Samuel George Cahan, pronounced "kay-han," was born January 11, 1886 in Kovno, Russia, which is now Lithuania. His father, Samuel Cahan, was born 1870 in Russia. His mother, Fannie Cahan, was born 1872 in Russia. His parents were Jewish "Litvaks." They met in Kovno, the intellectual center of Lithuania, where they married in 1885. He was their only child. In 1888, when he was two, his family emigrated to America. They settled in New York City's Lower East Side at 5 Hester Street. His father sold newspapers.
In 1898, at the age of twelve, he squatted barefoot outside Mouquin's Restaurant on 11th Street and Sixth Avenue and drew the sinking of the Maine in chalk on the sidewalk. Among the crowd of bystanders was the editor of The New York World, who was impressed enough to hire him on the spot as an apprentice newspaper artist.
He became an expert staff artist at The World, where he worked as a court room artist, a quick-sketch artist, and created many of the full-color covers for the Sunday supplement magazine.
He was twenty-seven and prosperous on October 16, 1913, when he married Flora Jane Gomperts, who was born 1888 in New York City. He bought a private brownstone at 87 Hamilton Place in Harlem, where they lived with a hired servant. Their only child, William George Cahan, was born August 2, 1914, and grew up to become a prominent New York City surgeon and a major anti-smoking advocate.
In 1915 he studied with Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) at the Art Students League of New York.
In 1917 Samuel Cahan drew a posed portrait of Woodrow Wilson that became the official image of the presidential campaign.
In 1918 he registered for the draft during the Great War. He was recorded at the time to be a U. S. citizen of thirty-two, medium height, medium build, with blue gray eyes, and dark brown hair. His employer was listed as The New York World at 63 Park Row. He did not serve in the military.
He is listed in the 1925 Eastern Edition of the Advertising Arts & Crafts Directory as specializing in National Advertising, Illustrated Fiction, Story Illustration, Portraiture, Black & White Line Art, Charcoal Sketches, Color, Crayon, Dry Brush, Etching, Drawing, Modeling in Clay, Oil Painting, Pastels, Pencil, Pen & Ink, Smatch Tempra, Wash, Water Color, Woodcut, and Zinc Engraving.
By 1930 his home and art studio was at 644 Riverside Drive, NYC.
The New York World closed in 1931, after which he worked for The New York Times.
During the 1930s his drawings appeared as chapter headings in the pulp magazine Argosy.
In 1936 he visited France to study art museums and paint street scenes. His passage was paid by the French Line in exchange for character studies of employees to decorate the ship's menu.
In 1942 he reported for WWII draft registration, at which time he was recorded to be five-four, 149 pounds, with blue eyes, brown hair and a light complexion. His employer was listed as The New York Times. His studio and residence was 410 East 57th Street, NYC.
After WWII he began to produce fine art etchings and paintings, which were widely exhibited. His subjects were often Lower East Side Jews. These character studies were described in an article published in The Jewish Forum as, “psychological masterpieces that showed the decline of a highly romanticized Lower East Side (much like the shetl in Eastern Europe) as the immigrant generation battled poverty and disease and the younger generation moved away."
According to the artist during an interview on August 13, 1967, "We were poor. When I wanted an ice cream soda, I had to draw one on the sidewalk outside the soda parlor and sell it as an advertisement to the store owner. I loved doing that. And I was most fortunate to do pretty much the same thing for the rest of my life."
Samuel Cahan died in NYC at the age of eighty-eight on October 23, 1974.
His New York Times obituary states, "Samuel Cahan was the last of the Quick-Sketch Artists of The New York World."
© David Saunders 2009