Al Hirschfeld, who adored jazz, drew Louis Armstrong for the first time in 1939 and continued to do so repeatedly throughout his long and productive life. One of the last occasions was in 1990, thirteen years before Hirschfeld’s death, when he did a portrait of the trumpeter called “Satchmo!” It is, in my opinion, the best of all possible Armstrong caricatures, one in which the joyous public figure whom the whole world loved is portrayed with a near-abstract simplicity of line that is not merely witty but beautiful.
I like “Satchmo!” so much that I used it as the last illustration in Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, accompanied by the following caption:
Many now feel ill at ease with the old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing entertainer portrayed in this 1990 caricature by Al Hirschfeld, but there was nothing false about Satchmo’s unselfconscious smile.
Hirschfeld later turned “Satchmo!” into a limited-edition color lithograph that I saw when I went to the Margo Feiden Galleries six years ago to secure permission to reproduce the original drawing in my book, an experience that I blogged about here. I was bowled over by its richness and depth–it looked almost three-dimensional–and longed to buy a copy on the spot and add it to the Teachout Museum. Alas, the timing was financially unpropitious, and in due course I put the wild idea of owning a Hirschfeld out of my head.
That notion came back with full force, however, not long after Satchmo at the Waldorf opened in March. A fair amount of time had gone by since Mrs. T and I last added anything to our collection, and it seemed to both of us that the moment had arrived. I took a cab to the Margo Feiden Galleries last Thursday and returned home a few hours later with a pencil-signed copy of “Satchmo!” under my arm. I dropped it off at our framer over the weekend. We’ll hang it in our New York apartment as soon as we decide on the right spot.
I can’t imagine a more suitable way to celebrate the New York opening of Satchmo at the Waldorf, can you?
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Longtime readers of this blog will recall that “Satchmo!” is the second caricature to make its way into the Teachout Museum. It was preceded by a drawing of Percy Grainger by Max Beerbohm, which I acquired in 2004 and about which I blogged here and here:
Max makes a point of saying that a caricature should be executed in “the most beautiful manner,” and while it’s true that his Grainger caricature is very funny–especially the society ladies clustered around the piano, who range in size from wasp-waisted to preposterously portly–it’s also quite beautiful indeed. The composition is cunningly balanced, the line deft and clear, the light touches of watercolor wash miraculously subtle.
I mention this because I recently learned, purely by chance, of the existence of an art gallery in London that deals in Beerbohm caricatures. While none of them is of anyone who is still widely remembered, many are striking in their own right. So if, like me, you love Max’s work and long to hang a piece of it on your wall, go here to peruse the inventory.