Al Hirschfeld, Master Caricaturist

7 February 2003

    Try to draw a squiggled pen line, make a smooth swoop or two with the ink brush, and add a pair of smiling eyes. It sounds easy, but for most of us the picture would look more like something from a crayon in a five-year-old’s fist. With the hand of a masterful artist, Al Hirschfeld took his black pen and created joyful caricature magic.

    Al Hirschfeld was born on June 21, 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri. He was one of three sons of Rebecca and Isaac Hirschfeld. *(1) Art so encompassed his life that by age 12, his grade school teacher said there was nothing more they could teach him. The family moved to New York City, where Hirschfeld continued his studies and joined the Art Students League. His first working assignments came at age 17, creating ads for the Samuel Goldwyn Studios. A short time later, he was the art director for Selznick Pictures - he was also still a teenager. Hirschfeld made a stab at running his own studio without success, but work with Warner Brothers gave him the finances he needed to pay his former staff. *(2)

    Trips to Europe and Bali inspired the young artist. Hirschfeld told an interviewer that the people resembled “walking line drawings,” due to the intense sun that bleached out all colour. Though interested in many forms of art, he was fascinated with line drawing and developed it into his signature style.

    The New York Herald Tribune was the first to publish the deceptively effortless caricatures, beginning with a sketch on December 26, 1926 of Sacha Guitry, a French actor in his first American stage performance. The picture was published on the front page and earned him more assignments. Within two years, the New York Times became one of five newspapers to publish Hirschfeld’s work. It was the start of a lifelong freelance relationship for Hirschfeld with the New York Times, one that would last an amazing 75 years.

    While watching performances in Broadway theatres, Al Hirschfeld drew spare lines and made notes n the pages of a small notebook. (He was known to doodle expertly in the dark, in his pocket, too.) Back at his studio, he transformed the sketches into breath-taking caricatures of famous actors. His perfected style used the least number of lines to gain maximum effect, such as swooping lines to represent a shoulder to the wrist, with only the fingers of the opposite hand in a sea of white to signify crossed arms. His work was dramatic, an effort to capture the essence, the true character, of his subject. He used black space and texture to enhance clothing, bow ties or hair, and sharp chins, exaggerated or minimized eyes to pique interest.

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A young Al Hirschfeld.

    When his only child, daughter Nina, was born in 1945, Hirschfeld began hiding her name in his drawings in the curls of hair, in small fabric folds, anywhere he could. Once his readers caught on to this, they scrutinized every caricature for her name. The artist tired of the game, but when he purposefully omitted her letters in one panel, he was inundated with complaints. He even had to start adding the number of Nina’s in the lower right hand corner, so his fans would know how many to search out.

    The Margo Feiden Galleries have represented the work of Hirschfeld for several decades and are a colourful source of information about the caricaturist and his art. The Galleries estimated that there are over 7,000 original Hirschfeld caricatures in existence. To be characterized by Hirschfeld was a distinct honour. Arthur Gelb, the former managing editor of the New York Times noted, “Al’s drawing was your mark of achievement.” Along with celebrating stage actors from the 1920s to 2002, the inexhaustible artist drew television and movie stars, from Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and Ringo Starr, to the Star Trek crew and the actors from Touched by an Angel.

    Al Hirschfeld was known on occasion to be a little cranky, but never directed it toward his caricature subjects. “It is never my aim to destroy the play or the actor by ridicule,” he said in one of his books, “The World of Hirschfeld,” published in 1970. “My contribution is to take the character – created by the playwright and acted out by the actor – and reinvent it for the reader.”

    Line drawings were not the famous caricaturist’s only claim to fame. He created lithographs, paintings, sculpture and wrote articles, books and criticism. During the 1940s, he paired up with S. J. Perelman to create several books, with Perelman writing, Hirschfeld the drawings. Together they produced “Westward Ha!”, “Listen to the Mockingbird,” plus “The Swiss Family Perelman”. Hirschfeld also crafted the drawings for Perelman’s memoir, “And Did You Once See Sidney Plain?”.

    A film documentary of Hirschfeld was produced in 1996 by Susan W. Dreyfuss. “The Line King” was nominated for an Academy Award and was an in-depth story of his life and work. Two Tony Awards were given to the master caricaturist: one an Antoinette Perry Award given by the theatre world as their acceptance of him as one of their own, and the second was the Brooks Atkinson Award, of which he was the first recipient.

    The United States Post Office gave Hirschfeld the honour of having his caricatures on 29-cent US postage stamps in 1991. The collection of five stamps was a tribute to comedians, including Abbott and Costello, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and others.

    Married briefly as a young man, Hirschfeld was divorced from his first wife. German actress Dolly Haas became his beloved second wife in 1942 and they spent 52 years together until her death in 1994. He married again at the age of 93 to Louise Kerz, an arts research historian.

    Al Hirschfeld died of natural causes at the age of 99 on January 21, 2003. Up until a few days before, the spritely caricaturist was driving his car and working at his art. He was creating a commissioned piece of his favourite actors, the Marx Brothers. Before his death, he was given news that this summer he was to receive the National Medal of the Arts, to be given by President George Bush. He was also thrilled to find out that a theatre on West 45th Street in New York City was to be renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. There was also a benefit for the Actor’s Fund planned for June 21, what would be Hirschfeld’s 100th birthday.

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Al Hirschfeld's fascinating self-portrait at 90 years old, Courtesy of The Margo Feiden Galleries.
Copyright © The Margo Feiden Galleries, New York.

    I am glad he lived to hear the award news and know that he was appreciated. His magical skill with the pen and artistic insights will be sorely missed.

Browse the Margo Feiden Gallery site and find an assortment of 75 years of caricatures. Also find wallpapers, etc.:

The detailed New York Times obituary of Al Hirschfeld (It’s a good read plus there are video clips of the artist and his work):

A Bud Plant Illustrated Books biography of Hirschfeld with illustrations and photos:

Information on Hirschfeld and his work from the James A. Michener Art Museum:

© Susanna McLeod 2003  
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on