Monday, November 01, 2010

Ben Stahl's Women

Looking through all the many Ben Stahl illustrations in my old magazine collection, one thing quickly becomes apparent:


Ben Stahl loved women.


That is to say, like so many other artists throughout the history of picture making, Stahl was endlessly enamoured of the female form.

There's a great little anecdote in Ashley Halsey Jr.'s "Illustrating for the Saturday Evening Post" about an incident in 1945, when Stahl submitted a rough sketch that made the Post's editorial board go, "Hmmmm, no!"


The problem arose when it became clear to the Post's editors that, based on Stahl's pencil sketch, the artist intended to paint a completely nude model in the scene. Although it would be entirely appropriate to the story content...


... and despite Stahl's margin note to Post AD Frank Kilker, which he included with his second sketch ("This interior is based on actual photos of the Julian art school") the Post's editors felt some drapery would need to be included.


Along with his third sketch, Ben Stahl included a note that read, "Please don't make me cover the gal up any more than this. I've seen 'em more nude than this in magazines." Whether the note or the sketch or a combination of the two, Stahl at last got the editors' go-ahead.


Maybe as a small demonstration of artistic rebellion, notice that Stahl, in his finished full colour painting, included in the background a painting that had been represented as just an indefinite shape in his approved sketch. A painting of a female nude.

Whether he was painting them nude...


... semi-clothed...


... or fully dressed, the Stahl girl had a distinct look.


I'm of the opinion her look is based more on Stahl's personal fancy than any 'real' type. This may be because, as a young man working as a junior illustrator in a Chicago art studio, Stahl's superior, Earl Gross, encouraged Stahl to resist the temptation to follow the path of the slick, realistic 'technicians' of the day, who relied heavily on photo reference. That advice stayed with him. Years later he wrote, "Photographs are like booze - an intelligent occasional use of the stuff, great. Overuse, pure poison!"


Instead Stahl looked to Delacroix, Manet, Ingres, Rembrant, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and El Greco for inspiration and guidance. The influence in his work is undeniable, whether his subject is 'period'...


... or contemporary. Stahl's abilities and appreciation for the female form did not escape the notice of Esquire magazine's editors. But instead of asking the artist to render a typical Esquire pin-up girl, the magazine sent Stahl to Europe. For six months he travelled the continent seeking out a dozen lovely young ladies who typified the 'look' of their country. Below, Ben Stahl's take on "Miss France."


Another thing I noticed in preparing this post: During a time when most of his contemporaries were finding every possible way of composing tightly cropped pictures of couples in "the clinch", Stahl typically placed his men and women at a distance from each other, often with the male subject playing the role of observer rather than participant.


This reveals, I think, Stahl almost reverential adoration for feminine beauty.


By placing the woman at the center of the viewer's attention and making her male partner so clearly subordinate...


... was Stahl suggesting that any woman of such physical beauty is so divine as to be almost... unattainable?


* My Ben Stahl Flickr set.

* Thanks to Tom Watson for sharing the Ben Stahl interview from which I pulled some information and quotes today, as well as for locating the finished colour painting that accompanies Stahl's 1945 Post sketches.

* The final image in today's post is from Ben Stahl's biographical listing in Walt Reed's book, "The Illustrator in America, 1880-2000"


  1. Mike G1:13 PM

    I've flicked through quite a few copies of the Saturday Evening Post and I must say, in fairness, the 'no tits' rule seems to have been applied fairly to all contributing artists,not just Stahl.

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