Two weeks ago, posted on Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York was, at least for me, an eye-opening account of New York artist-cartoonist, Denys Wortman. Despite his productivity, and despite his obvious talent, the name of Wortman has remained obscure over the years since his long period of steady work during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Following his death in 1958, the artist’s work was relegated to storage boxes and dusty closets. The failure to give Denys Wortman the recognition he deserves is close to a crime.
Born in 1887, Wortman knew from a young age that he wanted to draw and enrolled in the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. His teacher was the near-famous Robert Henri, and his classmates included Edward Hopper, George Bellows and Rockwell Kent. In 1924 Wortman began drawing the comic panel, Metropolitan Movies in the New York World newspaper. This was the work that revealed his true strength and talent. He ultimately did over 9,000 drawings for the newspaper over thirty years. His work was also seen regularly in World Telegram, Sun, The Saturday Evening Post, Life and The New Yorker. Compared to such greats as Hogarth, Daumier and Renoir, the Metropolitan Museum and New York Public Library both maintained a complete collection of proofs of all his cartoons. Wortman’s work is a catalog of life in New York City during the Depression and years following.
Contemporary cartoonist and editor James Sturm only recently discovered Wortman in a vintage copy of his book, Mopey Dick and the Duke. Strongly impressed, Sturm set out to learn more about Wortman, eventually contacting the artist’s son, Denys Wortman VIII. Unbelievably, the son was holding an archive of more than 5,000 illustrations packed away in an old shed, battling rats, snow and rusty paperclips. The result of that find has become an exceptional tribute to this artist: Denys Wortman’s New York.
Wortman’s genius was not only his artistic excellence, but accuracy in portraying a city and its people through the Depression and the prosperity of World War II. He took seriously the advice of teacher, Robert Henri, to depict the world around him. If in nothing else, Wortman succeeded hugely in that aim. Almost every aspect of homelife, street life and the workplace has been depicted by the artist. His characters are working people, mothers, sailors, soldiers, actresses, bosses, children and nearly every other type found in New York City during the 30s and 40s.
What grabs the viewer at once in a Wortman drawing are composition, his distinctive arrangement of figures around the setting, be it street, rooftop or workplace, and the character of his models. Looking at his cartoons they practically exude a smell and feel of the location, drawing us into the world of his colorful, breathing characters.
Residents of New York are fortunate to now have an opportunity to see an exhibition of Denys Wortman originals at the Museum of the City of New York. “Denys Wortman Rediscovered” will continue through March 20.
Looking through Sturm’s book of 287 Wortman drawings, beyond the power of those drawings is the big puzzle: What explains the absence of Denys Wortman from fine art and comics history?