Samuel Cahan was born Kouno, Russia and emigrated to the United States with his parents at an early age. “His formal career as a newspaper artist began at the age of 12 when an editor of The World saw him outside Mouqin’s, a famed restaurant of the day, drawing the sinking of the Maine in colored chalk on the sidewalk.”(1)
The residence of the Cahan family was 5 Hester Street on the Lower East Side. They were poor, and it was not clear whether Cahan was drawing chalk pictures at Mouqin’s at age 12 for money or for fun. But Cahan later explained, “When I wanted an ice cream soda, I had to draw one on the sidewalk outside a soda parlor and sell it as an advertisement to the owner. I loved doing that, and I was most fortunate to do pretty much the same thing with The World for 30 years.”(2)
“Cahan studied art at the Art Students' League of New York under Joseph Pennell and others. His first nationally recognized art was mostly in the field of book illustrations, which he first published as early as 1924. Later, Cahan turned more towards the mediums of fine etching and painting which were exhibited in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.”(3)
The World closed in 1931, following which Cahan did some work for The New York Times. Along with the anonymous, plebian Pretzel Vendor, Cahan also painted portraits of several famous people, including Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Albert Einstein. Cahan’s paintings of Lower east Side Jews, such as the Pretzel Vendor, were described in a Jewish Forum article as “psychological masterpieces… These character studies 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.”(4) After World War Two, Cahan produced a number of remarkable etchings detailing the life of the Jewish community in New York City.
Cahan was a member of the Society of the Silurians, an organization of old-time newspapermen; the Society of Illustrators and the Art Students League, of which he was a life time member.(1) His works are in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Brooklyn Museum. His son, William G. Cahan became a well known surgeon and a strong advocate of programs to reduce smoking.
(1) The New York Times, “Samuel G. Cahan, Artist, 88, Is Dead,” October 24, 1974.
(2) The New York Times, “A Quick-Sketcher recounts an Era: Newspaper Portarits Made Cahan, Now 85, Famous,” August 13, 1967.
(3) Art of the Print, www.artoftheprint.com.
(4) Merwin, Ted, In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture. Rutgers University Press, 2006, p. 74