Al Hirschfeld

I promised you something lighthearted today, so how about the wonderful drawings of Al Hirschfeld?

OK, so maybe you’re familiar with Hirschfeld. Maybe you’re seen the documentary on his life and work, The Line King on PBS. Maybe you’ve seen his work in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Maybe you’ve seen the USPS postage stamps featuring his drawings of famous comedians, or, most likely, maybe you’ve just seen his wonderful caricatures of movie, TV and broadway stars, or rock, classical and jazz musicians in the pages of the New York Times and other publications. (Image at left, above, is Myrna Loy and William Powell, in their roles as Nora and Nick Charles, along with their dog, Asta, of course, from The Thin Man, one of my favorite movies from the 1930’s).

Maybe you’ve heard about Hirschfeld’s penchant for hiding “NINA”, his daughter’s name, in the lines of his drawings, often several times with a “hint” number penned next to his signature indicating how many times it was worked into that drawing. Maybe you’ve heard the (possibly true) rumor that the US Army would have their bomber pilots look for the hidden”NINA”s as part of their training to pick out hidden enemy targets during WW II.

OK, so maybe Hirschfeld is old hat to you, been there seen that, but my suggestion is to look again. Even though you’ve heard it before, just look at his lines.

Swooping, swirling and careening across the page like a crazed NY cabbie trying to make time through cross-town traffic, Hirschfeld’s lines look like they were drawn just to be as loopy and wild and zingy as possible, with no thought of actually doing anything. Yet, they define their targets with such succinct clarity that they could not possibly exist for any other purpose than to make those amazing faces.

And what faces they are; Hirschfeld’s caricatures stretch the limits of how exaggerated a likeness can be, but do so with an economy of line that would make a master of Chinese ink painting sit up and take notice.

Yes, notice his lines and then notice the space where the lines aren’t, the negative space defined by the lines and filled with the most eloquent and meaningful emptiness. So few lines, so much character, both in the character of the person, and the character of the line.

There is an “official” site at, managed by the gallery that represents his work in New York. The images quality is better, though on the New York Times archive. I list some other resources below. There are also a number of excellent and inexpensive collections of his work. Hirschfeld’s Hollywood: The Film Art of Al Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld’s New York and Hirschfeld , as well as Hirschfeld On Line and an interview in The Comics Journal Special Edition: Winter 2004: Four Generations of Cartoonists (along with Jules Feiffer, Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware).

OK, so you think you know Hirschfeld, but have you seen his non-caricature straightforward drawings, such as his Gibson-like portrait (image at left, bottom) of 1920’s Vaudville and film star Betty Compson? No? How about his etchings of his travels in North Africa, his watercolors of Bali, or his illustrations in watercolor and gouache? No? Didn’t think so. Neither had I until just recently.

There’s only a smattering of them around, but you can see some of them in an online exhibit on the Library of Congress site. This 2002 exhibit is based on a gift of original drawings given to the Library on its bicentennial. It shows something of Hirschfeld’s other sides as an artist, as well as some of the development of his elegant, and eloquent, lines.


8 Replies to “Al Hirschfeld”

  1. About those hidden Ninas in his drawings: The number of hidden Ninas seemed to peak in the late 1970s. We used to get the Sunday Times arts section and there would be his drawing of some new Broadway show (or later a Hirschfeld drawing which somehow integrated all sorts of personalities into their Fall or Spring Arts preview) and the number by his signature would incredibly be something like 32. (A whole morning’s work to find them!) By the mid 1980s the numbers seemed to trail off and by the 1990s one had only to find two or three Ninas in any given drawing. I imagine that although he never seemed to tire of reducing a recognizable face to a handful of undulating lines, he may well have tired of hiding Ninas but I suspect his audience wouln’t let him quit. A Hirschfeld with NO hidden Ninas would have been a disappointment. The other interesting thing about Hirschfeld’s work is that very late in his long, long career the New York Times began printing in color and of course asked him to incorporate color into drawings that had become the quintessence of what black and white can do. His solution was admirably elegant and simple as one would expect from such an artist. He simply chose a single, usually subtle tertiary color and made a single shape, say a large circle or square that floated, not quite arbitrarily, behind his drawing. The late drawings were just as magnificent and appropriate as the earliest.

  2. My understanding is that Hirschfeld did, indeed, become weary of the attention given to the NINA hunting, feeling that is was overshadowing the actual drawings. He tried to discontinue the practice but was convinced to return by pitchfork and torch bearing mobs of disappointed fans.

  3. Charlie,
    When our daughter graduate from Yale Drama, we got her Hershfeld’s “Phantom.” Bigger than the Sunday Art image, it is something to behold.
    I am sucker for line. Let me suggest a few other “linesmen.” First, of all: Walt Kelly. I came for the comedy and satire and stayed for the brushwork. Others: George Herriman, Mike Peters, Patrick McDonnell, and former New Yorker cover artist, Arthur Getz. An appreciation of his work is on the web at However, the accompanying illustrations do not do justice to his line. The best way to appreciate his work is to go to the New Yorker Cartoonbamk: / and type in Getz. Sort by Recent to get a time series. Take a look at Aug. 5, 1985. Whatta line!

  4. Don,

    Thanks for the suggestions. Walt Kelly and George Herriman are definitely on my list, as they are among my favorites, and you’re certainly right about the wonderful character of their line. I hadn’t thought of McDonnell that way, I’ll have to take a closer look. Though I’ve enjoyed his New Yorker covers, I wasn’t aware of the feature on Getz and he wasn’t on my list. He now is, as is Peters. Thanks. Another cartoonist I would mention for character of line is Bill Watterson.

  5. If you ever get a chance to see Hirschfeld’s originals, the striking thing is that his beautiful lines are deceptive in their flowing perfection.

    They may look like they flow naturally in one swirling stroke, but in the originals you can see that the lines were plotted out in pencil, carefully built up and reworked to create an effect that looks spontaneous and effortless.

    There’s also a video on YouTube of him drawing (I think a caricature of Paul Newman) that shows the care he took to build those beautiful lines.

  6. I attended an ESTATE SALE some months ago & brought 4 sketch pads full.drawings, after paying for my items 2 ladies told me, “this man’s drawings have been featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Fine arts.
    Looking threw the pages, there’s Al Hirshfeld, newspaper clipping & drawings signed by SCHULTZ. Among many characters!

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