About Denys Wortman

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The creation of this web site

Denys Wortman, NA  was a celebrated cartoonist and prolific easel painter.  He was born in Saugerties, N.Y., in 1887, the descendant of early Dutch Huguenot settlers in America.   Although he knew as a small boy that he wanted to be an artist, he studied engineering first, as a concession to his parents.  He then studied at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art with Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller, both of whom became noted social realists.  He exhibited in the famous Armory Show of 1913 (a copy of the painting appears in our gallery).  Early cartoons appeared in the New Yorker and Life Magazine.  In 1924 he began work for The World (which later became The World-Telegram and Sun) where he stayed until his retirement in 1954.

For thirty years, six days a week, Mr. Wortman produced a new drawing for "Metropolitan Movies", his newspaper cartoon depicting episodes in the lives of an assortment of colorful characters, the most notable being "Mopey Dick and the Duke", a couple of lovable vagrants who commented on life in America from the Depression through World War II and into the early fifties.   They are actors in the everyday drama of life, and their ingenious solutions to the problems of living in urban poverty are represented by Wortman with gentle good natured humor.  They have opinions on everything:  politics and elections, taxes, strikes, food, work, even art museums.  With innocence and a total lack of malice, they find harmony in the disorder of their lives that we can all envy.  

Mr. Wortman lived and worked from his home on Martha's Vineyard from 1941 until his death in 1958.  I'm his son, the eighth in a line of Denys Wortmans, and for some of you a familiar face on the Vineyard and current owner of the home in which many of these cartoons were created.  This is my attempt to share the collective works, wit, and insight of my father.  In viewing his cartoons, one will find a striking resemblance to the plight of today's realities, reminding us all of the timeless humor of social and cultural mores. 

This site is dedicated with profound admiration to my father, Denys Wortman, and my mother, Hilda Renbold Wortman, who was also my father's primary idea person.  She would sit on park benches and listen to the conversations around her, reporting back to my father the phrases and conversations that she overheard.   From these and other captions, he would create the image, the atmosphere and the surrounding that would communicate the idea visually.  

I'll leave you with a sentiment expressed by my father long ago --- and perhaps more prophetic than he could have imagined:

"So here we are, Mopey and me, sitting in the Present, enjoying the Past, looking into a Future that Time has already decided is in store for us, and wishing you, all of our friends, a very pleasant "So Long", and hoping we'll be seeing you again when Then catches up with Now.

I hope you enjoy this site, laugh at the cartoons, and if you attend a show, I look forward to meeting you!

- Denys Wortman VIII   1998

A history of Denys Wortman - Written by Guy Pene du Bois in 1953

Denys Wortman's work should be treated as seriously in America as that of men like Daumier and Forain in France, Hogarth and Rowlandson in England.   Mr. Wortman may have more good humor than some of the caricaturists just mentioned, especially in his Mopey Dick and the Duke series, but he continues to compete with them in the study of character and in the interpretation of a certain type's inevitable impulses and movements.  His collection of comments on the human comedy have, which is curiously rare in a cartoonist of today, a direct relation to life as it is lived in certain definite communities and to the lines drawn in faces by the community's mores as well as the turn of the clothes dictated by the district's fashion.

Artists have realized the authenticity of his comments and the power of his drawing for a long time.  He is the only non-political newspaper cartoonist to be elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.  The only other cartoonist member was Charles Dana Gibson, who did not draw for the newspapers.  Snobbishness of the high society variety exists neither in Denys Wortman nor in the people he portrays.  This is true of the populations of any of his series from "In and Out of the Red with Sam" to "Mrs. Rumpel's Rooming House" or of any one of those East Side comments which adds no other title to Metropolitan Movies and described an incident in a crowded and almost photographically recorded street.   Few other men have filled a square of paper with the characteristics of a scene more searchingly nor with more coordination as well as economy, for all the details which so enrich the composition also contribute to the defining of the major characters in the plot.  It should be added or accentuated here that, unlike so many of our non-political cartoonists, he never underestimated his audience, believes it is composed of undereducated children or that any improvement of his own language would of necessity rob him of a large section of that audience.

His composition has consistently grown or improved with time.  We could accuse him, as the fashionable worshipers of a Picasso might, of a disinterest in the change or in the experimentalist's linguistic gymnastics, but not that this interest in life has ever waned nor that his technique has not kept pace or been enlarged by the new factors or implements which that interest has discovered.   The abstractionist mode of the day, life shut out with the blindfold of ear, can seem ridiculous to a normal man.  Wortman is certainly in another category.  Although he does produce remarkable tactile qualities in crayon:  a brick wall, the feel of tar paper, of old wood and tin and even crockery, in a way which would be sure to please these modernists if it were possible to move them out of their so very fashionable imprisonments where neither language nor subject matters is permitted if it does, in even the remotest sense, deal in life.  A subject he (Wortman) delights in so much that few of his pictures are ever without recourse to direct evidence.  The backgrounds or environments which he produces are never invented.  They are authentic spots selected to suit the live models posed in them.

While harmony is in control of all his compositions, it never forbids that homely sense of disorder so beloved of mankind.  This is too often the case in that arrangements of those classicists or good housekeepers, as they might be called, who not only want the house in order but also insist upon straightening the features and forms of its inhabitants.  It is not difficult to prefer harmonies composed, like Wortman's, of warm human attributes.

This is unquestionably true in the case of Mopey Dick and the Duke....harmony found in a consistent disorder:  the love of the liveliness in a not too disciplined society where individuals are permitted to express themselves in terms of their own choosing and where suits of clothes are never so properly pressed as to completely disguise the human forms beneath them.  Denys Wortman claims that the Duke is himself and Mopey Dick a distortion done from the same model, that both are drawn from a large mirror before which he poses with cheeks drawn in one instance probably and certainly puffed out in the other and that their philosophy is, as far as it goes, his.  There is no reason to deny or even suspect this claim except that one can easily realize that his philosophy or mode of living is more remunerative than theirs.

In rebuttal of this suspicion which I brought up one day, he explained hat he had gone along much as they do for a number of years --- devoted to painting.  This was after a term spent at the Stevens Institute of Technology and another at Rutgers, and beginning sometime in 1906, studying under Kenneth Hayes Miller and Robert Henri with as fellow students such men as George Bellows, Glen O. Coleman, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper and Eugene Speicher.  The Mopey Dick and the Duke years, an any case, appear to have ended about 1917 when he took a job in Rochester with his brother Elbert doing advertising drawing.  Returning to New York sometime later he drew for the Sunday Tribune for about a year and for two years taught deaf and dumb children show card writing and sigh painting to earn sufficient funds to continue to practice his won paining the the delight of the Mopey Dick and the Duke existence...somehow associated with painting or, as that may mean, a man doing as he jolly well pleases.  It is certain that these two characters for which he so conscientiously and willingly poses never really suffer, poor as their surroundings may appear to be, and are never actually in any heartbreaking need of anything at all.

The exact date they lazily meandered into existence is unknown to me or offhand to their creator but it is certain that they could not have appeared before 1924 when, along with some others, Denys Wortman began to contribute occasional drawings to the World's Metropolitan Movies.  The competition with the other contributors ended with their elimination.  Wortman was then, shortly, in full charge of the department and free to create the series.  It is revealed to be a history of the past thirty years more years with its national and international trials, its price, labor, gang, and soldier wars, its booms and depressions, the tribulations of its Hoovervilles reported by a commentator whose humor, while always present, is never malicious and never unconcerned with prevailing conditions.  As a matter of fact, I am convinced that Denys Wortman does resemble his long and thin and short and fat children in a great many ways and that, of all those ways, it would be very easy and just to select or emphasize the justice, and, yes, wisdom of their conclusions on the ordinary and even extraordinary events which this modern world of our is so constantly parading.

An Interpreter of Manhattan - Written by Charles Hanson Towne in 1926

For over two years now, those of us who dwell in New York have been seeing in the World every day a cartoon depicting some phase of the great honeycomb which is our city.  Personally, I have watched for the work of Wortman as I have watched for new "features".  He has made breakfast a delight and the burdens of the day a little easier to bear.  Here, it seems to me, is a man with vision and philosophy - a poet with pity and humor in his hear, who happens to express himself in terms of drawing, rather than in terms of flowing words.  Loving Manhattan as I do, having lived in its maze all my life, I have been struck with the power of these pictures, their great humanity, their unerring sense of the pathos, as well as the guttersnipe humor of our big, throbbing town.

Has it every occurred to you that humor and tears are closely allied?  If one laughs too much, one weeps; and conversely, if one weeps too much, one laughs.  The dividing line between the two emotions is but a hair's breadth.  There are peril and despair in New York; but around the next corner there may be unbridled mirth.  it is this kaleidoscopic quality of what is at once the ugliest and the most beautiful city on earth which gives it the radiance and wonder we all recognize, if we have even a touch of imagination.

Wortman has the seeing eye, the feeling heart.   The pain in our streets is no less real to him than their hurdy-gurdy laughter.  He blends the two.  He dips beneath the surface, and extracts the best and the worst of us.   He reveals the pulsating town as it is, and as it always will be.  Our salesgirls, our gamins, our park-bench crowds, our flappers, our rich and our poor are the materials for his robust, kindly philosophy.  He is never bitter.  He is always just.  He takes Manhattan at its true worth, and gets it upon paper through the magic of pencil.  He is not merely a "funny" man.  Like all great humorists, he is also a great philosopher.

It is good to have so many of his drawings finally gathered together between the covers of a volume; and thousands of Manhattanites, as well as those who live elsewhere, will be grateful to him - grateful to this understanding artist who interprets our thrilling city to us day by day.