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Poised Pen

Covarrubiass Early Days in New York

By Johnna Rizzo | HUMANITIES, May/June 2006 | Volume 27, Number 3

Soon after his arrival in New York in 1923, Miguel Covarrubias was introduced to Carl Van Vechten--novelist, photographer, critic, and general tastemaker--who opened the world of the smart set to the young artist he thought to be a genius.

"From the beginning I was amazed at [Covarrubias's ability] to size up a person on a blank sheet of paper at once; there is a certain clairvoyance in this," Van Vechten said. The two lunched at the Algonquin, and after Covarrubias had impressed Dorothy Parker and the other wits of the Round Table gathered there, Van Vechten set up a meeting with Vanity Fair.

Covarrubias's work for the magazine made him famous. The critics embraced him. Henry McBride of the New York Sun wrote of the nineteen-year-old, "There was no fumbling around either for the idea or for the method, but an adult assurance that was as startling as it was pleasing." Seasoned caricaturist Ralph Barton called the work "devoid of nonsense, like a mountain or a baby." Much sought after for his sophisticated style, Covarrubias provided caricatures for the most urbane houses of New York publishing, including the New Yorker, Fortune, Vogue, and Alfred A. Knopf.

Covarrubias's Manhattan heyday provides the meat of a new traveling exhibition opening in May at the Cultural Institute of Mexico in Washington, DC. Created by Humanities Texas, in cooperation with the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, the exhibition of forty-seven works covers the breadth of the artist's career, but focuses on the New York caricatures from the 1920s and 30s.

Studiomate Al Hirschfeld observed that after only a few years in Manhattan, Covarrubias had befriended--and drawn--not only the literati, but also the "wealthy of the city," including the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, and the Rockefellers. The illustrator had an enormous cast of important characters in his life, and these were in large part the people he documented. "He was the center of so many circles," says Kathryne Tovo, the curator of the exhibition.

Van Vechten introduced him to Harlem, and Covarrubias took to the life there immediately, inspired by the creative rush of the Harlem Renaissance. "He went there night after night and cultivated relationships," says Tovo. Late evenings haunting the uptown cafes with playwright Eugene O'Neill led to illustrations for books, including Langston Hughes's first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, and Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men. Covarrubias's Negro Drawings, published in 1927, captured performers in jazz clubs and people on the streets. The fascination with portraying everyday individuals grew, and he eventually became an anthropologist, ethnologist, and educator.

"He had a genuine curiosity about people, and that's evident in his work. He met people on their own terms and used that information when he depicted them," Tovo explains. It was an affable approach to caricature. By knowing his subjects, he could pare them down.

And he had the all-important eye for subtlety of detail: etiquette adviser Emily Post has left the spoon in her elegantly poised teacup; media-hungry Antarctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, surrounded by penguins and icebergs, grasps a copy of the New York Times; usually dapper Edward, Prince of Wales, slumps a bit next to his successor as heartthrob apparent, Clark Gable.

Covarrubias kept his commentary light, capturing the faults inherent in the cult of celebrity rather than the individuals. "It was all in good fun, and didn't veer toward the nasty," says Tovo. The way Barton saw it, "the Calvin Coolidge that is any of our business is the Calvin Coolidge that Covarrubias has drawn," adding that it is the caricaturist's job "to put down the figure a man cuts before his fellows in his attempt to conceal the writhings of his soul." The new calling cards of caricature were to be style and restraint, and Covarrubias was masterly.