Howard Terpning’s paintings keep Old West alive

Howard Terpning paints how the West was lived and lost more than 120 years ago.

His subject is 19th century Native Americans, although he is not their descendant. Some of his canvases aim to capture the courage, dignity and desperation of the fight to keep their land. Many are carefully detailed depictions of the ways of life they fought to save.

“Tribute to the Plains People,” now at the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park, is the biggest solo show of Terpning’s career — a retrospective that covers 35 years and documents his standing as the acknowledged leader of a popular but not universally admired movement in which paintings become time machines into the Old West.

The 85 works in the show (not counting a self-portrait and a painting of his wife, Marlies) depict Plains Indian ceremonies, family moments and glimpses of everyday living as well as scenes of struggle. Only one is a battle scene — a recent painting of two Blackfeet warriors wielding flintlock rifles against an unseen enemy. Terpning says he rarely paints combat, dwelling instead on the mood before or after the bullets or arrows have flown.


Trim and erect at 84, with a firm, deep, gravelly voice, silvering hair and a Hemingway-esque beard, Terpning says he has always worked hard to get the details right — and continues to do so seven mornings a week in his home studio in Tucson. He studies archival photographs and books to ensure that he can render the events and places he’s envisioned as realistically and accurately as possible. If he’s painting the clothing and implements of a given tribe, he may pick colors that suit his composition, but he forbids himself the luxury of using hues contradicted by the historical evidence.

“With all the research I’ve done and all the artifacts I’ve studied, I’ll think, ‘I’ve seen everything,’” Terpning said recently, seated on a bench in front of a wall of his work in the Autry’s special exhibitions gallery. “But then I’ll come across something I’ve never seen. These people were so creative.”

Terpning says he’s thankful that Native Americans have allowed him to exhaustively photograph them observing their traditions, which has helped him build up an image bank he can draw upon for paintings. His 1997 “Crow Pipe Ceremony,” for example, took shape from photographs he shot during a trip to Montana to observe an annual reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In the mid-1970s he tossed aside a lucrative 25-year career as a commercial artist. Among his achievements were Time magazine cover paintings, including presidential nominee George McGovern and Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as characters in “The Godfather” movies. He created dozens of movie poster paintings, including “The Sound of Music,” with its famous image of Julie Andrews skipping through an alpine meadow with a guitar case in one hand and a valise in the other.


Terpning’s paintings for “Cleopatra” sold at auction last year for $110,000 (a reclining Elizabeth Taylor with her leading men, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison) and $200,000 (Liz enthroned and alone). Other Terpning posters include"Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “The Sand Pebbles,” “The Guns of Navarone” and a 1960s theatrical re-release of “Gone With the Wind.” The studios owned his poster paintings, and he says most of the originals have been destroyed. He’s managed to reacquire just one: Taylor and Burton as Kate and Petruchio in the 1967 film “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Terpning was born far too late, it would seem, to be instilling his history paintings with the emotions of a first-hand witness. But he says that personal experiences have, in fact, been fundamental to his work. And something beyond historical accuracy must be attracting collectors who routinely pay more than $200,000 for his pictures. Prices have gone as high as $1.3 million to $1.9 million for certain pieces; collectors lacking that kind of money make up a separate market for giclée prints that are near-replicas of the original oil paintings.

Early in his new life as a Western history painter, Terpning says, “I started getting feedback from native people, and they were such favorable impressions. They seemed to relate to the paintings and respect what I was trying to do.” It was gratifying, because “they are the people I’m honoring.”

It has helped, Terpning said, that he’s seen with his own eyes the damage war does. In 1944, he was at Camp Lejeune, N.C., training at age 17 for the looming invasion of Japan. Earlier that year his older brother, Jack, a pilot in theU.S. Army Air Forces, had taken off from New Guinea in the cockpit of a B-24 bomber and never returned. His dog tags would be found 30 years later amid wreckage on a mountainside. When word of his brother’s fate reached Terpning’s home near Chicago, he decided it was more important to get into the fight than to finish high school. He cashed in his credits for an early diploma and joined the Marines.


The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki spared untold thousands of Allied and Japanese combatants, Terpning among them. Instead, his unit was sent to northern China to protect nationalist-controlled areas from communist attack; his tour of duty also involved shepherding captured Japanese troops back to their homeland.

There was no question what he’d do when he got home. “Before I reached 10 years old, I knew I was going to be an artist,” he said. The GI Bill underwrote his training at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art and the American Academy of Art, also in Chicago. He found mentors, worked for several years in the Midwest, then gravitated to New York City, the hub of advertising and magazine illustration. Soon he’d made it big.

In 1967, Terpning rejoined the Marines — this time by invitation, for a six-week hitch as a combat artist in Vietnam. He came under fire while accompanying infantry units and rode with the wounded in helicopters. The experience resulted in 10 paintings by Terpning that are now housed in the National Museum of the Marine Corps, at Quantico, Va. An 11th, a painting for a 1965 Marine recruiting poster, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, said Joan Thomas, art curator of the Marine Corps museum.

“I really empathized with the Vietnamese people and what they had to deal with and the way they had to live,” Terpning said. “It would break your heart to see the plight of the women and children. I have empathy for people and cultures who have struggled and had a hard life.”


He says the experience informs his paintings of 19th century Plains Indians. “They had a wonderful life, lived absolutely free,” Terpning says. “But it was a dangerous life and very hard. I try to put that sense in there, because I feel it so deeply.”

A summer spent on a ranch near Durango, Colo., when he was 15 sparked his interest in the West and gave him his first experience of Native Americans. His career as an illustrator included Western scenes for Field & Stream and other publications; one of his first Native American paintings, well before it became his main subject, was a portrait of the Sioux warrior Chief Gall – a gift to his daughter, Susan, now an artist herself who paints Native Americans of the Old West like her father.

An artist friend, Don Crowley, told Terpning about galleries that specialized in Western-themed art; in 1974, he took a break from his work as an illustrator and did several paintings in that vein. They sold, and Terpning, bored after having “done everything I’d hoped to accomplish” as a commercial artist, fulfilled his remaining commissions and moved from Connecticut to Tucson in 1977 with his wife and three children.

Within a few years, he’d begun winning gold medals on the circuit of Western art exhibitions. One of them, the Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition and Sale, is the Autry’s biggest-grossing annual fundraising event. As many as 75 artists are invited to show their work each year; sales have ranged from $3.5 million to $5 million at recent shows, according to the Autry’s tax returns, with the museum typically netting $1 million.


Terpning has had solo shows at museums specializing in the West — the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, and now the Autry. But apart from two cover paintings that Time magazine donated to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery — pieces Terpning dismisses as rush jobs done to meet tight deadlines — you won’t find him in the collections of mainstream museums that feature contemporary art.

Thomas Smith, director of the Denver Art Museum’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art, says there’s a wide gulf between Terpning’s historical realism and what his own institution and other leading art museums aim to exhibit and collect.

Terpning is “the Western version of Thomas Kinkade,” Smith said, summoning the recently deceased “painter of light” whose comforting, idyllic landscapes sold phenomenally but are shunned as kitsch by art critics and scholars. Smith faults Terpning for living in the past instead of grappling with the West of his own time and for failing to wrestle with the stylistic questions that have confronted painters in the 100-plus years since photography supplanted painting as the means of historically documenting people, places and events.

Terpning’s paintings might have had a chance to matter to art historians if they’d been done 120 years ago, Smith said. But he rates Terpning’s technique well short of the standard set by Frederic Remington and Charles Marion Russell, leading 19th century portrayers of the West. “Terpning’s legacy will solely be as a market phenomenon,” Smith said. “His place within the art history of the American West will ultimately be limited to non-existent.”


The artist shrugs. Terpning says his passion since childhood has been to depict people in realistic scenes that suggest stories. “I personally don’t care for abstract art,” he said. “I have always felt ‘to each his own.’ There’s art out there for everybody.”

‘Howard Terpning: Tribute to the Plains People’


Where: Autry National Center of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m to 5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, through July 1.

Tickets: $10 or $4-$6 for children, students and seniors.

Information: (323) 667-2000.



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