The Al Hirschfeld Story

February 5th, 2008 | Posted in General

Me by the legendary Al Hirschfeld!

I meant to do this post back on January 20th, since that was the 5 year anniversary of the great Al Hirschfeld‘s death, but I guess all the Mai Tais I was consuming made it slip my mind. I was going to tell the story of my meeting Hirschfeld and how I got the above piece of priceless caricature art.

I was elected president of the National Caricaturist Network in 1999, during their annual convention of that year. At the time, the NCN was growing rapidly and we were trying to put on a second event, a “Mini-Con”, at some point during the summers to allow new members and old a second chance at gathering together. It just so happened that very summer was going to be the premiere of a traveling retrospective gallery exhibit of the work of legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld… the first of it’s kind for the artist I believe. Planning a mini-con around the opening of the exhibit was a natural, so I looked into planning an event nearby the museum.

I was expecting the show to debut in some New York museum, but instead it opened at a very small museum called the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, CT. New Britain is a smallish Connecticut town without much in the way of hotels or venues for conventions. We found a place that would suit our needs (barely) in a Ramada Inn right there in town. I also convinced newly minted MAD Magazine Art Director Sam Viviano to come up from New York to be our guest speaker ( I had ulterior motives for that, but that’s another story…). The entire experience at the hotel was a mixture of misadventure and disaster, starting with the fact that right before the convention was to start they lost their Ramada franchise rights and overnight the hotel changed to the “Central Inn”, which caused incoming attendees to drive around the area in confusion looking for a “Ramada Inn” sign. There were also two other groups in the hotel with us… a “Dungeons and Dragons” convention called “RuneCon” and a group of cult-like traveling magazine subscription selling crazies. The former broke into spontaneous war-ax battles in the hallway yelling in orc-tongue while the latter staged rally meeting that looked and sounded like insane tent revival services. But I digress… We did get to meet Hirschfeld, who was attending the opening reception of the show.

Being president o the National Caricaturist Network didn’t have many perks, but one of them is that when you plan a mini-con around an Al Hirschfeld appearance you get to be the one to meet the man and interview him for the newsletter. I had contacted him months beforehand and spoke at length to his wife Louise, explaining about our organization and our plans to attend the event. They made plans to allow us to have a brief Q & A with the artist and for me to interview him. I taped that interview, and still have the tape around here somewhere… if I ever find it I’ll digitize it and post in for people to listen to. He was 96 at the time, and sharp as a tack. Art-wise I don’t think he was particularly impressed with our group as a whole, but he was very gracious and eloquent.

There were two things I remember him saying during the interview that I found most interesting and fascinating. One was about his belief that an artist’s surroundings influences their artistic expression:

“You know, it’s no accident that the great painters came from areas like Europe where there is a lot of clouds and rain, which begets color and subtle washes of tone. Most great graphic artists come from areas with prevalent sun, where line and shadow are paramount.” – Al Hirschfeld, 1999

He was referring to how his move to the sun soaked island of Bali as a young man caused him to become interested in line.

He also gave this bit of advice to budding caricaturists:

“Try to distill the character of your subject. Understand how he moves, thinks, acts. It’s difficult to put into words. Consider each drawing as a problem that did not exist before, and then try to solve that problem to the best of your ability. That i what caricature is all about”- Al Hirschfeld, 1999

Those are direct quotes from my interview with him. It was a great pleasure to meet the man, and the show was fantastic.

As to getting the caricature of me… I wish there was a great story behind that like the one of my wife getting the Mort Drucker caricature of me without my knowing. Unfortunately there is no real story to this one. I simply called his agent and commissioned him to do it. Anyone who wanted to spend the money could get an Al Hirschfeld original of them.. several of my caricaturist friends got ones of their own after I commissioned and received mine. Hirschfeld asked for multiple pictures and a paragraph describing me, what I did, what my interests were and such. The result you see above, which proudly hangs in my studio today.


  1. BVasilik says:

    That looks like a Batman rendering you are working on in his illustration.
    Wow, 96 years old!

  2. DShultz says:

    A Drucker and a Hirschfeld… you are one lucky guy!

  3. TerryElliott says:

    Good story, Tom. The description of the D&D con is too funny.

    Over the years I’ve always gone to Al Hirschfeld’s gallery website, the one that promotes his actual gallery in NYC. My wife and I were near Central Park about 10 years ago and were looking for a place to eat or get coffee or something. I looked up and sure enough I was right in front of AH’s gallery. It was a thrill to go in and see so much of his work. You wrote in your inking tutorial how his lines are actually rough and imperfect. So true.

    Ofcourse it was too pricey to buy anything. The whole time I was looking around just in case he was there. He wasn’t, but it was still a wonderful experience.

  4. Eddie says:

    I have an original Richmond. Doesn’t look like me though. Made me look like a cartoon.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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