It seems that even in my young days I exhibited artistic tendencies...begins the biography of self-taught artist Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946) who immigrated from Poland to the United States when he was 18. Forgoing his artistic calling to make way for the more practical matter of earning a living, Hirshfield settled in New York City where he found employment in the garment industry and later established with his brother a slipper making business known as the EZ Walk Manufacturing Company. Together, they produced high quality ladies' "boudoir slippers" until poor health forced Hirshfield to retire in 1935. In 1937, at the age of 65, to the amazement and consternation of his family, he returned to painting. Women and animals were frequent themes. He struggled to give form to his vision. It seems that my mind knew well what I wanted to portray but my hands were unable to produce what my mind demanded. His work was discovered in 1939 by art collector and gallery owner Sidney Janis, who selected two paintings to be included in an exhibit called "Contemporary Unknown American Painters" at the Museum of Modern Art. In his collection of biographical studies of self-taught artists entitled, They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century, Janis describes his first encounter with Hirshfield's work; the image below - this exceptional, preternatural cat.
Angora Cat, 1937
About to leave the gallery, I peeked at a picture whose face was to the wall. What a shock I received! In the center of this rather square canvas, two round eyes, luminously gleaming in the darkness, were returning my stare! It brought to mind the sequence in Duck Soup in which Groucho Marx, confronted by an unexpected image in his mirror, was taken aback, only to find the image oddly enough immobile. The image I saw was just as unexpected and the round unflinching eyes continued to stare, impervious to my sudden start. They belonged to a strangely compelling creature which, sitting possessively upon a remarkable couch, immediately took possession of me...
Janis goes on to describe "her" with great affection:
Angora Cat is a strange mysterious creature. She is at once spell-binding and mirth-provoking. Her deep-set eyes, staring intensely, take immediate possession of the beholder, and they hold him with the suspense of a mystery thriller. But she is such a homey creature, round and fluffy, that the terror is not quite convincing, and the ripples of fear that run up and down the spine eventually turn to laughter. She is an exciting, upsetting creature, whom one cannot help but love.
Cat and Two Kittens, 1945
Leopard Family, 1943
Mother Cat With Kittens, 1941
Cats in the Snow, 1946
Hirshfield subsequently became one of the most prominent American folk artists of the 20th century producing seventy-seven works between 1937 and 1946. Several of his paintings are included in MOMA's permanent collection. Although I've known of his work for many years, these paintings have become one of my newest obsessions. Perhaps it's just a symptom of my feline monomania, but I think these images are completely thrilling.