This year marks the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War and forced England to recognize the 13 former colonies as free and sovereign United States of America.
In honor of this historic event, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and the American Revolution Museum at Valley Forge are holding a special exhibit of art and artifacts. Among the artwork on display is "The Prayer at Valley Forge" by Utahn Arnold Friberg.
Friberg, 94, is the only living artist whose work is being displayed, and he and his wife, Heidi, traveled to Philadelphia earlier this month to attend the opening ceremonies. Dignitaries also in attendance included Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania and Pierre Vimont, ambassador of France. The exhibit runs through Oct. 8.
It is an honor to be included, Friberg said in an interview at his home following his return. "That painting has never been shown in the East," he said. "Yet they are so immersed in the roots of our country there."
The painting, which depicts George Washington kneeling in prayer beside his horse, seeking guidance during a moment of deep despair, was painted by Friberg in 1975, in honor of then-upcoming Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. Tens of thousands of prints of it have been distributed worldwide. The last public display of the actual painting was during the 2002 Winter Olympics, when it was shown at the Utah State Capitol.
It has hung in recent years in the Friberg home. But that may change. In 2011, a museum dedicated solely to the American Revolution is scheduled to open in Valley Forge, and there is a move to have the painting become part of the museum's permanent collection.
"The painting has been appraised at $12 million. Friberg Fine Art Inc. and Providence Forum are currently seeking interested individuals or organizations to purchase this art piece and donate it to this museum," said Peter Dominy, CEO of Friberg Fine Art Inc.
Friberg would like his painting to find a home at Valley Forge. He believes the painting captures the spirit of what occurred in that important, historical place. "All the suffering that went on there, that speaks to the heart," he said. "The painting is only a man with his horse, but there is deeper meaning in it, and people get it right now."
He remembers a time when the painting was lying on the floor at a printer's because they were working on making the prints, and a security guard came by. "He stood and looked at it, and then he said, 'You feel the prayer in his hands.' He got it."
That combination of deep meaning and accessibility has been a trademark of Friberg art from the beginning, staying throughout his long and illustrious career.
The son of immigrant parents, Friberg was born in Illinois and grew up in Phoenix. By age 7, he was drawing his own cartoons, and he enrolled in an art correspondence course at age 10. He shared some of his early drawings with the newspaper staff of the Arizona Republic and learned from their critiques. During high school he earned money by making signs for local businesses.
He later studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Grand Central School of Art in New York. He also served with the 86th Infantry Division in World War II.
After the war, he began his career by painting scenes of the American West for a calendar company. By 1950, he had married, and he and his wife moved to Utah, where he taught commercial art at the University of Utah.
Friberg is well-known for his series of paintings done in connection with Cecil B. DeMille's movie "The Ten Commandments."
"That was a wonderful experience," Friberg said. "DeMille was the real thing. The world will never see his like again."
Friberg is also revered locally for a series of paintings he did depicting scenes from the Book of Mormon.
"Arnold Friberg, arguably more than any other artist, established for Latter-day Saints what Book of Mormon people, landscapes and events might have been like," noted Vern G. Swanson, curator at the Springville Museum of Art, in an article in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.
Those paintings were not commissioned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but by Adele Cannon Howells, general president of the church's Primary, who paid for them out of her own funds. "It was her gift to the church," Friberg said. "It was her dying wish to have them done. She should get the credit."
There have been other important paintings, as well. He's done more than 200 pieces for the Canadian Mounted Police and, in fact, he is the only American to be given honorary membership in that organization.
Because of his work with the Mounties, in 1978 Friberg was commissioned to do an almost life-size painting of Prince Charles and his horse, Centennial, the great-grandson of Man o' War. In 1990, he was invited back to Buckingham Palace to do a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Centennial.
Those, too, were interesting experiences, he said. "I got to know Charles quite well. He had a great sense of humor and treated us well." But, he added, "People see the glamour in those things, but it is extremely strenuous, exhausting work."
Looking back on his career, "it is strange where my work has carried me," he said. "A lot of it was not my doing; it just came to me."
If his paintings speak so well of another time, he said, it's partly because "I belong in the 19th century my outlook, my mentality. Now, they talk about digital this and digital that, and it makes my head spin."
But his art also resonates, he believes, "because I like to tell stories. I'm an illustrator. A lot of artists don't want to be illustrators, but I say, 'What's the difference?' When I start out I want to make as beautiful a statement pictorially as I can. And I always did a great variety. I didn't want to be known just as Mr. West or Mr. Bible."
Yes, he says with a degree of pride, "I can paint horses well. A lot of things have come to me because of that. Not everyone can do horses well. Some are quite dismal. You have to do a lot of study. You can never learn enough; you have to keep studying."
His love of horses was one reason he did the Washington painting. "I wanted to show the companionship between man and horse. Everyone who knew Washington said that he was the finest horseman in Virginia, but no one had done him with his horse."
And no, it is not just a man and his horse, but an "affirmation of faith, patriotic duty and the deep spiritual depths in the founding of the country."As Friberg has long said, "Art is always best when serving a cause greater than the artist." That's why he would love to see that painting find a permanent home at Valley Forge.
E-mail: [email protected]