Celebrities of song, stage, and screen were transformed into popular icons of American culture.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
During the early twentieth century, performing arts caricature came of age as an art form in the United States as celebrities of song, stage, and screen were transformed into popular icons of American culture. Caricatures played a prominent role in the dramatic rise in circulation enjoyed by numerous popular magazines and daily newspapers after 1900, when a new generation of cartoonists and illustrators transformed famous faces into vivid likenesses that set the standard for future creators.
Influenced by American precedents, European traditions, and modern art, experienced artists found their talents in high demand as publishers vied for their services. Magazines such as the American Vanity Fairand the New Yorker devoted considerable space to caricatures of well-known dancers, singers, actors, and actresses, while major newspapers in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere also began to reproduce theatrical drawings. The artists themselves became celebrities: “At the present moment, Miguel Covarrubias is about as well known in New York as it would be possible for anyone to be,” performing arts critic Carl Van Vechten wrote in 1925. Al Hirschfeld, whose brilliant career spans eight decades, has been lionized for his unprecedented contributions to the history of theatrical caricature.
The artists’ styles are as varied as their subjects. Oliver Herford, born in Sheffield, England, drew heavily from the contemporary European modes of caricature exemplified in the pages of British journals such as the London Vanity Fair and Punch. Ken Chamberlain learned his trade in New York from the influential political cartoonist Robert Minor, and Oscar Cesare was trained in Paris and exposed to the work of the great French poster artists. Cesare’s successor at the New York Times, Al Hirschfeld, found inspiration in the work of Miguel Covarrubias, who in turn was informed by both modernist abstraction and strong Mexican traditions in caricature. The work of Makoto Wada reveals in its delicate draftsmanship and luminosity a debt to the legacy of Asian art. Their differences aside, all of these artists became masters of the genre and their drawings offer object lessons in artistry, wit, and the history of the performing arts in America.
Oscar Cesare (1885-1948) drew theatrical caricatures for the New York Times at a time when Al Hirschfeld was just beginning his career at the newspaper. A skilled and versatile cartoonist and illustrator, Cesare used diverse styles to create his images. For example, his realistic portrayal of Al Jolson onstage in The Wonder Bar captures the smoky atmosphere of the nightclub setting. Caricature, however, better served Cesare’s purpose in his group portrait of the principal performers of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
After five years away from the stage, Al Jolson’s (1886-1950) penultimate appearance in The Wonder Bar, which opened at the Bayes Theatre in March 1931, inspired one reviewer to exclaim, “Al Jolson is back.” This “festive little novelty of musical hall entertainment,” featured Jolson “down on the knees, gleaming into the spotlights, clapping hands and snapping fingers, rocking jubilantly from side to side — so, with the old dynamics, he sings a new sheaf of songs.” During the 1930s, like many other stage actors of the period, Jolson made the transition to radio and film to garner a wider audience.
Cesare depicts most of the cast of Uncle Vanya on the stage of the Cort Theater: Kate Mayhew, Osgood Perkins, Nedda Barrigan, Eugene Powers, Walter Connolly, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Joanna Roos. The legendary actress Lillian Gish is portrayed on the far right. Although Gish was undeniably the star of the show, Cesare’s ensemble portrait finds an echo in the words of a critic who noted that the production “succeeded brilliantly” and “includes every part on equal terms.”
John Sloan (1871-1951) was a prominent member of the turn-of-the-century artists’ group known as the “Eight,” and a leader in developing the urban realist style of painting that came to be called the “Ashcan School.” During his career, Sloan produced several etchings related to the theater, drawn from actual productions. In a letter to James Light of the Provincetown Players, he described his reaction to an e. e. cummings play; “Himis about as thrilling an evening’s entertainment as I have ever experienced. I liked it thoroughly — I don’t claim to understand it — I do not believe that a work of art can be, nor need be understood even by its maker. It seemed to me to be a glimpse inside the cranium of an artist-poet.”
Poet e.e. cummings (1894-1962) provided a mixture of philosophy and burlesque in his satirical play, Him. Here, John Sloan captures Hemsley Williams and Goldye Steiner — the performers on the night he caught the show — in a syncopated rendition of the popular folk tune “Frankie and Johnnie,” from Act II, Scene 5. In the song, Frankie killed Johnnie (spellings of his name vary widely), for taking another lover. Cummings portrayed the scene symbolically with the female figure representing the ground in which “Johnie” (cummings’ spelling), represented by a doll, is buried. In spite of the violent plot, one reviewer called the scene “the climax in hilarity” at the Provincetown Theatre in spring 1928. An excerpt from Cummings’ rendition of the old song appears below.
Frankie and Johnie were lovers“Frankie and Johnie,” excerpt from Him, 1928.
sweet Christ how they could love
they swore to be true to each other
as true as the stars above
but he was a man
and he done her wrong
Although Alfred Bendiner (1899-1964) trained and worked as an architect for most of his life, he also established a reputation as artist, printmaker, and caricaturist. In 1991, the Library of Congress received a large portion of his personal collection, including works that reflect the full scope of his achievements, from student drawings he created while attending the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s to caricatures and theatrical reviews published in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, and lithographs exhibited at print shows in Philadelphia and New York in the 1950s and 1960s.
Bendiner’s caricature of Raymond Massey in the title role of Robert E. Sherwood’s 1938 stage hit “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” boldly captures the actor’s brooding essence. New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson praised Massey’s “exalted performance” in which he “plays it with an artless honesty that is completely overwhelming at the end.” A “nervously overwrought” Muriel Kirkland played Mary Todd Lincoln in the production, which opened at the Plymouth Theatre in October 1938.
The French-born opera singer and film star, Lily Pons (1898-1976) came to the United States in 1930 and quickly captivated audiences with her wondrously high vocal range and vivacious personality.
Bendiner’s fluid caricature depicts the Russian-born violinist Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) in performance.
Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) arrived in New York City in 1923 on a scholarship from the Mexican government and quickly gained a reputation as an accomplished caricaturist. His skilled and critical eye, often attributed to New York influences, had developed in Mexico where he had contributed illustrations to popular Latin American newspapers by the age of eighteen. During the 1920s and 1930s he became one of the most widely published and admired caricaturists in America.
George Burns (1896-1996) and Gracie Allen (1905-1964) began their vaudeville stage act in 1922 and moved into radio a decade later. About 1929 they parlayed their vaudeville popularity into an appearance in a short talking film entitled Lamb Chops (Vitaphone, 1929), which established them as one of America’s top comedy duos.
Mae West (1893-1980) began her vaudeville career as a child, and made her playwriting debut in 1926 with Sex for which she was arrested on obscenity charges. Her openness about her sexuality caused her censure as well as enhancing her popular appeal with film and stage audiences.
Kenneth Chamberlain (1891-1984) came to New York from Ohio in 1913, and quickly made his mark as a cartoonist for daily newspapers as well as the socialist monthly The Masses. Chamberlain drew theatrical illustrations for the New York Herald Tribune that revealed his gift for conveying the essence of a play by thoroughly untraditional means. Rather than showing principal actors or a specific scene, he gave the audience a glimpse of the scene backstage, like a magician revealing a rival’s sleight of hand.
Dark of the Moon, by Howard Richardson and William Berney, played to audiences at the Forty-Sixth Street Theatre in 1945. This musical rendition of the Barbara Allen legend, a supernatural tale of love and betrayal, takes place in the Smokey Mountains.
This 1936 Rodgers, Hart, and Abbott musical echoed Chamberlain’s characteristically unusual vantage point as the storyline offered a spirited and humorous look at ballet life backstage.
The Japanese cartoonist, caricaturist, illustrator, author, and film director Makoto Wada was born in Osaka. He trained at the Tama College of Art in Tokyo and later joined the staff of the Light Publicity Company. In 1965 he founded and served as art director of Hanashi no Tokushu, a magazine of political satire. He has also written and illustrated numerous books and articles and, since, 1984, directed several theatrical films.
Legendary jazz virtuoso Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) lit up the music world for half a century with his brilliant trumpet trills, dazzling vocals, signature white handkerchief, and incandescent smile. His international reputation and universally lamented death in 1971 sparked this glowing graphic tribute by Japanese caricaturist, author, and filmmaker Makoto Wada (b. 1936).
English cartoonist, illustrator, author, poet, playwright, and wit Oliver Herford (1863 – 1935) was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire. He studied at Lancaster College in England and at Antioch College in Ohio, and then trained in art at the Slade School in London and at the Academie Julian in Paris. His first published illustrations appeared in The Century Magazine and he eventually became a regular contributor to Life, Harper’s Weekly, Punch, St. Nicholas, Scribner’s, and numerous other leading magazines and newspapers. He also wrote four plays, and his prodigious output as an author and illustrator included A Child’s Primer of Natural History (1899), Cupid’s Almanac and Guide to Hearticulture (1908), The Herford Aesop: fifty fables in verse(1921), The Rubaiyat of a Persian Kitten(1927) and The Deb’s Dictionary (1931).
American caricaturist, cartoonist, and comic strip artist Alfred Frueh (1880-1968, pronounced “free”) discovered his professional calling as a youth while taking a course in Pitman’s shorthand. According to the artist’s account, when bored with the lesson, he would transform the shorthand symbols into caricatures of his teacher and fellow classmates. Frueh began his career in 1904 as a cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and achieved national recognition in 1907 for his caricature of music hall star Fritzi Scheff, which so offended her that she canceled her St. Louis performance. His masterful portfolio of theatrical portraits, Stage Folk (1922), offers a brilliant blend of representational and abstract caricature.
Leading turn-of-the-century American stage actor John Drew (1853-1927) was popular with audiences and caricaturists alike. His features, and performances, seemed carved in stone, as Al Frueh (1880-1968) so cleverly suggests in his graphic ode to Drew’s celebrity. Not to be outdone, Oliver Herford, known as “the American Oscar Wilde,” produced his own witty spin on the famous thespian’s popular appeal for a series entitled “Celebrities I Have Not Met,” published in American Magazine in 1913.
For Perfect Form there are but fewOliver Herford, Confessions of a Caricaturist, 1917
That can compare with Mr. Drew;
A Form most fittingly displayed
In roles from London, tailor-made
By Messrs. Maughn, Pinero, Jones,
In quiet, gentlemanly tones.
The Nouveaux-Riches flock, day by day,
To learn from John how to display
(Without unnecessary gloom)
The manners of the drawing-room.
This possibly may be the cause
(Or one of them) why John Drew draws.
Cartoonist and illustrator Oliver W. Harrington (1913 – 1996) was the first African American to establish an international reputation in the field, and his work has influenced two generations of graphic artists. From the 1930s into the 1960s, his regular cartoon panel, Dark Laughter, featuring a middle-aged black man in Harlem named “Bootsie,” articulated with wit and irony the social concerns of urban African Americans. With wit, anger, humor, and irony he attacked racial intolerance and economic imbalance in America and elsewhere in the world. In 1958, the poet Langston Hughes wrote, “As a social satirist in the field of race relations, Ollie Harrington is unsurpassed.”
Thomas “Fats” Waller’s (1904-1943) performing career began inauspiciously in 1918 when he filled in for the regular organist at Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre, but he soon made his name as a prodigiously talented jazz composer and performer in the popular stride-piano style of the period. At the outset of the Swing era, in 1929, he wrote his two most famous songs, “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehaving” (the latter with lyrics by Andy Razaf). Waller prospered during the Depression as a popular entertainer, but also produced serious and influential jazz compositions during that period. Unfortunately, his appetites for good living were as prodigious as his talents and he died young in 1943. This apparently unpublished drawing by African American cartoonist Ollie Harrington portrays Waller at the piano, presumably during a Harlem rent party at the height of his career. The woman sketched at lower right, perhaps another guest, remains unidentified.
American caricaturist, sculptor, painter and writer Al Hirschfeld (b. 1903) was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Following his early training in art at schools in New York, London, and Paris, he commenced his remarkable newspaper career in the 1920s and it continues unabated. His first theatrical drawing appeared in the New York Herald Tribune in 1926. Most readers, however, associate him with the New York Times in which his caricatures have appeared regularly since 1929 when he was hired as a theater caricaturist for the Sunday drama section, a position which he maintains to this day. His caricatures have appeared in numerous other publications including the New York World, the Brooklyn Eagle, the Daily Telegraph, New Masses, and Collier’s. He also co-edited a satirical journal, Americana, with Alexander King in the early 1930s, and has written and illustrated numerous books.
Marie Cahill (1870 or 1874 – 1933) made her debut on the New York stage in 1889 and achieved stardom with her rendition of “Nancy Brown” in the 1903 production of Wild Rose. Recognized for her talents as a comedic actress on both the legitimate and vaudeville stage, Cahill made her penultimate appearance in the 1927 production Merry Go Round, in which she, as one reviewer wrote, “makes a good deal of the breathlessly excited society madame on the track of scandal.”
Ira Gershwin (1896-1983) wrote the lyrics to many of the most memorable American show tunes of the twentieth century, including “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” With his brother George (1898-1937), and alone after George’s early death, he created a magnificent musical legacy which lives on in the George and Ira Gershwin Collection, preserved within the Library of Congress. Highlights from the collection are currently on display in the Gershwin Room, adjacent to this gallery.