A few weeks ago I received some photos of the above painting in an email from the owner, Merredith Lowe. Merredith had seen what I wrote about a famous Superman painting by pulp artist Hugh J. Ward that hung for many years in the offices of (then) Detective Comics / National Comics, and now DC Comics.
As you can see, the face in Kaye’s painting is clearly similar to the one in Ward’s. I had written about some revisions to this painting that were done in the early 1940s, primarily (or perhaps completely) to the face, hair and chest symbol.
This is the only known photo of the original painting as Ward delivered it, and it’s a detail from a photograph printed in a magazine, so not the best quality, but you can see the differences in the face, hair and chest symbol compared to the retouched version above. Merredith thought his painting by Stanley Kaye (dated ’42) might indicate Kaye had made the revisions. I decided this would make an interesting topic to explore here, and I started doing research.
First, I wanted to know more about the Kaye painting. Merredith wrote he received the painting in 1964-66, and said, “The painting was taken off the wall of DC Comics by Jack Liebowitz and given to my Godfather Asa Herzog after being told of his godson’s (me) great interest in Superman. Asa gave the painting to my father the same day and my father Sheldon Lowe brought it home to me that night. I remember being told I would be getting the portrait of Superman. I remember being disappointed when it was not a photograph of George Reeves. I soon got over the disappointment and came to appreciate it. It came to me in the original frame.”
Asa Herzog was a well-known bankruptcy lawyer in New York State, and his firm, including partners Sheldon Lowe and Joel Zweibel, worked for Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, the owners of what is now DC Comics. Herzog, born in 1909, had begun practicing law by 1930, and with Lowe and Zweibel wrote “Herzog’s Bankruptcy Forms and Practice” the standard book on the subject still in use today. In 1958 he became a federal bankruptcy judge and eventually the chief bankruptcy judge of the country. Merredith reports his father Sheldon Lowe also did work for Donenfeld and Liebowitz, and his parents were guests at the wedding of one of Donenfeld’s children.
So, the provenance of the Kaye painting is well documented, though I doubt anyone in the comics world knew of its existence before now. It seems likely it hung on the wall of Jack Liebowitz’s office and may have been seen by employees of the company until it was given to Asa Herzog in the early 1960s, but comics fandom hadn’t really gotten far by then, and to my knowledge no one has written anything about it. I’ve found no photos of the painting at the offices either, but then photos of any kind from the DC offices then are rare.
For more information about the Ward Superman painting I was directed to this book, which has an entire chapter on it full of useful information.
Ward was born in Philadelphia in 1909 and became a prolific painter of cover illustrations for pulp magazines, as well as iconic portraits of pulp heroes like The Lone Ranger, Green Hornet and Kato and others.
Ward studied in Philadelphia and cited painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth as a major influence. That influence can be seen in the similarity of style and approach between the painting by Wyeth above and the Superman painting by Ward. (Ward had been briefly taught by Wyeth.) Wyeth combined high drama through lighting effects and character acting with a fairly loose impressionistic brush style, both elements that Ward utilized in his own work. One of Ward’s main employers was the publisher of pulp magazines (under many publisher names and imprints) Harry Donenfeld. I’ve written about Donenfeld’s pulp empire beginning HERE. Ward began working for Donenfeld’s pulps in July, 1934 and soon became Donenfeld’s premier cover artist, providing dozens of paintings for magazines like “Spicy Detective Stories,” “Spicy Mystery Stories,” “Spicy Adventure Stories” and many more. He created large iconic images of some characters as well, to be used as “fan photos,” something to be sent to fans who wrote asking for a photo, and in advertising. His painting of Superman was one of these, but it was unusually large, 60 inches high and 45 inches wide, about four times the size of a standard pulp cover painting. David Saunders reports it was delivered to Harry Donenfeld on June 24, 1940.
Donenfeld apparently gave his star artist a free hand to depict the character of Superman as he liked. Saunders reports that Ward used his brother-in-law Bill Conley as a model for the painting. While Conley may have had the physique needed, I don’t see much facial resemblance.
Of course the character had been appearing in ACTION COMICS since 1938, and lately SUPERMAN, his own magazine as well, but the art by Joe Shuster (and assistants) was sketchy and perhaps no more than a rough guide for a detailed painting.
Some have seen a resemblance in the painting to actor Ronald Reagan, here in a 1941 photo.
As for the retouched version, David Saunders has what sounds like solid information about that. Superman was a sensation among young readers, he created a publishing revolution that was soon being imitated by others. Donenfeld (perhaps with the help of Asa Herzog and his law firm) began suing publishers of some of the more obvious imitations. In September, 1941, he began a suit against Fawcett, whose character Captain Marvel was so popular that he outsold Superman at times. Saunders writes, “When this lawsuit was filed it suddenly became important to eradicate any deviations from the approved model.” Superman had already gone through some changes from his debut to 1941.
Here’s a cover from mid-1940, as Joe Shuster drew him. The art was produced in early 1940 and may have been given to Ward as an example for his painting.
About six months later, in early 1941, this cover has the larger chest symbol, and facial features that became the standard look for the character: a central spit curl in an S shape, squinty eyes, lowered eyebrows, and a more narrow and subdued smile than in Ward’s painting.
David Saunders writes, “Joe Szokoli, another cover artist who routinely worked for Donenfeld’s spicy pulp magazines, was hired to alter the painting. Along with being a cover artist Szokoli also had a sideline as a graphic technician and retouch artist. For fifty bucks he painted the prescribed changes during a single visit to Donenfeld’s office, without spilling a single drop on the rug. The revised painting conformed to the detailed design elements that were stipulated in the copyright infringement lawsuit, which was eventually settled out of court for a payment of $400,000. Giving Ward’s painting a facelift not only eliminated conflicting evidence, it also extended the painting’s lifespan as Superman’s officially approved paradigm.”
Why wasn’t Hugh J. Ward asked to alter his painting, you might wonder? The answer comes from Saunders’ book. If the painting was altered in early 1942, as suggested by the date on the Stanley Kaye study, Harry Donenfeld was then keeping Ward extremely busy painting as many new pulp covers as he could manage. The publisher was worried that Ward would soon be drafted into service in World War Two, and was trying to build up an inventory. That did happen, and sadly, Ward was diagnosed with lung cancer while in the service (he was a heavy smoker) and died in 1945. Donenfeld was able to extend his Ward cover stock some by having Szokoli alter previously used Ward paintings enough to reuse them. Szokoli’s work was not as accomplished as Ward’s, and the altered paintings are of lesser quality than the originals. Clearly Donenfeld put no value on Ward’s work except as he could make covers from it, but that wasn’t really unusual at the time. Commercial art was not considered of importance or value by most people, even some of the artists.
So, where does this leave that Stan Kaye painting, and who was Stanley Kaye? More on that next in the concluding part of this article. Similar articles that may interest you can be found on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.