On Thursday July 1st, the world lost an artistic icon with the death of illustrator and painter Arnold Friberg at age 96. I also bid farewell to one of my idols, one of the last of the old guard of American figurative illustrators. Born in 1913, Arnold Friberg created thousands of works of art over his lengthy career, including a set of paintings that established the entire look of Cecil B DeMille's classic film The Ten Commandments (for which he received an Academy Award nomination for costume design), as well as over two hundred paintings of Royal Canadian Mounted Police subjects for the Northwest Paper Company.
Into The Valley - By Arnold Friberg
one of his over 200 paintings of the Canadian Mounties
Tales from the Force- by Arnold Friberg
He was perhaps best known though for his iconic painting of George Washington, "Prayer at Valley Forge" commissioned prior to the United States Bicentennial in 1976.
Arnold Friberg painting "Prayer at Valley Forge - 1975
I only had the pleasure of meeting Arnold once, though I have lived less than ten miles from his home and studio for nearly twenty years. He was a very private individual and his wife Heidi zealously guarded his solitude. In retrospect, I wish I had tried harder to visit with him in his studio. I grew up on Friberg's work, though I did not connect the pictures to the man until much later as I studied illustration in college. As a boy, his heroic depiction of the scriptural accounts contained in the Book of Mormon never failed to inspire me.
Abinidi before King Noah- by Arnold Friberg
Waters of Mormon - by Arnold Friberg
I poured over these scenes that instilled in me a wonder that one could actually capture such emotion and drama on canvas. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak on a couple of separate occasions, but never met Arnold personally until February 15th, 2008.
Friberg painting - circa 1971
I was at the local art supply store looking for some paint when I overheard a deep voice chiding one of the clerks for not having the item he had called ahead for. I thought I recognized the voice and rounded the corner to come face to face with Arnold Friberg himself. He was searching the rack for tube of paint but could not read the small print.He asked me if it was Ivory Black or Lamp Black. I found the one he wanted and we began to chat. I told him that he was one of the reasons I became an artist and he responed that "you should have told me sooner and I could have warned you off!". The conversation progressed for fifteen minutes or so and we talked of everything from his associations with illustrators such as Andrew Loomis, F.R. Gruger and how he studied with Harvey Dunn to working with Cecil B. DeMile on the Ten Commandments and his world famous portrait of George Washington at Valley Forge.
A Ten Commandments commemorative print portfolio was
produced in the early 1960's. I own an original copy.
Not great reproduction, but fun to have.
My real delight was seeing this visibly frail older gentleman perk up and get a twinkle in his eye when he spoke of these bygone days and artists. He obviously was delighted to share these stories with someone who knew the names and work- we were speaking the same language. He shared the story of his first contact with a New York art director. He didn't have cab or subway fare so had walked the blocks from 12th to 42nd street to speak with the man which he had no appointment to see. The "office boy" said he had to have an appointment and the receptionist was on vacation, besides, you had to "call ahead" to schedule a meeting. Friberg didn't have the nickel for a phone call, so he walked clear back to his flat to use the phone there. Everyone was out to lunch, but the art director himself answered the phone and promptly told him to come on down. He got his first job that day and upon delivery, the A.D asked what he owed him (the going rate was about $50). Feeling bold, Friberg asked for $75. The A.D said he thought he could do better and paid him $125.
Thunder Wagon- by Arnold Friberg
According to Friberg, this was the beginning of his career as one job led to another and soon placed him in great demand (though he had been illustrating local jobs while living in Chicago, including his first Mountie subjects- he considered this his big break). Arnold shook my had and took my card as I thanked him for his time and conversation. He told me he had to get back home since he wasn't supposed to be driving anyway due to lingering effects of a slight stroke (he was 94 at the time!).
Arnold in his Studio-2008-(Keith Johnson-Deseret Morning News)
I smiled to myself and treasured the memory of meeting one of my heroes. I was surprised by the sadness I felt upon hearing news of his passing, he felt familiar to me though I had only the briefest of encounters with him personally. Next time I have a chance to meet one of my idols, I hope it's because I had the nerve to seek him out. Still it was a thrill to bump into one. Those wanting more in depth detail, please follow the links below to more coverage of Arnold Friberg's life and career.
Friberg-Deseret Morning News Article