With a thirsty curiosity, a young Ben Stahl and his paternal grandmother would linger for hours in the Chicago Art Institute and other local galleries. His parents, both of German ancestry, encouraged his interest in literature and art as he devoured Horatio Alger and Tarzan. When his interest in the required public schooling dwindled, the Art Institute granted him an opportunity to learn from their masters. He was soon exhibiting in their shows.
Stahl found time to practice between errand chores at Young, Timmins and Smith Studios but as the depression grew darker in the early 1930’s he had to settle for unpaid status. In 1932, with determination and talent, he approached the offices of Stevens, Sundblom and Stults, Chicago’s top studio with such known, and soon to be known, talents on hand as Haddon Sundblom, Matt Clark, Ward Brackett and Coby Whitmore. Stahl’s portfolio made his case. He remained with Stevens until 1937 with only a short stint at the Chicago Daily News. Stahl said: “I would advise every young student of art to spend some time on a newspaper, preferably early in his career. But don’t stay too long. Get a certain amount of experience, which will be invaluable later. Then get out.”
He worked for several studios in Chicago and Detroit as his exposure as an illustrator grew. After he had painted a series of advertisements for Cutler-Hammer, he was contacted by The Saturday Evening Post. His star was gathering speed. During his first four years with The Post, he was typed as an illustrator of sea stories even though the Midwesterner had never seen a body of water larger than the Great Lakes. His illustrations for C.S. Forester’s Captain Horatio Hornblower are among his best works of this era. An award-winning advertising series for Bell Aircraft added greater luster to his star. Stahl’s freelance career loomed ahead.
In late 1940, he married Ella Lehocky. They moved to New York City in 1943 and the following year to Westport, Connecticut. Their home and nearby studio were ideal for the creative artist and his growing family. Ben took an active membership in the Westport Artists and the Society of Illustrators.
The Saturday Evening Post remained his bread-and-butter editorial client. Frank Kilker, its editor in the 1940’s, held the most intriguing manuscripts for Stahl to illustrate. Also on his editorial list were the American Magazine, Cornet, Woman’s Home Companion and Esquire.
The National Academy of Design bestowed its highest award, the Saltus Gold Medal, on Stahl for his painting Circus People which he completed shortly after a trip to the Ringling Circus headquarters in Sarasota, Florida in 1949. The family moved to Siesta Key, near there, in the early 1950’s.
One of Stahl’s most ambitious projects began in 1954 when he was commissioned by the Catholic Press to paint “the finest Stations of the Cross ever conceived by artistic or spiritual standards.” Extensive research in Jerusalem followed and in 1958 the paintings and drawings were exhibited at the Society of Illustrators. In the mid-1960’s The Museum of the Cross was being established in Sarasota. Stahl designed the building and painted 15 large murals of the Way of the Cross. The Museum was vandalized shortly after its completion and these works were never recovered.
His entry into the children’s fiction market was an immediate success. Blackbeard’s Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 1965) was a Sequoia National Award winner from the Oklahoma Library Association. The Secret of Red Skull, Happy Exile and Cry Rosa Cry Death followed.
Ben Stahl’s theories on art have found many forums. From the earliest days as a student instructor at the Chicago Art Institute to the founding of the Famous Artists School, from the series of lectures, “Journey into Art,” for Educational Television to his present home in San Miguel Allende, near Mexico City, he has emphasized the need for drawing, observation and careful composition.
As one of America’s most versatile talents, he has been recognized for excellence in many fields. As an illustrator he will always be known for a more open form of expression, more precise composition and more free-flowing drama in his work. He makes the eye, and the heart, move on the canvas. Art Directors who saved their most challenging and most difficult tasks for Ben Stahl were never disappointed.
© 2011 Society of Illustrators