Al Hirschfeld (1903 - 2003)was born in St. Louis on the first day of summer, 1903. When he was eleven years old, an art teacher informed his mother, "There is nothing more we can teach him in St. Louis." The family moved forthwith to New York. Soon he was enrolled at the Art Student's League. Hirschfeld has never had to convince anyone that he's a genius; it has always been apparent.By the ripe old age of 17, while his contemporaries were learning how to sharpen pencils, Hirschfeld became an art director at Selznick Pictures.
He held the position for about four years and then in 1924 he moved to Paris to work, lead the Bohemian life, and grow a beard. This he has retained - the beard, not the flat - for the past 68 years, presumably because you never know when your oil burner will go on the fritz.In 1943, Hirschfeld married one of Europe's most famous actresses, the late Dolly Haas. They were married for more than 50 years—in addition, they produced Nina. Nina is their daughter, and Hirschfeld has engaged in the "harmless insanity," as he calls it, of hiding her name 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. The NINA-counting mania is well illuminated when, in 1973, an NYU student kept coming back to the Gallery to stare at the same drawing each day for more than a week. The drawing was Hirschfeld's whimsical portrayal of New York's Central Park. When the curiosity finally got the best of me, I asked, "What is so riveting about that one drawing that keeps you here for hours, day after day?" She answered that she had found only 11 of 39 NINAs and would not give up until all were located. I replied that the '39 next to the signature was the year. Nina was born in 1945. (Almost all of Hirschfeld's lithographs and etchings have NINAs hidden in them, but Hirschfeld makes the pursuit that much more difficult by omitting the number next to the signature.)
It's interesting, I think, that although Hirschfeld was initially attracted to sculpture and painting, this gave way to his passion for pure line."Sculpture, he once said to me, is a drawing you trip over in the dark.
I believe that Hirschfeld's devotion to line comes from yet a more fundamental aesthetic - his respect for absolute simplicity. One day soon after we first met, I asked: "Sometimes you do a drawing inspired by a complex play with elaborate scenery, extravagant costumes, and a cast of thousands - yet the drawing is simple. Other times the play is simple with a straightforward set, and costumes that are street clothes - yet the drawing is complicated. Is it that when you have the time you do a complex drawing and when you're rushed you do a simple one ?"
"No," he replied. "When I'm rushed I do a complicated drawing. When I have the time, I do a simple one." In 1991, Al Hirschfeld became the first artist in history to have his name on a U.S. Postage Stamp Booklet when the United States Postal Service released the five stamps they commissioned Hirschfeld to design. The stamps portray Laurel & Hardy, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Abbott & Costello, and Fanny Brice. The stamps were issued in books of 20 - four sets each of the five Hirschfeld designs.
Hirschfeld Postage Stamps were so successful that the United States Postal Service once again commissioned Hirschfeld to wield his pen on their behalf. In 1994, a new series of Hirschfeld Postage Stamps were issued, each portraying one of Hollywood's celebrated stars of the silent screen era. This series of commemorative Hirschfeld Stamps honors Rudolf Valentino, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, Lon Chaney, the Keystone Cops, Theda Bara, Zasu Pitts, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton.In September of 1994 Hirschfeld's beloved Dolly passed away. Eventually, in October of 1997, Al married Louise Kerz—the widow of Broadway's Leo Kerz. For both Al and Louise it has been a magical union.In 1996 the Oscar-nominated full-length documentary about Hirschfeld opened in movie theaters across the country. The documentary is truly stunning.
It's director, Susan Dreyfoos, made extensive use of the Gallery's collection of original drawings and prints, as well as the Gallery's archives. It's completion represented more than a decade of work.Hirschfeld's newest hardcover book, Hirschfeld On Line, was published in 1999. This book is the latest in a succession of many—a complete list is available in the Books section of this site. Hirschfeld's books are available at our Gallery.Hirschfeld's drawings have appeared in The New York Times, of course, and also The New Yorker, Playbill, TV Guide, TV Guide Canada, Town & Country, Playboy, Mirabella, People Magazine, New Masses, Collier's, Life, Time, Look, The Washingtonian, The Los Angeles Times, Business Week, Rolling Stone, Reader's Digest, Print, See, Talk, and so many more newspapers, magazines, and periodicals that naming them all is like counting stars in the sky.