Ben Stahl's Ben-Hur

By Guest Author Tom Watson

When the movie Ben-Hur premiered in S.F. in 1960, my wife and I had dinner and went to see the movie opening night.

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That was a big deal for us in those days, for a young couple with little money. We must have saved quite a while for that one extravagant evening, and I probably sacrificed more than a little when purchasing art supplies, for a while.

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Enough nostalgia... the result was not only a special evening, but a very nice hard bound book that featured photos and a total of six reproductions of the Ben Stahl illustrations for the movie.

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This was after Stahl evolved into his more fine arts technique. I am only guessing, but I think perhaps those that are critical of Stahl's work are referring to paintings like these that are less refined or slick, like many of the '40s and '50s illustrations tended to be.

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Stahl was more interested in mood and subjectivity than objective accuracy and slick literal renderings.

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He obviously leaned, tilted and even distorted some of his figures to convey high energy and action.

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I would bet he was not a fan of Bob Peak's avant-garde color combinations or probably wasn't that impressed with the 60's innovative directions that illustration took. Interestingly, I could find no mention of him in the 1959 Illustrator's Annual show, which is when he did the illustrations for Ben-Hur.

From what I have read, he was a salty, opinionated character that was well liked by some who saw his abundant talent and appreciated his sense of humor and his bluntness, but also fostered those that were critical of his work. I think some of his illos are very powerful. I personally prefer a brighter pallet, but I do like his willingness to allow his brush strokes to be aggressive and very prominent. His style was very personal and transcended photography, which might be why he didn't fade away completely during the 50's, like so many very competent illustrators did.

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* Many thanks to Tom Watson for sharing his personal recollections and insightful analysis on the today's subject.

* the scan of the Ben-Hur movie poster is courtesy of Heritage Auctions, all the other scans today are courtesy of Tom Watson.

* My Ben Stahl Flickr set

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