Al Hirschfeld, American caricaturist, Died at 99

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Albert “Al” Hirschfeld died on January 20, 2003 at the age of 99, he was an American caricaturist best known for his black and white portraits of celebrities and Broadway stars.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri on June 21, 1903, Albert Hirschfeld moved with his family to New York City, where he received his art training at the Art Students League of New York.

Hirschfeld’s style is unique, and he is considered to be one of the most important figures in contemporary drawing and caricature, having influenced countless artists, illustrators, and cartoonists.

His caricatures are almost always drawings of pure line in black ink, into which Hirschfeld dipped not a pen but a genuine crow’s quill. Hirschfeld’s 1999 portrait of Liza Minnelli is an example of Hirschfeld’s work in color.

It is also a fine example of how Hirschfeld achieved what he often sought: to capture a perfect likeness using a minimum number of lines. Hirschfeld achieved the uncanny likeness to Minnelli’s stance with only one line; Hirschfeld’s pen never left the page.

He was commissioned by CBS to illustrate a preview magazine featuring the network’s new TV programming in fall 1963.

One of the programs was Candid Camera, and Hirschfeld’s caricature of the show’s host Allen Funt outraged Funt so much he threatened to leave the network if the magazine were issued.

Hirschfeld prepared a slightly different likeness, perhaps more flattering, but he and the network pointed out to Funt that the artwork prepared for newspapers and some other print media had been long in preparation and it was too late to withdraw it.

Hirschfeld is known for hiding Nina’s name in most of the drawings he produced after her birth. The name would appear in a sleeve, in a hairdo, or somewhere in the background.

As Margo Feiden described it, Hirschfeld engaged in the “harmless insanity,” as he called it, of hiding her name [Nina] at least once in each of his drawings.

The number of NINAs concealed is shown by an Arabic numeral to the right of his signature. Generally, if no number is to be found, either NINA appears once or the drawing was executed before she was born.

Hirschfeld married dancer Florence Hobby in 1927, but the marriage broke up in 1939. A second marriage to Dolly Haas in 1943 produced a daughter, Nina, born in November of 1945.

That event gave rise to an ongoing reminder of Hirschfeld’s skills: to mark his daughter’s birth, he included a tiny poster reading “Nina the Wonder Child” in a drawing for a musical that had a circus setting.

At first, Hirschfeld was quoted as saying in the Times, he thought that only “close friends and immediate family enjoyed a mild snicker over this infantile prank.”

After a few weeks, however, readers were hooked on trying to find the “Ninas” that subtly interrupted the lines with which Hirschfeld represented hair, eyebrows, shoelaces, or articles of clothing.

Not all of Hirschfeld’s drawings were of figures in the world of entertainment and the arts. He drew world leaders such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and of his more than 15 books several contained not portraits of famous people but drawings of ordinary people in specific cultural scenes.

His 1941 book Harlem, exploring the music and dance of that artistically fertile New York neighborhood, was reissued after his death in 2003.

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