DENYS WORTMAN (1 May, 1887 – 20 September, 1958), renowned social-realist cartoonist and painter, was born in Saugerties, NY, the son of a Dutch Reformed church pastor – also named Denis – and his wife, Jessie. His work is held in such high esteem that many believe it is worthy of comparison to the caricaturist/social commentators William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson of England, as well as the work of Honare Daumier and Jean-Louis Fourain of France.
Wortman’s love of drawing was born at an early age, when he found a stack of old issues of the humor magazine Puck in a neighbor’s trash-can. He found himself drawn to the depictions of tramps by F. Opper, and set up a ‘studio’ in the second-floor bathroom of his house, where he set out to reproduce the pictures he saw in Puck, and proceeded to experiment with original ones of his own. The studio became his refuge, and it was here that his first representations of the cartoon he would later become famous for, Mopey Dick and the Duke, first originated.
His early education took place at Blair Academy, a private boarding school in Blairstown, in 1903–04, the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken (where he studied engineering, at his parents’ behest) in 1904–05, and then Rutgers College in Newark, from 1905 to 1906. But his love of drawing took precedence over these more traditional forms of academic pursuit, and he whiled away his classroom time drawing pictures on the flyleaves of his textbooks. In 1906 he was able to “wangle his way into art school, where (he) wanted to be all the time.” The school he chose was the innovative New York School of Art (renamed the New York School of Fine and Applied Art in 1909 and the Parsons School of Design in 1941). His period of matriculation there lasted until 1909, and his instructors included Kenneth Hayes Miller and Robert Henri, whose social-realist leanings influenced his later work. Among his classmates were George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Glen O. Coleman and Eugene Speicher.
In the years following art school Wortman supported himself as a freelance artist, selling his paintings and landscapes without dealer representation but managing to get his work exhibited at such notable venues as the Grand Central Gallery and Macbeth Gallery in New York City. From 1911 to 1913 he completed a series of highly-regarded landscapes and seascapes executed on the island of Bermuda, one of them earning a place at the famous Armory Show of 1913. He served in the U.S. Navy in 1918, and, upon his return, sold a few drawings of life as a sailor in the First World War to the New York Tribune, which led, in 1924, to a career-turning job as an illustrator on the staff of the New York World. He conveyed his feelings about this life-altering event in the preface to his book Mopey Dick and the Duke: Their Life and Times, when he stated, “My Guardian Angel … or … led me back to my first true love. I found myself … in a job that paid me money for doing exactly what I wanted to do … I began to report in pictures and words, for a newspaper, the life around me in a great city.” He remained with the World, through its mergers with the New York Telegram and the Sun, until his retirement in 1954.
In addition to his initial role at the World as an illustrator of news stories, Wortman sold drawings to the New Yorker, Collier’s, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post. His national reputation was established when he took over “Metropolitan Movies,” a popular cartoon feature initiated by the World in 1913, and, from 1930 on, distributed by United Features Syndicate to 45 newspapers across the country as “Everyday Movies.”
Wortman’s single-panel cartoons quickly gained praise for their artistic merit and level of social commentary. The daily panel, initially done in New York but then sent to the city from his home in Martha’s Vineyard beginning in 1941, featured a wide variety of colorful urban characters and settings, ranging across the full spectrum of social and economic boundaries. His most popular and enduring feature was the aforementioned Mopey Dick and the Duke, depicting episodes in the lives of two lovable vagrants who offered up commentaries on life in America from the unique perspective of those living in urban poverty. Of primary interest to Wortman were not jokes or funny ideas for cartoons, but the actual spoken words heard in the streets of the city. (To that end, it is interesting to note that his wife Hilda would often provide him with material gleaned from conversations overheard while sitting on a park bench.) It is this complete and fearless dedication to authenticity, to capturing the essence of the human drama without forced contrivance or artifice, that separates Wortman from others of the same ilk. His unerring sympathy and compassion for those unfortunate denizens who are often dismissed as disposable or squalid intrusions on the quality of life in the city provided his viewers with the rare opportunity to visit worlds other artists and illustrators dared not, or would not, tread. The result were creations that, as James Sturm has noted, “did not traffic in parody, melodrama, or slapstick (or) provide serialized adventures,” but rather, according to Jerry Robinson, “captured (the city’s) grime and its sadness, along with its poignant humor.” Other commentators have been equally impressed by the quality of Wortman’s work: Dennis Wepman has noted that these “powerfully composed drawings in pencil and crayon revealed a mastery of form and and a linear freedom of modeling that complemented the trenchant commentary of their captions”. Poet and journalist Charles Hanson Towne wrote of Wortman’s work in 1926, “Here … is a man with vision and philosophy – a poet with pity and humor in his heart… I have been struck with the power of these pictures, their great humanity, their unerring sense of the pathos, as well as the guttersnipe humor of our big, throbbing town.”
Reginald Marsh observed that Wortman was “one of the greatest newspaper artists of our period, his perception of character goes very deep, very deep indeed, for the press, or for the field of fine arts as well.” And no less a figure as Norman Rockwell commented, “One thing I have always admired so much about the work of Denys Wortman is that he is technically so attuned to his subject matter. Certainly his work has contributed a great deal to make us understand many interesting types of people.” Perhaps Guy Pene du Bois put it best when he said that “harmony is control of all his compositions” but that it was a “harmony found in consistent disorder.”
In his later years Wortman’s oil paintings, marked by a loose, impressionist style, took up an increasing amount of his time, and were highly regarded in the gallery world. Among the honors he earned over the course of his lifetime were memberships in the National Academy of Art, the National Academy of Design, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was a longtime member of the Society of Illustrators of New York, serving as its president in 1936 and 1937.
Wortman’s legacy remains profoundly relevant, universalist, and enduring. In the preface to Mopey Dick and the Duke, he spoke of hearing a voice – believing it to be the voice of his Aunt Annie – saying, “in that wonderful city in which you live, don’t you ever see anything but tramps and bums and sordidness?” But for Wortman, life amongst people “living on the edge” was not sordid, nor were the people bums. He was drawn to these people because, unlike the people walking down 5th Avenue, these were human beings that, for all their poverty, belonged to something, and always remained true to themselves. The truth, after all, was what Wortman was after, and he understood that the dirt and the squalor only existed on the outside; he understood that just because a man is unshaven or lacks properly pressed slacks, does not mean he is without worth. This deep understanding of what lies beneath the surface gave him the opportunity to communicate with his viewers without ever looking down at them, or treating them as anything other than equals. During critical moments in the nation’s history, encompassing peace, war, and depression, hundreds of thousands of people looked to his drawings to provide a bit of relief from the enormous strain they were under, and for just a moment, their own troubles were forgotten, an ephemeral respite from the vicissitudes of life worth far more than the price of a newspaper.
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