Friday, October 7, 2011


Albert ("Al") Hirschfeld is one of the preeminent modern caricaturists. Despite the fact that he is most famous for his minimalistic black and white line drawing caricatures of Broadway actors, he also worked in a number of different mediums, subjects, and experimented with color.


Born in St.Louis in 1903, he began his art training at the Art Students League of New York in New York City.

Hirschfeld began working with with Samuel Goldwyn Studios on ads. Then he moved over to Selznick Pictures where he became the art director-- at the age of 17. After Selznick went out of business several years later, Hirschfeld traveled to Paris and then London where he studied an array of artistic mediums: from sculpture, to painting, and finally, drawing.

His career in theater caricature because with his portrait of Sacha Guitry, a French star, in 1926 (image on right).

Hirschfeld went to the theater with his friend Dick Maney, a press agent. He began to scribble a drawing of Guitry. His friend thought the scribble was good and asked Hirschfeld to redraw the image on a clean sheet of paper. Hirschfeld gave Maney the image and the next Sunday it was in The New York Herald Tribune. For the next 20 years, Hirschfeld made a weekly contribution to drama section of the Sunday edition of the Tribune. Shortly after his drawing of Guitry, Hirschfeld began drawing for The New York Times.

Early in his career, Hirschfeld was still trying to define his style. He "flirted" with pointlism (Florence Reed, 1926), shading, and line weight (Cafe Crown 1942). However, he eventually turned his focus towards clean, black and white lines.

In 1927, Hirschfeld went to Russia. Russia was undergoing a revolution. While there, he spent some time drawing Russian theater greats like Stanislavski. He also drew images of the Russian people in the first decade of Communism. He planned on creating a book out of these sketches. However, many of the drawings were lost and the book was never published.

Many of his drawings were of political figures or offered some sort of political commentary.
Art and History 1931

Inflation 1932

Politico-Erotica 1933
Peace in Our Time 1939

As Hirshfeld' name because synonymous with theater caricature, it became a right of passage for the theater greats to be drawn by him.
Zero Mostel

Danny Kaye - 1953

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton - 1977

Newspapers often tasked him with trying to capture the heart of a play prior to opening night.
Carousel - 1945

Rent - 1996

Process and "NINA"
While watching shows in rehearsal or at previews, he would make notes, understandable to only himself, on a small sketch pad or would draw with a small pencil on piece of paper taken out from his pocket. He would break the actors and shows into their most fundamental, basic pieces. "I would try to put down as accurately as I can the things that are visually exciting to me: certain movements of hands, the way the actors sit, cross their legs, or look at each other." He would also become grossly enthralled with the scenery. After a show, because his focus had remained mainly on these "details", when questioned about the plot he often would have no idea what the larger piece of theater was about. When he would return home to his studio, he would do his best to recreate the show/character from his notes. "To be sure of the actor's appearance when he made that gesture, Hirschfeld went to the mirror... Hirschfeld quite often cast himself as his own model, miming female as well as male roles in order to remind himself how performers look stage." When the drawings were basically finished, Hirschfeld would then add in his famous "NINA"s. After the birth of his daughter in 1945, Hirschfeld would secretly slip in the word "NINA," his daughter's name, into all of his drawings. It has become a "game" for Hirschfeld fans to find the Ninas in his works. He would sometimes write a number text to his signature that signified the number of "NINA"s to be found.

His "process" of creating is unique, to say the least, and speaks to both the interesting drawing form that is caricature but on a more general level to the many ways an artist can approach beginning a piece.

Why Hirschfeld?
I have always been passionate about theater and was interested in learning about its' intersection with drawing. I remember how captivated I was going to Sardi's (a restaurant in New York with hundreds of Hirschfeld's) and wanted to learn more about the artist.

Caricature also fascinates me. I am interested in how one can convey an idea in the simplest way possible. How does one capture the true essence of a subject? How do you break a person down into component pieces?

Also, in caricature, the physical form is stretched and mutated-- yet the human brain still understands who the subject is. I am also interested in experimenting with that idea.

Finally, in this class, we first started learning about line drawing. Line drawings are the most fundamental form of drawing and I wanted to examine an artist who manages to convey idea only with line.

Hirschfeld, Al. Hirschfeld on Line. New York: Applause, 1999. Print.

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