Jason Olsen, Deseret News Archive
Virginia Ashdown has observed them hanging next to one another for almost nine years.
There’s chiseled Ammon and his outstretched sword, unconquerable Captain Moroni and the husky 2,060 sons of Helaman, among others.
As a hostess in the Book of Mormon gallery room at the LDS Church’s Conference Center, Ashdown takes pleasure in seeing visitors experience the late Arnold Friberg’s 12 large-scale Book of Mormon paintings.
“It’s fun to see the families with little kids come through. They love to tell the stories of each painting. The boys love Ammon and the Stripling Warriors,” Ashdown said. “There is a reverence and an awe.”
Friberg’s classic collection of Book of Mormon paintings have captivated and stirred the imaginations of countless people for more than half a century. Yet few know the story behind the paintings.
Who came up with the idea for the paintings and how did Friberg become involved?
How did Friberg bring brush and color to these powerful scriptural events that hadn’t been painted before? He had never seen Nephi or the Liahona. He didn’t sail with Nephi and his family to the Promised Land or witness Abinadi’s last stand before King Noah and the wicked priests.
How did he decide which stories and characters to depict? And what about the clothing, beards and weapons?
“Art, like mortality, consists in drawing the line somewhere,” Friberg quoted G.K. Chesterton in his book, “Classic Scenes from the Book of Mormon.”
And so Friberg did.
Here is a glimpse into the life of the artist and some of the details behind his masterful Book of Mormon paintings, which continue to inspire millions of Latter-day Saints all over the world.
First, a few facts about Friberg.
He was born in 1913 in Winnetka, Ill., to a Swedish father and Norwegian mother, both of whom immigrated through Ellis Island.
The Friberg family moved from Chicago to Phoenix in 1921 and converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Arnold was baptized the following year at age 8.
After high school, Friberg studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, then moved to New York City, where he studied under Harvey Dunn at Grand Central School of Art alongside Norman Rockwell.
After serving as a U.S. Army infantryman in World War II, Friberg married his first wife, Hedve Baxter, and sought work in San Francisco. The couple moved to Utah around 1949.
In 1953, Friberg moved to Hollywood to be the chief artist-designer of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.”
Friberg is probably most renowned for his 1975 masterpiece, “Prayer at Valley Forge,” which depicts George Washington kneeling in the snow beside his horse.
His legacy includes trips to Buckingham Palace to produce portraits of Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II. He also took pleasure in painting subjects from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the American West.
He died in 2010 at the age of 96.
Adele Cannon Howells
A misconception has persisted that the LDS Church leaders commissioned Friberg's Book of Mormon paintings.
Actually, the idea came from Adele Cannon Howells, the church’s general president of the Primary from 1943 to 1951. She was impressed by Friberg’s 1950 piece, “Pioneer Sunday School.” Motivated by a deep love for the Primary children, Howells personally commissioned Friberg to create the collection to mark the 50th year of “The Children’s Friend” magazine. The 12 paintings, $1,000 apiece, were scheduled to run each month during the magazine’s 50th year, although they ended up taking much longer.
Friberg knew it would be a challenge.
“It was a startling task to undertake, for the Book of Mormon had never been illustrated before, at least on any professional level,” Friberg wrote. “There were no precedents.”
Howells arranged payment for the paintings on her death bed and passed before she could see a sketch.
“Throughout all the painting days, the artist never forgot that Sister Howells’ last act on earth, the night she died, was to arrange for the sale of some property to pay for the project,” Friberg wrote. “She never lived to see even the first painting done, and it was the memory of her dedication that strengthened Friberg to push the series through to full realization. For without her vision, her generosity, and her dogged determination, these paintings would never have existed.”
Sister LaVern Watts Parmley succeeded Howells as the Primary general president and carried the project through to its completion. Howells’ family later donated the paintings to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Friberg turned to LDS Church leaders for historical and doctrinal suggestions, questions about antiquity and archeological findings, hair length and clothing, but was surprised to find their opinions varied, according to a 2005 BYU Studies article by Robert T. Barrett and Susan Easton Black.
“And with that variation grew a personal frustration in attempting to paint another’s visual interpretation of scripture when he had thoughts of his own,” the article states.
Many suggested that Friberg should illustrate great sermons, such as those given by Alma and King Benjamin. While Friberg acknowledged the inspiring sermons, “he wanted to paint heroes that appeared legendary in stature,” which was consistent with Howells’ vision. From that basis came the 12 powerful scenes.
“The muscularity in my paintings is only an expression of the spirit within,” Friberg said in an interview with Black. “When I paint Nephi, I’m painting the interior, the greatness, the largeness of spirit. Who knows what he looked like? I’m painting a man who looks like he could actually do what Nephi did.”
Maxine Howser told the following story about her father, Max A. Bryan, in a 2010 interview with Deseret News reporter Michael De Groote.
In 1954, Bryan was called as a stake president in Long Beach, Calif., and invited to an event at Brigham Young University. While sitting next to Cleon Skousen at a luncheon, he noticed a man staring at his face. The man was introduced to Bryan as Arnold Friberg.
The artist explained he was painting scenes from the Book of Mormon and wondered if he could use Bryan’s face as a model. Skousen had a key to the campus photo lab and three hours later, Friberg had a file of photos of Bryan's face. The men never crossed paths again.
In the decades that followed, Bryan delighted in guiding tours at the Los Angeles California Temple and showing visitors Friberg’s paintings. Looking for and finding Bryan’s facial features in many of the 12 paintings, especially his jaw line, nose and lips, became a source of great pride in his family.
“People would say, ‘oh President Bryan, that looks like you,’ and he would smile and say, ‘oh, it is,’” Howser said before she died early this year. “I see a lot of my father’s face in Nephi ('Young Nephi Subdues His Rebellious Brothers') and get goose bumps every time I look at it.”
Heidi W. Friberg, the artist’s second wife, confirmed Howser’s story.
Another model emerged from Friberg’s childhood. In his book, “Classic Scenes from the Book of Mormon,” Friberg tells of a man he called “Altop.” This man befriended and introduced the gospel with Friberg's family in Arizona when he was a boy. He also worked as a carpenter alongside Arnold’s father for a time. Thirty years after losing contact, Friberg wrote that Altop showed up at his home one day for a visit, and at the same time he was painting “Abinadi Delivers His Message to King Noah.” Impressed by Altop’s remarkable health at age 70, Friberg took Altop into his studio and used him as a model for Abinadi.
It’s also interesting to note that when painting Abinadi, Friberg grew his own beard and long hair for greater insight. He also used this method when painting Moses.
A master’s touch
Friberg produced the first eight paintings in the early 1950s before taking a break to work with DeMille on “The Ten Commandments.” In 1957, Friberg returned to Salt Lake City to complete the last four and moved on with his career.
No one could have suspected that these artistic works would be so inspirational, and that the LDS Church would eventually reproduce them in copies of the Book of Mormon that were translated and sent out worldwide — in addition to hanging in the Book of Mormon gallery at the Conference Center.
In painting religious art, Friberg said he sought divine help and felt that God guided his skilled hand.
“What I do I am driven to do. I follow the dictates of a looming and unseen force,” Friberg was quoted in the BYU Studies article. “I try to become like a musical instrument, intruding no sound of its own but bringing forth such tones as are played upon it by a master’s hand.”
For more on Friberg and his artwork, visit www.fribergfineart.com.
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