Characterist Spotlight: American cartoonist Al Hirschfeld

Al Hirschfeld - Self Portrait with Inkwell

Award-winning American cartoonist Al Hirschfeld created drawings that stand as one of the most innovative efforts in establishing the visual language of modern art through caricature in the 20th century. Born in 1903, a self described “characterist,” his signature work, defined by a linear calligraphic style, appeared in virtually every major US 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.

His world famous caricatures encompass many an actor, actress, stage play film and TV show, including the first four Star Trek series, lithographs and associated merchandise available from the official web store – although, be warned, the prints aren’t cheap!

The Al Hirschfeld Foundation has done much to foster his unique legacy, with new books and exhibitions down the years, including the recent release of The American Theatre As Seen By Hirschfeld 1962-2002, which was accompanied by an exhibition at the new Museum of Broadway in Times Square. David Leopold, Creative Director of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation was curator of the exhibition and is editor of the new book, which is currently available exclusively online from the Foundation’s web shop.

When a first volume of The American Theatre As Seen by Hirschfeld was published in 1961, Hirschfeld himself designed and curated the book, featuring 250 works from the first 40 years of his career. It was Al Hirschfeld’s favourite collection, as it was for fans, garnering rave reviews, printing several editions, and is still highly prized by collectors today. Just before Hirschfeld died in 2003, he planned a sequel that would cover the other 40 years of his career, but the project was shelved with his passing … until now.

The new book, only showcases Hirschfeld’s greatest theatre work from five decades, including some of the most important productions from the last sixty years such as Hello Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl, Cabaret, Annie, Sweeney Todd, Les Misérables, Fences, Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, Rent, Angels in America, and Hairspray.

This collection, featuring nearly 300 Hirschfeld drawings, some never collected in a book before, takes you backstage with portraits including Stephen Sondheim, Neil Simon, Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Tom Stoppard, and Hal Prince. It’s a unique volume, that both shows and tells the story of nearly a half century of the American Theatre.

Hirschfeld said his contribution to the arts 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.”

The artist is represented in many public American collections, including the Metropolitan, the Whitney, the National Portrait Gallery, and Harvard’s Theater Collection. He also authored several books including Manhattan Oases and Show Business is No Business, in addition to 10 collections of his work.

Just before his death in January 2003, Hirschfeld 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 be 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 Hirschfeld Century, edited and with text by David Leopold

If you’re curious about his work in general, then The Hirschfeld Century, also edited by David Leopold, may be a good place to start. Published in 2015, the book brings togetherfor the first time the artist’s extraordinary 82-year career, revealed in more than 360 of his iconic black-and-white and colour drawings, illustrations, and photographs – his influences, his techniques, his evolution from his earliest works to his last drawings, and with a biographical text by David Leopold, Hirschfeld authority, 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.

The American Theatre As Seen By Hirschfeld 1962-2002available from the Al Hirschfeld Foundation web store

Al Hirschfeld Foundation

The mission of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation is to promote interest in the theatre 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 organisations, 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.

Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age (AmazonUK Affiliate Link) | ISBN: 978-1101874974

Categories: Art and Illustration, Books, downthetubes News, Other Worlds

Tags: , , , ,

Discover more from

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading