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Great Works

Great works: Lion, 1939, by Morris Hirshfield

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Morris Hirshfield was a self-taught artist of great and near-painful meticulousness. Every mark he made seemed to be accompanied by a projecting tongue and a small groan of inward satisfaction.

Like many other outsider artists, he chose subjects that any long-trained insider artist would have thought entirely appropriate, too: nudes, still lifes, landscapes, for example. His work seems to exist in parallel with high culture's more familiar norms, seemingly within reach of them, but never quite touching. It exists out on its own, perfectly self-sufficient, within a self-generated world of playful and dream-like fantasy.

He began painting at the age of 65, and continued until his death at 74, having put behind him a lifetime of doggedly serious toil in a garment factory, where, having trained as a tailor, he made women's bedroom slippers. Now he was free to float off in an entirely different direction, listening to no voice but his own. Painting in his bedroom in New York, he produced 74 paintings before his death and before the end of his life, he was given a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which collected his work.

His favourite subjects included domestic animals – dogs, cats, etc – and, when he painted them, he generally preferred to show them off in family groups. These animals always seem at ease with each other, playfully cheerful in each other's company. Nothing goes amiss. Even the way that they are positioned in relation to each other seems a touch pre-determined, in order to fulfil some dream of pleasing patterning. They occasionally display touches of savagery, but their antagonists are seldom more than a twig or an errant leaf. Blood never flows.

Here is something a little different, a lonesome lion. What surprises us at first glance is the fact that this does not look like a painting at all, not quite. It resembles a piece of fabric. The choice of colours inclines us to believe so, as does the painting's highly decorative surface, which looks woven, flocked or tufty – perhaps a mingling of all three. We feel inclined to run our hand across it in order to feel its yielding softness. We think back to the fact that the man had been a tailor all his life, and we see immediately how that professional life of his has eased its way into his paintings – not only into the painting's surface, but also by way of this careful attention to patterned detail, which seems to have its origins in the kind of tamed domesticity represented by cushion fabrics or wallpaper.

The lion itself is a fairly marshmallow-centred creature, too. It finds itself stunned in the headlights of our insistently curious gaze, caught short by all this sudden attention. For all that, it also seems to stand fully ready to be attended to, almost tricked out to look a tad heraldic – and then some fool got all the details wrong, and it ended up not, in fact, looking like a heraldic lion at all, lacking a certain seriousness of purpose. Yes, it is doomed to be exactly what the painter has made it.

The body is long, and it droops slightly, as if it is gently being pulled in the direction of the shape of a loosely over-filled sausage. The lion's finicky feet are those of a tiny, meticulous dancer. They seem barely to touch – in fact, almost to float above – these beautifully crafted and almost painfully well organised green shrubs, leaves, plants or tiny trees, which are so careful to avoid the lion's feet. The mane is a hand-crafted, multi-layered, women's shawl, cosily preparing itself for the worst that a New York winter will ever be able to throw at it. Only its whiskers dare to spill beyond those multiple, muffling folds, risking icicles perhaps, when all this clement green turns to grey in the end.

But no, this perfectly fabricated world will surely never end.

About the artist: Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946)

Morris Hirshfield was an American painter of Lithuanian Jewish origins who emigrated to New York from Poland at the age of 18, and subsequently opened a factory with his brother, manufacturing suits and coats for women. After retirement at the age of 65, and after a long illness, this self-taught artist took to painting in his bedroom morning to night, leaning a canvas against the mirror of his dresser.