Al Hirschfeld's America  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Doyle Galleries.

With a single line, Al Hirschfeld’s drawings reveal a wealth of information about his subjects.  His one line caricatures look as fresh today as when they were first created. 

That’s Hirschfeld’s magic.  He’s best known for simple black-and-white portraits of celebrities and Broadway stars. 

I want to keep simplifying my graphic description of someone’s character. Now I am down to a pencil, a pen, and a bottle of ink.  I hope one day to eliminate even the pencil. 
— Al Hirschfeld

Simple but accurate drawings of famous people like Shirley MacLaine, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball capture their essence and leave out the fanfare.  Hirschfeld’s drawings were enjoyed in the vainest of industries.

At age 21, the artist rented a studio on West 42nd Street in New York City with Miguel Covarrubias a young artist he met at a party.  Miguel was a natural graphic artist and Hirschfeld said a lot of his roommate’s stylized drawings and caricatures rubbed off on him.  Hirschfeld also appreciated the work of John Held Jr., who invented the look of the Jazz Age in his drawings.  Held used the same thin line seen in pre-Columbian sculpture and on the drawings of Greek vases.

Studios kept Hirschfeld busy in the 1930s working as an independent artist illustrating movie posters for mostly musicals and comedies.  He was also creating drawings for a string of Broadway shows and for at least three New York newspapers. 

Hirschfeld drew some of the original movie posters for Charlie Chaplin films and “The Wizard of Oz.”  He also did the poster artwork of the Marx Brothers for their first 1935 film, “A Night at the Opera.” 

The artist knew he nailed it “when the Marx Brothers looked like my drawing rather than the other way around,” he said.  The makeup department at MGM Studios even tried to get the Marx Brothers to conform to the artist’s image of them. 

Hirschfeld illustrated entire casts of Broadway shows appearing alongside reviews in The New York Times.  Newspaper and magazine publicity departments realized Hirschfeld was finding his audience.  Readers appreciated his fresh, simple take on people.  They also knew he hid his daughter Nina’s name somewhere in his work.  It was great fun pouring over his illustrations to find it. 

What interested Hirschfeld most was the possibility of communicating images in pure line.

“I want to keep simplifying my graphic description of someone’s character,” he said.  “Now I am down to a pencil, a pen, and a bottle of ink.  I hope one day to eliminate even the pencil.” 

Hirschfeld won two Tony Awards and was named a Living Landmark by the New York City Landmarks Commission in 1996.  He was also named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2000.  He is the only artist to have a Broadway theater named after him. 

The barber chair and table where Hirschfeld sat and created almost all of his work is on permanent display on the plaza of Lincoln Center at the entrance of the New York Public Library. 

Hirschfeld died in 2003.

On June 22, Doyle Galleries featured The Hirschfeld Sale.  In the auction was a selection of caricatures and a photo taken of him. 

Photograph; portrait of Al Hirschfeld; by Phil Straus; signed and inscribed; 2000; 19 inches by 15 inches;  $288.

Etching; self-portrait in barber chair; signed and inscribed; 1983; 15 ½ inches by 19 ¾ inches;  $2,500.

Lithograph; Audrey with Hat; signed and numbered; 16 ½ inches by 8 ½ inches;  $3,438.

Etching; Marilyn; signed and numbered; 1983; 13 1/8 inches by 10 inches;  $5,000.

Ink on Board; of Dolly Parton, Barry Manilow, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Diana Ross, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, and David Crosby; signed and inscribed; circa 1979;  $8,320. 

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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