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William Steig

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From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of WIlliam Steig

Jun 8, 2009–Sep 7, 2009

Hailed as the “King of Cartoons,” William Steig had a long acclaimed career as both a brilliant cartoonist and an award-winning, beloved author of children’s literature. Born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn in 1907, Steig grew up in the Bronx and began illustrating for The New Yorker in 1930. In the 73 years that Steig worked for The New Yorker, the magazine published over 120 of his covers and more than 1,600 of his drawings in a wide variety of styles.

Organized by the Jewish Museum in New York City, From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig, features a wide selection of original drawings for both his New Yorker cartoons and his children’s books such as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Doctor De Soto, Amos & Boris, Gorky Rises, Dominic, When Everybody Wore a Hat, and Shrek! (“fear” in Yiddish). Additionally, the exhibition will showcase his lesser known mid-life symbolic drawings, correspondence, and other documentary materials that will shed light on Steig, the man and the artist.


Installation view of From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of WIlliam Steig, on view Jun 8–Sep 7, 2009 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo by Bitter Bredt.

Beginning in his sixties, Steig became a successful writer and illustrator of children’s literature, creating such award-winning titles as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and Doctor De Soto (1982). His 1990 picture book Shrek! —which means “fear” in Yiddish—inspired the Academy Award-winning feature film Shrek (2001) and its two sequels—Shrek  2 (2004) and Shrek the Third (2007)—as well as an upcoming Broadway musical. Steig’s desire to draw freely and whimsically is evident in much of his art, and his intense love of color is apparent in his rich illustrations for children. 

Museum visitors will discover art ranging from classic cartoons to psychologically charged pen-and-ink drawings, from Picassoesque portraits to geometric figure studies, and from delicately rendered sketches to vibrant watercolors. In addition, the exhibition includes several of the artist’s notebooks and sketchbooks, letters, and Steig’s preparatory dummies for his children’s books. Some of the character studies and models created by animators at DreamWorks, the studio that produced the Shrek movies, are also on view.

In conjunction with the exhibition, The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press co-published The Art of William Steig. The 208-page book features 128 color and 153 black-and-white illustrations, many previously unpublished, and includes a foreword by acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak.

To communicate meaningful concepts to a young audience, Steig populated his fanciful children’s books with animal protagonists who embark on quests of self-discovery, struggle with their emotions, and survive through self-reliance. “I think using animals emphasizes the fact that the story is symbolical—about human behavior,” Steig once said. “And kids get the idea right away that this is not just a story, but that it’s saying something about life on earth.” 

Before his arrival at The New Yorker in 1930, cartoons were collaborations between writers, who supplied the concept and the captions, and cartoonists, who provided the illustrations. William Steig became the first cartoonist at the magazine to formulate his own ideas, write the one-line captions, and execute the drawings. His early submissions were carefully captioned and highly realized, first in pencil, and then in ink and halftone washes. Over time, Steig’s line gradually became freer, ultimately leading to his abandonment of preliminary sketches by the 1960s and the frequent creation of uncaptioned drawings. 

Steig brought a fresh voice to The New Yorker with cartoons that drew on his experience as the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. His early work reflects a desire to fit into the sophisticated milieu of the magazine while remaining rooted in his own culture. His characters oscillated “between the tenement dwellers of his own childhood” and the “Fifth Avenue ‘swells.’” in the words of fellow cartoonist Lee Lorenz. As Steig’s subjects moved from tenements to apartment houses, the artist turned his focus to the plights and afflictions of the middle class and, eventually, to mankind’s universal condition. Once an outsider, Steig soon became one of The New Yorker’s signature cartoonists, assigned to illustrate all-American covers celebrating the Fourth of July, Columbus Day, and Thanksgiving.

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about william steig

William Steig was born in Brooklyn on November 14, 1907, and raised in the Bronx. He drew his first cartoons for his high school newspaper and then went on to spend two years at City College, three years at the National Academy, and five days at Yale before dropping out. In 1930, prompted by the need to support his family during the Depression, Steig began illustrating for The New Yorker, and for other magazines such as Judge, Life, and Collier’s, which published humor as an antidote to hard times.

A prominent theme in all of Steig’s work is his connection with childhood. It was through his cartoons featuring street children—most famously his series “Small Fry,” which the artist created in the early 1930s and continued into the early 1950s—that he remained in contact with the world of his Bronx Jewish childhood, a way of life that was on the verge of disappearing when he joined The New Yorker. “I enjoyed my childhood. I think I like kids more than the average man does. I can relax with them, more than I can among adults,” the artist said. 

In his art, the isolation of the self—one of the artist’s lifelong preoccupations—is treated in its various guises. The children he drew are often grouchy and ill-mannered, and his adult world is populated with convicts and lovers, drunks and drifters, philosophers and the absurdly rich, and couples engaged in bewildered attempts to understand each other. These characters are both a rich source of humor and crucial to one of his central insights: there is much in this world that can perplex and frustrate us. Above all, Steig’s work is about the redeeming power of nature, art, and love, to which we seem to be most receptive as children, or when we are in touch with our own childhood as adults. “I think I feel a little differently than other people do,” Steig said. “For some reason I’ve never felt grown up.”

From the late 1930s through the early 1950s, Steig created some of the most haunting works of his career. Deemed “too personal and not funny enough” by The New Yorker’s legendary founding editor Harold Ross, these drawings—which Steig would call “symbolic”—were published in such books as About People (1939) and The Lonely Ones (1942). The New York Times characterized them as “subconscious excursions rendered on paper.” Featuring a parade of archetypes that succinctly summarize the human condition, these forays into the unconscious caught the attention of the psychiatric community. 

As World War II drew near, Steig’s work delved further into the depths of the soul. By 1946, as the artist was facing divorce and health problems, he consulted a former disciple of Sigmund Freud, the controversial Jewish psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). In Reich’s theories Steig found the answers to the woes of existence. Steig illustrated Reich’s manifesto, Listen, Little Man! (1948), and then dedicated The Agony in the Kindergarten (1950), his wake-up call to America on the abuse and repression of its children, to his spiritual mentor. Through this seminal body of work, Steig found the path to a freedom of expression that had no precedent in his early and more traditional cartooning and would become a trademark of his mature art. Yet, it was also his work for children that gave the artist renewed optimism later in life.        

“I often ask myself, ‘What would be an ideal life?’—I think an ideal life would be just drawing,” William Steig said in 1992. He died in 2003 at the age of 95. Fellow New Yorker artist Edward Sorel eloquently summed up Steig’s career: “Steig never disappoints… If we consider his entire oeuvre, his prolific output; the inventiveness of his stories, so often involving transformation; his precise and demanding language; and the sheer beauty of his pictures, his legacy can only be described as unprecedented.” 


From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig was organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, and was made possible, in part, by the Eugene and Emily Grant Family Foundation and the Skirball Fund for American Jewish Life Exhibitions.

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Image Credit

William Steig, ‘You jabbering jackass!’ Shrek screamed,” final illustration for Shrek! (1990), pen and ink and watercolor on paper. Collection of the William Steig Estate. © 1990 William Steig.