Turn Back the Pages: William Auerbach-Levy


The American writer Alexander Wollcott had this to say about caricature: “The True gift of caricature is rare. But once someone born with it- a Max Beerbohm, let us say, or a Frueh or an Auerbach-Levy- once one of the elect sees that a Theodore Roosevelt can be done with one line for the sombrero, a curve for the spectacles, and a few quirks of the pen for the radiant teeth, then all the rest see it too and follow suit.”

I first discovered the art of William Auerbach-Levy (1889-1964) through Jack Potter, a teacher of mine at the School of Visual Arts. He saw something in Auerbach-Levy’s work that he thought might connect with my own and shared with me a scrapbook filled with printed pages of Levy’s caricatures.

Looking through the scrapbook I immediately responded to the drawings and thought that none of them felt obvious or clichéd; traits that I don’t always find when it comes to caricature. As Wollcott stated in his quote at the top of this column, artists copy artists. Once one artist draws a subject a certain way then others follow suit. Another reason for this is that it’s often an easier path to capture a likeness by drawing an obvious trait. For example, drawing the gap in David Letterman’s teeth. The more difficult path is looking for subtlety and a unique way to draw a subject. It’s these qualities that I see in Auerbach-Levy’s artwork.

The caricatures also stood out because of the selectivity, taste and bold shapes in them. At times, Levy draws his subject with only a limited number of lines or he’ll leave out a few facial features altogether, but still maintains the likeness. In addition, his art reminded me of what Jack Potter was teaching in his class: shape, composition, bold mark-making, interpretation, and selectivity.

To be more specific I respond to the way Auerbach-Levy uses straight, curved and fluid lines in his drawings. He’ll draw the side of a nose with a straight line and then another section of the figure with a fluid or curved line; It adds variety to the overall image. He then selectively simplifies the caricature by what he chooses to leave in (or leave out) of a drawing. For example, Auerbach-Levy might not close the shape of a person’s head and leaves the back of it open altogether, but in doing so there’s just enough to make it ‘read’ as a head.  The result is that the viewer fills in what’s not there. He does all this by interpreting the subject in a way that isn’t limited to a traditional realistic approach.

Here are a few examples that highlight what I’m talking about above.

In 1947 Auerbach-Levy wrote a book titled “The Art of Caricature” where he tells a brief history of the art form, shares personal anecdotes, talks about his working process and discussed the market at that time.


In one section of the book he talks about originality and had this to say:

“Avoid the obvious. I recall an incident in connection with the drawing I made of Eugene O’Neill. Before I met O’Neill I was warned by those who knew him to make sure not to miss his large deep-set eyes which impress themselves upon people. Hearing so much about them, it seemed to me that the eyes must be a very obvious physical characteristic, so I decided to look beyond the obvious for more subtle aspects of my subject’s personality. When O’Neill posed for me I approached my task as though I had never been told anything at all about his eyes. I wanted to get my own impression.”

“The very same people who told me to “be sure to do the large eyes” never noticed that in my drawing they were left out altogether, and said it was “a great likeness.” I was delighted when the O’Neill caricature appeared not only in the paper for which I did it originally, but in a book of international caricatures. I think that the reason it was felt that the likeness is there, in spite of the fact that the eyes are left out, is that the onlooker supplies them and enjoys the drawing the more for being able to do so.”


He often worked from life and would do studies of his subject that he later took into his studio to complete the final illustration. Levy recounts an experience that he had with Jimmy Durante. “I had an assignment to make a drawing of Jimmy and the appointment was made for him to come to my studio. 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,” Levy said, “I’m all through – I made the drawing as you came in.”

“Say! I knew I was easy to caricature, but not as easy as all that!” replied Durante.

Levy continued: “Actually he wasn’t any easier to do than anyone else. It just happened that I caught what I wanted the first time. At other times I do a drawing over and over before I hit it”.

Below is a selection of original drawings that Auerbach-Levy did for various publications such as The New Yorker, The World, Vanity Fair, Esquire and many more.

In another section of his book he tackled this question: “But is it Art?”. Auerbach-Levy said: “While it is true that recognition of the subject plays a large part in the enjoyment of a caricature, the principal reason, I think, why caricature does not seem to have taken an enduring place among the fine arts is that true caricature is rare in the entire history of art. Whether or not a caricature can survive the test of time depends, as in any form of drawing – whether it be done on copper, stone, or paper – entirely on the quality of its performance. The medium and subject matter are both of minor consideration. Since caricature is a form of drawing, though perhaps a less familiar one, the only rule to apply is – how good is it of its kind?”

“Are there any caricatures fine enough to be enjoyed after the subject is no longer of interest? Yes, but unfortunately there are not many.”

I think Auerbach-Levy’s caricatures have the lasting interest that he talks about. Many of the celebrities that he drew during his time are long gone, and out of the spotlight, yet I still enjoy the images. It’s his selectivity, taste, line, composition and gesture that makes them stand out and are pieces that I think can be enjoyed both by someone during his time period and also by people today.











Tags: , ,

Categories: Illustration History, Illustrators

Author:Daniel Zalkus

Daniel Zalkus is an Illustrator and graduate of the School of Visual Arts in NYC. You can see more of his work at: danielzalkus.com

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