Al Hirschfeld: American Characterist

Work by a New York icon comes to Capsule from the collection of actor Charles Durning, a frequent subject of the illustrator.

Words by
Sarah Knight
Published on
October 17, 2022
Lot 78: Al Hirschfeld, "Charles Durning (Big Daddy)"
Lot 78 Al Hirschfeld, Charles Durning (Big Daddy)

Though many would classify Al Hirschfeld as a caricaturist, the legendary artist looked at his craft slightly differently. He tended to tweak the word a bit, describing himself instead as a characterist. When viewing his work, including the prints and drawings coming up for auction at Capsule this month, it's not difficult to see why. As American playwright Arthur Miller once put it, "everybody looks interesting in a Hirschfeld drawing because [he] found everyone to be interesting." It is the spirit with which he rendered his subjects, the way he communicated and exaggerated their essence, that earned the artist a reputation as one of the greatest illustrators of our time.

Lot 89: Al Hirschfeld, "The Boom Boom Room"
Lot 89 Al Hirschfeld, The Boom Boom Room

In no place is his distinctly modern style more discernible than in his celebrity portraiture, several examples of which are featured in Capsule’s American and European Art sale. Like his contemporaries, Hirschfeld turned away from the acrid style of caricature that had become the mainstream, trading biting criticism for playful mocking. The Boom Boom Room, published by The New York Times in 1973 to announce David Rabe's play, is a prime example. Pictured among the partygoers is actor Charles Durning, whose collection Capsule acquired the piece from.

Lot 90: Al Hirschfeld, "The Gin Game"
Lot 90 Al Hirschfeld, The Gin Game

Using a linear calligraphic style, Hirschfeld created portraits that feel uniquely American-- refined yet accessible, modern yet classic, captivating to viewers from all walks of life. His work has appeared on book covers, record covers, postage stamps, and in nearly every major national publication of the last century. Every week for over seventy years, his illustrations were published in The New York Times, most often to celebrate Broadway openings. Gin Game, published by The Times in 1997, heralds the opening of the play by the same name. This drawing also comes from Durning’s collection and pictures the actor, who starred in the play alongside Julie Harris.

Lot 96: Al Hirschfeld, "The Choirboys"
Lot 96 Al Hirschfeld, The Choirboys

It was during his relationship with The Times that Hirschfeld conceived of a game to play with the public via his art. Somehow hidden in the sharp clarity of his illustrations, the artist began writing the name of his daughter, Nina. Though it began as a one-time or two-time way of honoring the birth of his child, spotting the ‘Ninas’ in the artist's weekly drawings became what Hirschfeld himself called "a national insanity." The Choirboys, also featured in the sale, might be described as particularly insane in its Nina camouflaging. Next to his signature, he would often indicate the number of ‘Ninas’ the viewer was meant to find. For this work, published by Universal in 1978 to commemorate the comedy-drama film, the artist capped the easter eggs at three. However, the number of 'Ninas' approached sixty in some illustrations. 

Lot 97: Al Hirschfeld, "That Championship Season"
Lot 97 Al Hirschfeld, That Championship Season

Hirschfeld's list of awards and accolades is staggeringly impressive. Named a Living Landmark by the New York City Landmark Commission in 1996 and a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2000, he also became the namesake for what was formerly known as the Martin Beck Theatre on West 45th Street. His work is held in the collections of many major institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Portrait Gallery, and Harvard Theater's collection.

Eight of Hirschfeld's lively portraits are offered in Capsule’s October 27th sale– can you spot all of the ‘Ninas’?

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