produced rhythmically patterned paintings of women, animals, and biblical subjects that have earned him a place among the best of the self-taught artists of the twentiethcentury. Characteristic of his style were bold forms, bright colors, and fabric-like textures painted in a flattened style. His stylized figures have tiny hands and feet, andoften appear frontally and in profile simultaneously.Hirshfield was one of the first self-taught artists of the twentieth century to gain recognition. His paintings were included in the exhibition “Contemporary UnknownAmerican Painters” in 1939, organized for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) by the collector Sydney Janis (1896–1989). Janis also organized a one-personexhibition of Hirshfield’s work at MoMA in 1943. The Hirshfield exhibition brought a torrent of negative criticism from the press. Emily Genauer of
wrote that Hirshfield was “an apparently gentle soul with deeply felt artistic aspirations, but with little gift for expressing them.” The publicity inflamed MoMA trusteeStephen Clark, and contributed to the dismissal of Alfred H.Barr Jr., MoMA’s director, who supported the exhibition. Since then, Hirshfield paintings have beenincluded in virtually every important exhibition and publication featuring twentieth century selftaught artists, and several of his paintings are now part of the permanentcollection of the Museum of Modern Art. How different from Genauer’s was the assessment of critic Carter Ratcliffe, who wrote in 1998 that Hirshfield “…transformed a set of pictorial clichés…into an image that looks fresh nearly six decades after it was painted…. The ordinary became extraordinary.”Demonstrating artistic talent as a boy, Hirshfield carved a “grogger,” or noisemaker, for his synagogue’s Purim celebration when he was twelve, and anapproximately 6 foot high, gilded wooden prayer stand, which featured rampant lions and other figures in bold relief, two years later. Hirshfield began painting as ahobby following his retirement in 1937. He painted for hours every day, taking finished works to a curator at the Brooklyn Museum to be evaluated.Born in Lithuania to a German mother and a Russian-Polish father, Hirshfield immigrated to America with his family at the age of eighteen. He worked in the garmenttrade, starting his own company with his brother. They began as cloak and suit manufacturers, calling the company Hirshfield Brothers, and then following the artist’smarriage they started the EZ Walk Manufacturing Company, which became New York City’s largest manufacturer of bedroom slippers.Hirshfield applied the techniques he knew from garment and slipper manufacturing to his art. Just as he had grown accustomed to preparing patterns for clothing to be assembled after cutting, he prepared full-scale drawings for his paintings, sketching outlines of the major forms before he began to paint. Hirshfield’s affinity for textiles, as noted by Carter Ratcliffe, is evident in the prominence of draperies in his paintings, which also include ornate and striped upholstery, embroidered and printed clothing, and rugs.Hirshfield always thought of himself as an artist and consciously aspired for recognition as one. In the self-portrait
The Artist and His Model,
painted only months before his death, a mustachioed artist, palette in one hand and brushes in the other, portrays his fantasy: an artist painting a nude model.The female figure, often idealized, dominates Hirshfield’s subjects. The artist painted nudes as well as stylishly clothed women, often surrounded by patterneddraperies in stage-like contexts; curved drapery pleats accentuate the natural female contours in paintings such as
Nude with Cupids
. Hirshfield also painted a number of animals (tigers, lions, zebras, elephants, cats, dogs, and birds) that appear in lush landscapes filled with ferns and flowering shrubs. In Hirshfield’s paintings, thestrong use of pattern-on-pattern with tiny stippled areas rhythmically activate his stylized forms, and add a shimmering glow that accentuates the brighter illumination inareas without patterning. Patriotism and references to Jewish ritual and ceremony are themes also found in Hirshfield’s paintings.
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