Although Ben considered his first Theater Portrait to be Ethel Barrymore (New York Times 4/7/29), it was actually his first portrait drawn from life, rather than drawn from photographs, which was the standard practice in 1929. He was a veteran by that time, having had 30 drawings appear in the city’s papers over the previous three months.
Marilyn Miller in Sally
Herald Tribune December 29, 1929

Before Barrymore, Ben drew Basil Rathbone and German actor Emil Jannings (fresh from receiving the first Oscar); opera greats Lucrezia Bori and Rosa Ponselle; and theater legends, Jane Cowl and Mrs. Fiske, among others.

His first portrait after Barrymore was the actress who helped to create off Broadway with her Civic Repertory company, Eva Le Galliene, appearing in Peter Pan. Soon readers of the Times, Herald Tribune, and the Post would see Solowey portraits of the most significant players of the stage, screen, and opera.

It is the film actors’ names that are recognized today, if they are recognized at all: Al Jolson, Erich von Stroheim as The Great Gabbo, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, Ronald Colman, Lily Damita, Alice White, and Norma Terris. Walter Huston was drawn twice that year, but in the stage play, The Commodore Marries. The one signed "This is the best yet," by Huston in our Side By Side exhibition.

Through their recordings, opera stars of the 1920s have retained a bit of immoprtality. In addition to 1929 portraits of Bori and Ponselle, that year Solowey drew Ezio Pinza, Amelita Galli-Curci, Elisabeth Rethberg, Maria Jeritza and Mary Garden. Only the portrait of Galli-Curci has survived. She may have signed the work in
Otis Skinner in A Hundred Years Old
New York Times September 29, 1929
honor of the cosmetic surgery Ben performed when he drew her portrait. Upon meeting, Ben stared on the large goiter on her neck. "Ignore that potato!" she declared, and ignore it he did.

But it was the theater where he drew many of his best portraits during his first year. Marilyn Miller, Walter Hampden, Frank Wilson, (the original Porgy) and playwright George Kelly all sat for Ben. Making his Broadway debut, Laurence Olivier nervously perched on the edge of his hotel bed for his drawing. The ultimate compliment by an artist was saved for his portrait of Otis Skinner, which hung in Ben’s studio.

Of the 111 Solowey portraits from his first year, the whereabouts of only 21 are known. Two are in the collection of The Museum of the City of New York: producer William Brady (presenting the classic Street Scene at the time) and playwright Rachel Crothers. The autographed Olivier drawing is in a private collection. Three are in the Studio’s collection. The rest, including the famous Barrymore work, are in the Speilvogel Collection here at the studio.

Almost all of the works mentioned above can be seen online. As part of our ongoing committment to foster scholarship in Ben's work, we are continuing to add more Solowey Theater Portraits on the web. Check on a regular basis for updates to our Theater Portrait list.

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