Saul Steinberg was born in Râmnicu Sărat, Romania, to parents of Russian Jewish descent. The family moved to Bucharest in 1915, where Steinberg’s father, Moritz, opened a printing and bookbinding shop. With Romania’s entry into World War I in 1916, Moritz was conscripted for military service, and the rest of the family moved to Buzău to be close to relatives. They returned to Bucharest in 1919, at which time Moritz went into the box-manufacturing business, producing decorative packaging for candy, cosmetics, and other merchandise. It was at his father’s factory that Steinberg gained familiarity with such materials as colored and embossed papers, rubber stamps, and wooden movable type, all of which would figure later in his art.
Steinberg got his first real taste of anti-Semitism in elementary school, despite the fact that half of the students at the school were Jewish. He experienced the same prejudice during his years in high school, where he took a full range of courses in academic subjects and languages (French, German, Latin, and Greek). At the University of Bucharest, where he enrolled in 1932, anti-Semitism was even more prevalent.
In 1933 Steinberg moved to Milan to study architecture at the Regio Politecnico. He soon became deeply engaged in drawing, contributing cartoons to Bertoldo and Settebello, Italian newspapers specializing in humor and satire. However, racial laws imposed in 1938 by Benito Mussolini, which included barring Jews from skilled professions, put a halt to that. Steinberg remained in Milan long enough to earn his architectural degree, but all the while he looked for refuge in another country. After leaving Europe, he spent a year in the Dominican Republic before being granted a US visa. Finally, in the summer of 1942, he arrived in Manhattan, having already published drawings in the New Yorker, Mademoiselle, PM, and other periodicals. On February 19, 1943, the same day that Steinberg was commissioned as an ensign in the US Naval Reserve, he became an American citizen. While he gained quick acceptance in his adopted country, he continued to maintain the vantage point of an outsider, a visiting inspector of sorts.
Steinberg was assigned to Naval Intelligence and the new Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In May 1943 he shipped out to China, where he spent the next six months. He was transferred first to North Africa and then to Italy. Working for the OSS’s Morale Operations division, he produced propaganda images designed to look as if they came from a fictitious German resistance.
At the same time, he was sending the New Yorker packets of drawings, mostly of off-duty military life overseas, which were published in 1944–1945. Returning stateside in October 1944, he married Hedda Sterne, also an émigré artist from Romania. (The couple separated in 1960 but never divorced, maintaining close ties until Steinberg’s death.) Through Sterne, Steinberg met other émigré artists such as André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Piet Mondrian. In time he also formed enduring friendships with Alexander Calder, Richard Lindner, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, the art critic Harold Rosenberg, the writers Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, and the architect and designer Le Corbusier.
In 1945 All in Line, the first of seven books of drawings Steinberg produced during his career, was named a Book of the Month Club selection, selling more than 20,000 copies. His work was exhibited in 1946 alongside that of Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Isamu Noguchi, Theodore Roszak, and Mark Tobey in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Fourteen Americans. In 1952 the Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis galleries mounted their first joint exhibition of his work, which gave rise to a series of exhibitions in the United States, South America, and Europe; they would continue to jointly present Steinberg exhibitions for the next 25 years.
Steinberg’s most famous New Yorker cover, View of the World from 9th Avenue, satirizing a New Yorker’s myopic view of the world, was published on March 29, 1976. More than 25,000 poster reproductions of the cover were printed over the next two years, causing Steinberg often to be referred to, much to his irritation, as “the man who did that poster.” In 1978 he had a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which then traveled to Washington, London, and France. In 1982 Steinberg joined Pace Gallery.
Over the course of six decades Steinberg made more than 1,200 works for the New Yorker alone, as well as thousands of drawings and sculptures that were exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. Other works included stage sets, photographs, and murals. The most remarkable of the latter was the 240-foot mural The Americans, created for the United States Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. As his renown spread internationally, he was awarded the medal of the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters, both in the late 1960s. In 1967 he became the Smithsonian Institution’s first artist in residence.
Steinberg’s line could flow elegantly, or he might have it stutter or tremble, break into dots and flicks, meander, or bend to a French curve. His line was often likened to that of Paul Klee. According to Steinberg, Klee was not a major influence, but he acknowledged their shared love of “graphology,” as he put it, or the study of handwriting. Artists he recognized as having inspired him included Francisco de Goya, Jean-François Millet, Vincent van Gogh, and Piet Mondrian. He derived inspiration from a wide variety of sources, such as architecture, maps, children’s art, calligraphy, postcards, rubber stamps (once noting that he should make a rubber stamp of a thumbprint—just the sort of twist of which Steinberg was a master), and underground comics. He saw himself as having “started at the bottom, with cartoons.” He learned by working and managed to get beyond “some of the vulgarities of humorous drawing and the banalities of commercial art,” as he said, “while still preserving a little of that element of mediocrity—I’d almost say vulgarity—that I wouldn’t care to give up, since I consider it something necessary; like a man who, in changing his social class, still wouldn’t want to break up with his wife and old friends.”