Who’s That?: Al Hirschfeld

Al Hirschfeld was an artist who’s mark still lies on the Broadway. The man was not an actor or writer or producer, but instead a caricature artist. If you had achieved a portrait in his famous style then it signified a right of passage for many stars. His drawings hang in places all around the world including the famous Broadway hotspot Sardis in Manhattan. You can find his art still selling online fore thousands of dollars. People still search his photos for the hidden Nina’s within them a game he started after the birth of his daughter. Now his art lives on, but many still do not know his name and the man behind the famous drawings.

Hirschfeld was born in Missouri where he lived until his family moved to New York City when he was twelve years old. His life and works were influenced greatly by the roaring twenties of his youth. The pace in America was changing and the lively Jazz age bled its way into all walks of life including the Al Hirschfeld and his drawings. Starting at a young age and drawing till the end of his life he captured the stars and icons of the stage and screen. The drawings capture these great figures of the 20th century in a new light one that was unique to Hirschfeld himself. The portraits he drew were sophisticated and lively, seeming to be full of life.

His drawings were not only admired by the figures they captured, but often times were seen as great honors to those he drew. This is because in Hirschfeld’s work there was always a sense of joy, and he always was able to capture that joy in the individuals he drew. Out of his thousands of works over his lifetime there were few who ever took offense to them. All of his drawings seemed to capture exactly what was happening in the actor’s mind at that moment. Almost as if Hirschfeld himself had a direct line into the mind of every actor onstage.

Probably best known for his work at The New York Times, Hirschfeld’s drawings appeared every Sunday for nearly seven decades. His work spanned through some of the greatest moments of musical theatre history and he captured them brilliantly. Hirschfeld would be seen at rehearsals or opening nights silently capturing the shows he watched in a single picture. A perfect example is his illustration of The Phantom of the Opera, which is a beautiful and sweeping image that captures the show perfectly. An entire world all under the watchful eye of the phantom it is eerie yet stunning.

Hirschfeld was known well in the community and many came to recognize him when he would arrive at rehearsals or performances. He had a fear of disturbing others during performances and perfected a method in order to sketch his famous drawings in the dark. Once perfected he was able to quietly draw out of his pocket without anyone around him having the slightest indication, he was drawing at all.

After the birth of his Daughter Hirschfeld began to hide the name of his daughter “Nina” within his drawings. Accompanying his name at the bottom of each drawing would be a number telling the viewer how many “Nina’s” were hidden within the drawing. This quickly became a beloved challenge to many reading the Sunday Times, and many would spend hours poring over his drawings in order to find all the “Nina’s.” The United States Military even began using his drawings to train bomber pilots in order to help them learn to identify hidden objects.

Hirschfeld was a King of Broadway in his own right and continued to work until his death in 2003. His works are still around, and revered to this day and many still hold on with fond memories of their own portraits of his making. If you would like to learn even more about the man and his legacy of work please watch the wonderful documentary on his life entitled “The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story.” Also take a look at Behind the Curtain: Broadways Living Legends Episode on the Line King.

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