Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Ben Stahl's Ben-Hur

By Guest Author Tom Watson

When the movie Ben-Hur premiered in S.F. in 1960, my wife and I had dinner and went to see the movie opening night.


That was a big deal for us in those days, for a young couple with little money. We must have saved quite a while for that one extravagant evening, and I probably sacrificed more than a little when purchasing art supplies, for a while.


Enough nostalgia... the result was not only a special evening, but a very nice hard bound book that featured photos and a total of six reproductions of the Ben Stahl illustrations for the movie.


This was after Stahl evolved into his more fine arts technique. I am only guessing, but I think perhaps those that are critical of Stahl's work are referring to paintings like these that are less refined or slick, like many of the '40s and '50s illustrations tended to be.


Stahl was more interested in mood and subjectivity than objective accuracy and slick literal renderings.


He obviously leaned, tilted and even distorted some of his figures to convey high energy and action.


I would bet he was not a fan of Bob Peak's avant-garde color combinations or probably wasn't that impressed with the 60's innovative directions that illustration took. Interestingly, I could find no mention of him in the 1959 Illustrator's Annual show, which is when he did the illustrations for Ben-Hur.

From what I have read, he was a salty, opinionated character that was well liked by some who saw his abundant talent and appreciated his sense of humor and his bluntness, but also fostered those that were critical of his work. I think some of his illos are very powerful. I personally prefer a brighter pallet, but I do like his willingness to allow his brush strokes to be aggressive and very prominent. His style was very personal and transcended photography, which might be why he didn't fade away completely during the 50's, like so many very competent illustrators did.


* Many thanks to Tom Watson for sharing his personal recollections and insightful analysis on the today's subject.

* the scan of the Ben-Hur movie poster is courtesy of Heritage Auctions, all the other scans today are courtesy of Tom Watson.

* My Ben Stahl Flickr set


  1. Thank you for these wonderful recollections, and the historical perspective on the evolution of Stahl's technique. The personal memories, far from mere nostalgia, give added strength to the context of your insights, Mr. Watson. Again, thanks for bringing these pictures to life, and adding to the wealth of this incredible blog and indispensable resource.

  2. I've never seen these. They're incredible!!! Thank you so much for posting these!!!!

  3. My parents had the soundtrack album or something that had these illustrations in them. I remember studying the brush work, cloth folds, and lighting. I don't paint like that myself but it's impressive. Thanks for bringing back some memories and showcasing this art.

  4. That monolithic Ben-Hur film poster had always struck me as very appropriate to this monumental movie.

    "He obviously leaned, tilted and even distorted some of his figures to convey high energy and action."
    I read this text below the Golgotha illustration: before, looking at the picture, I had said to myself: "Wow! That looks El Greco-like."

  5. I did not know he had done the BenHur poster. That's an icon.
    I have not sought out alot of info on him, but
    has everyone read the chapter on Stahl in Concept and Composition by Fritz Henning?

  6. Ben Stahl is really a national treasure. What I found interesting was how closely he drew from historic classics for these illustrations. In particular, his crucifiction is uncanny in resemblance to one of the stages in Rembrandt's crucifiction etching ("http://www.awakentoprayer.org/CRUX.JPEG")

    Thanks for another great, and inspiring, post.

  7. Scott;

    I'm not sure if Stahl did the actual Ben-Hur poster. He did the six paintings in today's post, two of which were a part of this particular version of the poster I found at Heritage Auctions. Also, I'm very curious to see this Stahl chapter in that book you mentioned!

  8. I believe Reynold Brown painted the poster. 99% certain.

  9. Rob C.11:02 PM

    Interesting that there's no painting illustrating the gay relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala either on the poster or in the film book.

  10. Charlie Allen3:13 PM

    As said before, I've never been a fan of Ben Stahl. I'm still not. But....have to admit, the guy would take on difficult subjects and those epic historical portayals....almost fearlessly! He seemed to revel in such assignments.....light years away from my type of work and thinking. He was definitely an important illustrator in our time. Thanks, Leif.....a good post.

  11. TI brings in subjects Light Years away from each other...

    As apart as things may be: They somehow stay and stick together.


  12. Awesome, gorgeous art. Thanks for all your work collecting these pictures. I love this blog :)

  13. Wonderful works--the last one is so powerful.

  14. “Ben Stahl loved women.”

    Although I’m not crazy about his “muddy” style, I have to agree with this statement and that these are brilliant examples of that love. The swell of the breast of the girl in the pink coat, the healthy and strong flat stomachs of the girls in “Strange Reunion” and “Bitter Sand” (why is this girls so pale though? – wouldn’t she be a deep swarthiness?), the incredible thighs of “The Lady . . . “ , the delicate knees and beautiful face of the circus girl, all attest to his incredible appreciation of what makes women so beautiful to men. His art proves the validity of the “objectification” of women. They are worth it . . .

    Another fantastic posting. thanks

  15. I think Wes could do with taking a cold bath, he seems to be getting a little over-heated.