Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

New-York Historical Society Celebrates Al Hirschfeld with New Book, Out Today

Al Hirschfeld immortalized celebrities, politicians, Broadway productions, films, television shows and beyond with his iconic linear drawings for nine decades, establishing himself as one of the most important contemporary portrait artists. Over a decade since the legendary artist drew his final line drawing, he continues to inspire. This spring and summer, Hirschfeld is being celebrated with the publication of a new book and a major exhibition at the New-York Historical Society.

"In 2015 we celebrate many Hirschfeld milestones: 100 years since Hirschfeld saw his first Broadway show, 90 years since his first published caricature, 70 years since he first hid the name of his daughter Nina in one of his drawings (launching a national obsession of Nina-hunters), and 40 years since he received his first of two lifetime achievement Tony Awards," says Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, President, The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. "Al Hirschfeld glorified the artistic genius of those who created cinema and theatre. His drawings continue to mesmerize us with their fluidity, composition and cinematic style. We're thrilled that Hirschfeld's work continues to inspire people and that people will have the opportunity to experience his work in this beautiful new book and exhibition this spring."

The New-York Historical Society presents The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld, now through October 12, 2015. Organized by Louise Kerz Hirschfeld and guest curated by David Leopold of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, the exhibition will be the most comprehensive to date, featuring more than 100 original drawings from the artist's early work for Hollywood studios to his last drawings for The New York Times. The exhibition will feature classic portraits of Charlie Chaplin, Carol Channing, Ella Fitzgerald, Jane Fonda and Ringo Starr, as well as cast drawings from such landmark productions as Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and The Glass Menagerie. Also on view will be selections from the artist's sketchbooks, ephemera, and related videos.

Visitors to The Hirschfeld Century will explore the artist's career chronologically, beginning with his pre-caricature days at Selznick Pictures in the early 1920s to his last works in theater, film, television, music and dance in 2002. A video showing Hirschfeld's working process, from inception to completion, will also be on view. Among the highlights is a 1928 drawing for MGM depicting the fledgling comedy team Laurel and Hardy in a bed with a brightly colored blanket, ingeniously made from a collage of wallpaper samples. An image of actress Ruby Keeler from No, No Nanette (1971) captures the wild energy of the 60-year old actress in her comeback role, enthusiastically tap dancing with arms and legs a-blur. Portraits of more recent stage legends like Jerry Orbach (in 42nd Street, 1980) and Sandra Bernhard (in I'm Still Here... Damn It!, 1998) evoke their big personalities with sparing lines.

"Al Hirschfeld's work was ubiquitous for 82 years-in Hollywood, The New York Times, Broadway, film studios, and TV Guide covers," said Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. "We are thrilled to feature these iconic drawings that capture popular culture of the 20th century."

The New-York Historical Society, one of America's pre-eminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.

Alfred A. Knop fpublishes The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age, available exclusively at The New-York Historical Society exhibition since May 2015, and available in bookstores around the country today, July 7. For the first time, the artist's extraordinary eighty-two-year career will be revealed in more than 360 of his iconic black-and-white and color drawings, illustrations, and photog. Hirschfeld's influences, his techniques, and his evolution from his earliest works to his last drawings, are all chronicled. A sumptuous illustrated and ambitious book, The Hirschfeld Century gives us a portrait of an artist and his age in both text and images.

The biographical text is by David Leopold, who, as archivist to the artist, worked side by side with him and has spent more than twenty years documenting the artist's extraordinary output. Leopold chronicles Hirschfeld's early career that had a quick start at age 17 in the publicity department at Goldwyn Pictures. He was quickly promoted where he rose from errand boy to artist before moving to Universal Pictures, and landing a job as art director at Selznick Pictures in New York by the age of 18. Hirschfeld's early doodles on the backs of theater programs in 1926 led to his work for the drama editors of the New York Herald Tribune (an association that lasted twenty years) before he received a telegram from The New York Times, in 1928, asking for a two-column drawing of Sir Harry Lauder, the Scottish vaudeville sensation. This historic assignment began the famous collaboration with The New York Times that lasted seventy-five years.

The Hirschfeld Century features some of the artist's most famous works as well as rarely-seen portraits of legendary entertainers Ethel Merman, Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Katharine Hepburn, the Marx Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Elia Kazan, Mick Jagger, Ella Fitzgerald, Laurence Olivier, and Martha Graham; legendary Broadway productions and films including Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, Rent, Guys and Dolls, The Wizard of Oz (Hirschfeld drew five posters for the original release), Phantom of the Opera, and "Seinfeld"; as well as his brilliant portraits of writers and politicians, among them Ernest Hemingway (a pal from 1920s Paris), Tom Wolfe, Charles de Gaulle, and every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

Al Hirschfeld's drawings stand as one of the most innovative efforts in establishing the visual language of modern art through caricature in the 20th century. A self described "characterist," his signature work, defined by a linear calligraphicstyle, appeared in virtually every major publication of the last nine decades (including a 75 year relationship with The New York Times) as well as numerous book and record covers and 15 postage stamps. Hirschfeld said his contribution was to take the character, created by the playwright and portrayed by the actor, and reinvent it for the reader. Playwright Terrence McNally wrote: "No one 'writes' more accurately of the performing arts than Al Hirschfeld. He accomplishes on a blank page with his pen and ink in a few strokes what many of us need a lifetime of words to say."

In 1945, Hirschfeld celebrated the birth of his daughter Nina by placing her name in the background of an illustration for the play Are You With It? What the artists described as an innocent prank soon became a personal trademark and national obsession, as he began hiding numerous NINA's throughout his drawings for years to come.

He is represented in many public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Portrait Gallery, and Harvard's Theater Collection. Hirschfeld authored several books including Manhattan Oases and Show Business is No Business in addition to 10 collections of his work. The Library of Congress declared him a Living Landmark by the New York City Landmarks Commission in 1996 and a Living Legend in 2000. Just before his death in January 2003, he learned he was to be awarded the Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts and inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters. The winner of two Tony Awards, he was given the ultimate Broadway accolade on what would have been his 100th birthday in June 2003. The Martin Beck Theater was renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theater.

The mission of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation is to promote interest in the theater and dramatic arts by supporting not-for-profit museums, libraries, theaters and similar cultural institutions. The Foundation fulfills its mission by making grants to such organizations, by mounting exhibitions of Al Hirschfeld's artworks at museums and other venues and by donating or lending Al Hirschfeld's artworks to such organizations. A board of directors led by Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, President, manages the Foundation. The Foundation maintains an extensive collection of Hirschfeld artworks and lends pieces to institutions all over the world. Papers from the first half-century of Hirschfeld's career are held by the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The Harvard Theatre Collection holds the largest public collection of Hirschfeld art and ephemera. There are also significant holdings at the Library of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

For more information, visit www.nyhistory.org.

Pictured: Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003), Ringo Starr in The Magic Christian. 1969, ink on board, Collection of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation.


Related Articles

NOS Dance

More Hot Stories For You