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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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George Burns; pen-and-ink drawing on board; signed; 1973; drawn from a concert stage he shared with Carol Channing sold for $11,500. Photo courtesy of Swann Galleries
You weren’t anybody in movies, television or theater until Al Hirschfeld drew you. Once he did, you had arrived.

Just ask Carol Channing. She swears Hirschfeld jump-started her career when he picked her out of 20 unknowns in a small musical review called Lend an Ear and put her caricature on the front page of The New York Times.

It started for Hirschfeld when he was about 14. His mother took him to see a musical comedy. It was his first experience with the theater and he was stage-struck. That experience would be the start of a life-long career sketching the icons of the entertainment industry.

Hirschfeld attended the National Academy of Design in New York and spent time in the 1920’s studying art in Paris. “To get rid of the commercial side of my art,” he said.

One evening in 1926 he went to the theater with publicity agent and friend Richard Maney. During the performance Hirschfeld sketched a caricature of French actor Sacha Guitry on his program.

Maney recognized Hirschfeld’s gift immediately and encouraged him to redo the sketch on a clean sheet of paper. Maney sold the sketch to the Herald Tribune and it wasn’t long before Hirschfeld was being featured in other newspapers especially the Sunday Arts section of The New York Times.

Seventy-five years later this visual historian could still be found sketching in dark theaters. He didn’t judge. He simply presented thousands of people exactly the way he saw them. His simple black-and-white satirical portraits were largely pure line with little shading or cross-hatching. Hirschfeld drew big and said a lot with very little. A graphic genius.

With just a few lines Hirschfeld managed to capture the essence of celebrities like Bob Hope, Elvis, Madonna, The Beatles, Charlie Chaplin, Cher, Clint Eastwood and Jack Benny. No sugar here. Hirschfeld’s celebrities weren’t beautiful. They were interesting and he was probably the most interesting one of all.

“The problem of placing the right line in the right place has absorbed all of my interests across these many years,” Hirschfeld said. “I am still enchanted when an unaccountable line describes and communicates the inexplicable.”

After the birth of his daughter Nina in 1945, her name began to show up in the hair, background and shirt folds of his caricatures. Spotting her name became a puzzle search for Hirschfeld’s fans. He also added a number to his signature indicating how many Ninas each drawing contained. In addition to caricatures, Hirschfeld also wrote and illustrated several books. He died in 2003.

Nowadays, Hirschfeld is acknowledged as of the champions of American pop culture. His work is represented in the Whitney Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On Sept. 22, Swann Galleries, New York conducted an auction devoted to the work of Hirschfeld. The collection came from a private collector. The sale included pen-and-ink drawings as well as a selection of limited edition signed prints. Here are some current values for Hirschfeld’s work.

Al Hirschfeld

Marlene Dietrich; etching; signed and numbered 143/200; 13 1/4 inches by 10 inches; $1,150.

Johnny Carson; lithograph; signed and numbered 66/100; 20 inches by 18 inches; $1,725.

Pearl Bailey; pen-and-ink on board; circa 1969; signed; 24 1/2 inches by 17 inches; $5,750.

Barbra Streisand & Walter Matthau; pen-and-ink drawing on board; signed; 22 inches by 28 inches; $9,200.

Bob Hope; pen-and-ink drawing on board; signed; 1975; probably the best known image; 28 inches by 22 inches; $10,925.

George Burns; pen-and-ink drawing on board; signed; 1973; drawn from a concert stage he shared with Carol Channing; 20 inches by 24 inches; $11,500.

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