American artist (1903-2003). Though born in St. Louis, he grew up in Manhattan. As a teenager in New York City, Al studied art and worked for various movie studios and producers, including Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, and Warner Brothers, creating art for advertisements. In fact, he was the art director for Selznick Studios in 1921, when he was just 17. Unfortunately, Selznick Studios went bankrupt, but Hirschfeld was able to pay off his employees by taking some extra work with Warners.

Hirschfeld traveled to Paris in 1925, where he threw himself into painting. He returned to the United States after six months, ready to work full-time as a painter, but a new career opened up when a sketch he made of actor Sacha Guitry was published in the New York Herald Tribune. In only two years, his theatrical sketches were appearing in five different newspapers, including the New York Times, which was his primary employer through the years.

Hirschfeld continued to work on paintings and lithographs, but making sketches of the NYC theatre world paid very well--he made more trips to Paris and to Russia, thanks to his sketches, though he also made a trip overseas when Charlie Chaplin bought a number of his watercolors.

And by the 1930s, his cartooning style was already well-established--exagerration and caricature, buoyed by smooth, clean, curving lines. His few straight lines were mainly used for texture, though in his early years, he was also fairly innovative in using splotches and solid blacks for texture.

Of course, Hirschfeld's art is probably best known because of his daughter, Nina, who was born in 1945. He began working her name into all of his sketches, both for the theatre and for caricatures. He'd often add the "NINA" into the strands of someone's hair or into the patterns of a piece of clothing. This quickly turned into a game that Hirschfeld would play with his readers and helped his work gain a wider audience than before.

Quite aside from the "NINA" game, however, Hirschfeld's artwork is stunning and beautiful in how much it can convey in a relatively small number of lines. I'm not aware of any caricaturist who can draw the way Hirschfeld did--his cartoons appeared flighty, fanciful, unplanned, all over the map, but they captured their subjects precisely. His drawings of the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, Bob Hope, Carol Channing--hell, thousands of people, in entertainment, politics, literature, business--all of them capture that person's appearance, their mannerisms, almost transcribe their soul onto paper. He was a damn, damn good artist.

Hirschfeld died in his sleep on January 20, 2003, but he was certainly the poster child for "You're Only as Old as You Feel." He was six months away from his 100th birthday (and Broadway had a big celebration lined up for him, including renaming a theater for him) and was working harder than ever. He'd just published a caricature of dancer Tommy Tune in December and was working on several others. In fact, he'd been working on some sketches the day before he died. I'll be lucky if I can hold myself upright when I'm 99 years old, much less hold a pen. Expect a lot of tributes in the media, especially from other cartoonists--he deserves every one.

Addendum: kthejoker sez: "Disney's Fantasia 2000 sequence for Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" is based quite vividly on the Hirschfeld style of drawing."

Research from and from "Newsday", Jan. 21, 2003