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Perfectly Simple

May 2024
4min read

William Auerbach-Levy’s genius as a caricaturist lay in what he chose to leave out.

Great portraits are frequently caricatures. Think of van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Egon Schiele, Picasso, Max Beckmann, or Alice Neel. On the other hand, caricature is not portraiture. Well, not often. One exception, in my opinion, is William Auerbach-Levy. Unlike other caricaturists, he did not exaggerate facial features for comic or scurrilous effect. He used distortion to capture the persona in the same subtle way a good portrait painter does. And like a portrait painter, his drawings were done from life, although he frequently reworked sketches afterward in his studio. His caricatures were admired when I went to art school even by the fine arts students who looked down on commercial art. It was his apparently effortless draftsmanship that impressed us. His ability to catch facial idiosyncracies was almost beside the point.

Auerbach-Levy’s style owes much to the unrelenting emphasis placed on life drawing in the early part of this century. He was five when his parents emigrated from Brest-Litovsk in 1894 and settled on the Lower East Side. Six years later, at the age of eleven, he won a scholarship to the National Academy of Design, and before long he was winning prizes for his etchings. But in spite of his obvious talent, his parents could not conceive that—even in America—a boy could earn a living by making pictures. They persuaded him to attend City College. It was not until after graduation, when he was awarded a two-year fellowship to study art in Paris, that he felt free to follow his own inclinations.

The first impression that Auerbach-Levy left on his fellow students at the Académie Julian was that he was heir to great wealth. In France a hyphenated name indicates high social status, if not nobility. That, William complained, was not the case: his father had affixed “Levy” to the family name after they arrived in the United States because he thought “Levy” sounded more American—a reasonable assumption if one’s daily perimeters were those of the Lower East Side.

It was during his student days in Paris that William stumbled upon his gift for capturing likenesses. He frequently made funny drawings of his fellow students and tacked them up on the bulletin board of the American Club. Often the embarrassed victim surreptitiously removed his image, but one—William Zorach, the future sculptor—took revenge by pinning up his own devastating portrayal of the would-be caricaturist. Years later Auerbach-Levy said that this experience led him to be lenient with his subjects; I would suggest that his own gentle nature was a more determining factor.


In fact, Auerbach-Levy never viewed caricature as a means for vindictive satire. “A caricature never implies any criticism of the person,” he said later; “it is merely an interpretation of his appearance.” His predecessors Gillray, Cruikshank, and Nast really hated their targets; Auerbach-Levy’s work suggests he did not understand such vehemence.

On his return to the United States, Auerbach-Levy made his living by teaching in art schools, supplemented by selling his etchings and paintings. Caricatures were what he did for the amusement—or nonamusement—of his friends. But one day his wife persuaded him to submit a sampling to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia for a forthcoming exhibition of caricature. To his amazement he walked off with first prize.

After that it was only a matter of time before he was on regular assignment with the Sunday theater section of the New York World . The drama critic was Heywood Broun, who was shortly succeeded by Alexander Woollcott, although Broun remained as a columnist. Herbert Bayard Swope was editor. Other members of the all-star masthead included ERA. (Franklin Pierce Adams), H. L. Mencken, Ring Lardner, Frank Sullivan, and Will Rogers—most of whom AuerbachLevy caricatured at one time or another. He also shared their passion for poker and was frequently present upstairs at the Algonquin for gatherings of the Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club. Although his wit was visual rather than verbal like Woollcott’s (“I guess I’ll fold my tens and silently steal away”), he generally went home a winner.

Later Auerbach-Levy also contributed to The New Yorker , Esquire , Collier’s , Theatre Arts , the Brooklyn Eagle , and the New York Post . Theater was his greatest source of subject matter. He loved the excitement of going backstage to sketch famous performers, enjoyed visiting their lavish homes and affecting a kind of camaraderie with them as he drew. Afterward he was not above casually dropping their names to his workaday friends. Or not so casually. He became, in fact, an unquenchable raconteur, enlarging on and embellishing his experiences with show people. He loved to tell how the curtain was late going up one night because he and Lionel Barrymore were so engrossed in reminiscences of their (not concurrent) student days at the Académie Julian, or of the time he told Claudette Colbert to “Come in and take your clothes off,” mistaking her for a model for his current painting.

Perhaps oftenest repeated was his Jimmy Durante story, described in his book Is That Me? A Book about Caricature as follows: “When he arrived I had a pad and pencil in my hand as he came through the door. That very moment I saw an angle that amused me and I recorded it then and there. He came in, we shook hands, he took his overcoat off and said, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’


“ ‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘I’m all through—I made the drawing as you came in.’ ”

And he would conclude with an imitation of the comedian’s gravelly New Yorkese: “I knew I was easy to caricature, but not as easy as all that!”

Besides indicating Auerbach-Levy’s familiarity with celebrities, the story provides a very real comment upon his approach to caricature, his ability to create his effect through what was essentially the power of suggestion. He was a minimalist. “Leave out more than you put in,” was his motto, and so Beatrice Lillie is depicted in one drawing without eyes and in another without a mouth; nothing lies beneath Eugene O’Neill’s shaggy brows; and George Gershwin is mostly cigar. Auerbach-Levy’s near contemporary Al Hirschfeld often employs a similar “negative” artistry. Hirschfeld remembers that he and Auerbach-Levy would often cross paths backstage, drawing the same stars of the same hit plays, but there was no cross-pollination. Their drawings never looked alike, although each seemed the definitive caricature of the subject.

When Auerbach-Levy died in 1964, his fame was based on his caricatures. But throughout his life, he also worked as teacher, painter, and master of the copperplate etching. He never taught caricature; his classes at the National Academy of Design School and the Art Students League were classes in life drawing. “To learn to be a caricaturist, learn to be an artist,” he once said. “Caricature is an absolutely individual problem with every artist. It would not be right for me to teach my way—everyone must develop his own way.”

Just so. A closing note: Auerbach-Levy loved games. Besides poker, he was an unbeatable checkers player (intercity champion at fifteen) and an avid tennis player. But of course, the best game was caricaturing itself. Auerbach-Levy always made it look easy; that’s what champions do.


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