There are so many artists out there, both now and from the past, that I’m not surprised when I come across an artist with which I am not familiar whose work knocks me out. But sometimes I come across work that is so strong and consistent in its vision that I just can’t understand why the name is not known to me. That’ happened recently when I was browsing through a book on the collection of the American Folk Art Museum and came across the name Morris Hirshfield. The name didn’t ring a bell but the work was so wonderful. It had a naive feel in the rendering of the figures but there was a sophistication in the composition and coloring that made me feel that it was anything but folk.
I definitely had to find out more about Morris Hirshfield.
He was born in Poland in 1872 and came to America around 1890 at the age of 18. Like many many of the Jewish immigrants of that time who settled in the New York area he began working in the garment industry. With his brother, he opened a coat factory that evolved into a slipper factory which was very successful. Morris encountered health problems and retired in 1935, at which point he took up painting, following up on an artistic urge he had as a child but had put aside long ago.
Within four short years, his work had attracted the attention of collector and art dealer Sidney Janis, who used two of Hirshfield’s paintings for an exhibit he was putting together in 1939 for the Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Unknown American Painters. MoMA , at that time, was committed to collecting and showing the work of self-taught artists. In 1941, MoMA purchased two of Hirshfield’s paintings for its collection and in 1943 gave Hirshfield a solo show. He had only painted 30 pieces up to that point in his career. There was great controversy over the show at the time as the critics of the era savaged it. It was, according to Janis’s biographer, “one of the most hated shows the Museum of Modern Art ever put on.” It led to the dismissal of the museum director at the time.
But Hirshfield survived and painted his paintings of animals and the occasional figure for a few more years until his death in 1946. His career spanned a mere 9 years over which he produced only 77 paintings.
I don’t really understand the controversy of the time or why Hirshfield hasn’t inspired more writers or artists. Or maybe he has and I just can’t find much evidence of it. When I clicked on the Google image page for him, I was immediately smitten. There was that sense of rightness that I often speak of here. Just plain good stuff. Just wish Morris Hirshfield had been around longer so there might be more to see.