Celebrating the long reign of Al Hirschfeld, 'The Line King'

Story highlights

  • Al Hirschfeld a famed caricaturist with readily identifiable style
  • New exhibit, book dedicated to his work

(CNN)More than a dozen years after Al Hirschfeld's death, his art remains instantly recognizable.

The elastic, almost rubbery line. The cleverly exaggerated eyes, eyebrows and hair of countless movie and Broadway stars. The precisely captured mannerisms that seem to move as if animated.
For most of his 99½ years, Hirschfeld -- nicknamed "The Line King" -- was one of the most famous illustrators in America. His caricatures appeared regularly in The New York Times (for more than 75 years, in fact), TV Guide and other publications, signed with a spindly "HIRSCHFELD." Sometimes the signature would be accompanied by a number, a sign that he'd embedded the name "Nina" -- for his daughter -- in the work more than once.
    He was also tireless, says Hirschfeld curator David Leopold (no relation to this writer), who has compiled a new book and exhibit, "The Hirschfeld Century." The exhibit opens at the New-York Historical Society on Friday; the book is due out in July.
    "If it was daylight and he was awake, he was drawing," Leopold says. "A friend told me that the only difference between Al as a young man and Al as an older man was that his hair was white. He loved to draw. He loved to go out. And that's what he did, every day of his life."
    Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis in 1903. By the time he was 20 he was in New York as the art director for a film studio, doing renderings for posters and brochures. A year later, suddenly out of work when the studio failed, he started freelancing and quickly became an in-demand caricaturist -- though, Leopold writes, that wasn't his original intent.
    "By the end of the (1920s) ... his caricatures had become the lingua franca of the performing arts, yet as an artist he still considered it a sideline to his serious easel work," he writes.
    That didn't last. He was just too good a caricaturist, and "The Hirschfeld Century" shows why.
    Hirschfeld had a knack for drawing almost anybody -- even those whose faces would seem to resist the exaggeration of caricature. Anne Bancroft chats with Henry Fonda in a 1958 drawing of "Two for the Seesaw"; Walter Cronkite looks out among a group of CBS stars in a 1962 illustration.
    Some of his drawings became as famous as the film or play he was illustrating. His summation of "My Fair Lady" -- Julie Andrews' Eliza Doolittle as a marionette for Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins, who in turn is the puppet of playwright George Bernard Shaw -- became the cover of the best-selling cast album.
    Even his early work demonstrates the flourishes that made Hirschfeld unique. A portrait of Laurel and Hardy for 1930's "Another Fine Mess" encapsulates the pair with just a few lines: Laurel's elongated chin, Hardy's puffy cheeks, the duo's tight-lipped smiles.
    Most were honored -- but not all.
    "Candid Camera's" Allen Funt said Hirschfeld "made him look like a monkey."
    Hirschfeld couldn't resist a jab in return.
    "I had nothing whatsoever to do with the way Mr. Funt looked," he responded. "That was God's work."
    Many of Hirschfeld's subjects are long dead. Some, in fact, may be best known through how he drew them. Leopold thinks of it as Hirschfeld's "Jane Avril phase," after the French dancer who's now most closely identified with Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings.
    "I can see it now with millennials," Leopold says. "Their image of some of these performers is Hirschfeld's."
    It's a good time to showcase Hirschfeld's breadth, he adds. "Caricaturist" is too narrow a term to describe him, he says.
    "For being the greatest caricaturist of the 20th century, strangely enough, he was not particularly a caricaturist," he says. "He was a visual journalist who was recording what he saw through his distinctive viewpoint."