld's instinct for the telling detail grew out of his sheer love of theater; he was said to have attended more plays than anyone else alive, and, asked by Time whether he ever tired of theater, he answered, "No, there's always something that works, no matter how bad the play is. It will be the set, or one acting performance is outstanding. Or the ushers."
His favorite performers to draw, he told the New York Times, were the ones who "don't close the doors, they slam them"—not only physical comedians like Charlie Chaplin, but also larger-than-life figures like Liza Minnelli and Fiddler on the Roof star Zero Mostel. Many of his subjects felt (and a few complained) that he saw aspects of their personalities of which they themselves were unaware, and dancer Ray Bolger, who played the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, paid Hirschfeld a high compliment for a caricaturist, saying (according to the Independent) that "I now imitate the drawing" Hirschfeld had made of him. Hirschfeld's drawings of that film's star, Judy Garland, were among his most familiar.
Not all of Hirschfeld's drawings were of figures in the world of entertainment and the arts. He drew world leaders such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and of his more than 15 books several contained not portraits of famous people but drawings of ordinary people in specific cultural scenes. His 1941 book Harlem, exploring the music and dance of that artistically fertile New York neighborhood, was reissued after his death in 2003. Hirschfeld also collaborated with his best friend, humorist S.J. Perelman, on Westward Ha! or Around the World in 80 Cliches and other books. Though the New York Times held exclusive newspaper rights to his drawings, magazines were his constant customers; "naming them all is like counting stars in the sky," wrote Margo Feiden on her gallery's alhirschfeld.com website.
Hirschfeld's description of himself (quoted in the New York Times) revealed a caricaturist's eye: "A couple of huge eyes and huge mattress of hair. Large eyes with superimposed eyebrows. No forehead. The forehead that you see is just the hair disappearing." He did not mention the large beard that was his trademark, and his caricatures of others likewise sometimes ignored prominent features; he de-emphasized the noses of comic Jimmy Durante and singer Barbra Streisand, for example. When Variety magazine wrote that he had "sprouted a hanging garden on his chin" (according to England's Daily Telegraph), he sued for $300,000 and won—but was awarded only six cents in damages.
Revered as an Artist
Old age seemed only to intensify Hirschfeld's work schedule, and although he lamented the passing of Broadway's golden era he believed that his late works were among his best. "After 70 years of drawing you improve; otherwise you are a dolt." he was quoted as saying in the Telegraph. In 1991, the U.S. Postal Service released series of stamp booklets featuring Hirschfeld's drawings of famous comedians: Laurel and Hardy, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Abbott and Costello, and Fanny Brice. Although a regulation prohibited hidden messages in U.S. postage stamp designs, it was relaxed to permit the inclusion of Hirschfeld's Ninas. The series was so successful that it was followed up with a second set of Hirschfeld designs in 1994, this one featuring silent film stars. Hirschfeld's wife Dolly died that year; he married Louise Kerz in 1996.
New generations took to the art of the nonagenarian Hirschfeld as if he were one of their own. The Academy Award-nominated 1996 Public Broadcasting System documentary The Line King brought him new admirers, and in 1998 his drawing of pop star Madonna graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Hirschfeld drove his own car into his 90s, and he and his wife kept up a steady theatergoing schedule. Museums around the world, including Washington's Smithsonian Institution and New York's Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art, began to acquire his works.
In January of 2003, Hirschfeld received word of several major honors for which he was slated: the National Medal of the Arts, membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and—a theatrical honor of special significance—the renaming of Manhattan's Martin Beck Theater as the Al Hirschfeld Theater. On Friday, January 17, he went to the Margo Feiden Gallery to sign a set of lithographs of silent comedian Charlie Chaplin, shown walking away from the camera; the print was entitled "The End." Over the weekend he worked on a sketch of the Marx Brothers, and on January 20 he died in his sleep. In a eulogy published in American Theatre, cartoonist Jules Feiffer said, "He is to caricature what Fred Astaire is to dance."
Hirschfeld, Al, Art and Recollections from Eight Decades, Maxwell Macmillan, 1991.
Hirschfeld on Line, Applause Books, 1998.
American Heritage, July-August 1998.
American Theatre, April 2003.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), January 22, 2003.
Entertainment Weekly, February 7, 2003.
Independent (London, England), January 22, 2003.
New York Times, January 21, 2003; January 26, 2003.
Time, January 21, 2002.
USA Today, January 21, 2003.
Washington Post, January 21, 2003.
"About Nina," New York Times Theater Archive, http://theater.nytimes.com/ref/theater/hirschfeld/index.html?rf=aboutnina.html (January 30, 2005).
"Albert Hirschfeld," Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005. http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (January 30, 2005).
"The Line King," Margo Feiden Galleries, http://www.alhirschfeld.com/bios/alhirschfeld.html (January 30, 2005).
HIRSCHFELD, AL (Albert ; 1903–2003), U.S. caricaturist. Born in St. Louis, Hirschfeld moved with his family to New York where he was 12 and had already started art lessons. He attended the Art Students League. By 18 he was art director for Selznick Pictures. In 1924 he went to Paris, where he continued his studies in painting, sculpture, and drawing. On a trip to Bali, where the intense sun bleached out all color and reduced people to "walking line drawings," he recalled, he became "enchanted with line" and concentrated on that technique. At the theater in New York in 1926 he doodled a sketch in the dark on the program. Asked to repeat it on a clean piece of paper, he produced a sketch that appeared on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune, which gave him more assignments. Some weeks later he was engaged by the New York Times to sketch Harry Lauder, the Scottish entertainer, who was on one of his innumerable farewell tours. Thus began a lifelong relationship with the Times. His sketches over a 75-year career captured the vivid personalities of theater people. He was a familiar figure at first nights and at rehearsals, where he had perfected the technique of making a sketch in the dark, using a system of shorthand notations that contributed to the finished product. He drew Barbra *Streisand birdlike, with wide-open mouth and lidded eyes. Zero Mostel, the original Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, appeared as a circle of beard and hair with fierce eyes peering upward, as at a heaven that did not understand. Hirschfeld's work also appeared in books and is in the collections of many museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. In the 1930s and 1940s he wrote articles on comedians, actors, Greenwich Village, and films for the Times. In the 1920s and 1930s, imbued with a sense of social concern, Hirschfeld did serious lithographs that appeared, for no fee, in the New Masses, a Communist-line magazine. Eventually he realized that the magazine's interest was politics rather than art. After a dispute about a caricature he did of the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, the right-wing, antisemitic priest, he renounced a political approach to his work. He was represented by the Margo Feiden Galleries, which once estimated that there were more than 7,000 Hirschfeld originals in existence. In 1991 the United States Postal Service issued a booklet of five 29-cent stamps honoring comedians as designed by the artist. In 1996 a film documentary of the artist's life by Susan W. Dryfoos, The Line King, rich in tributes from those he had drawn and from those he worked with, was nominated for an Academy Award. That year he was also named one of six New York City landmarks by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. A few days before the end of his life, he was notified that the American Academy of Arts and Letters had elected him a member and President George W. Bush notified him that he was one of the recipients of the National Medal of Arts. On June 21, 2003, his 100th birthday, the Martin Beck Theater of West 45th Street in New York was renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theater.
[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]