First published: Spring 2023
How retired shoemaker Morris Hirshfield skyrocketed to becoming an acclaimed MoMA artist
Before he picked up a paintbrush at the age of 65, Morris Hirshfield worked his way up through the New York City garment industry to become a mogul of women’s footwear. Born in 1872 in a Polish town near the German border, he was part of the mass migration of Eastern European Jews who fled to the USA. Arriving in New York aged 18, he got a factory job making women’s coats. Later, he used those garment skills to start a coat, then a slipper, business with his brother, before setting up his own company. Ever innovative, he even patented ornamental and ergonomic slipper designs.
André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst standing behind Morris Hirshfield’s Nude at the Window (Hot Night in July), and Leonora Carrington, at Peggy Guggenheim’s NYC townhouse in 1942, photo: Hermann Landshoff, © bpk
The decades of entrepreneurship that followed came to an abrupt end when he fell ill, leading to his retirement in 1937. However, the industrious Hirshfield was not content to remain idle in his Brooklyn home and, that same year, he decided to reignite a childhood passion for art. As he explained in an essay for the 1942 book They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century by Sidney Janis:
“It seems that even in my young days I exhibited artistic tendencies – not in painting – but in woodcarving for, at the tender age of 12, I aroused our little town by producing for myself a unique noise-maker to be used in the Jewish Purim festivals at the synagogue.”
The Artist and his Model, 1945, oil on canvas, 34 x 44 in. / 86.5 x 112 cm, American Folk Art Museum
At first, Hirshfield stuck with carving and made a large prayer-stand for the local synagogue, adorned with lions, birds and decorative designs accented in gold. However, after turning his bedroom into a studio, he took an existing painting off the wall to use as a canvas. His first finished work –Beach Girl – obscured the original painting except for the woman’s face; the rest was consumed by dense patterns of blue feathery clouds and an ocean that coiled like steel wool.
Stage Beauties, 1944, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in. / 122 x 101.5 cm, MoMA
This was the first of his many “dream girls” who posed clothed and nude (based on Hirshfield’s imagination rather than real-life models) and resembled dressmaker’s mannequins in their rigid poses. Much of Hirshfield’s process was reminiscent of his work in the garment industry: his use of preparatory drawings traced onto the canvas like sewing patterns, his detailed brushwork on upholstery, curtains and clothing, and the final addition of ornate flourishes.
By ALLISON C MEIER
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #114.