Howard Terpning – the painter of the Native Americans

Self portrait by Howard Terpning
Self portrait by Howard Terpning

After four blogs featuring the French painter Balthus, which looked at some of his controversial paintings, I thought I would present you with a less contentious artist.  Today’s blog is all about an American artist whose later work is centred around what is termed on TV as the Wild West.  You will see that his forte was his paintings featuring Native American Indian and their way of life, which often led him to be known as “The storyteller of Native Americans”.  Let me introduce you to Howard Terpning.

The Family Home by Howard Terpning
The Family Home by Howard Terpning

Before us is a depiction of a Native American family outside of their  tipi, part of a Blackfoot camp.  The base or skirt of the tipi is painted with symbols which referred to the mountains around where they lived as well as symbols representing Father Sky, which along with Mother Earth, were common characters in the creation myth.  They were looked upon as kind of religious symbols which protected those who lived in the tipi and somehow guaranteed them happiness and prosperity in the future.  Designs at the tops of the painted tipi represented the upper limit of the physical world, here a blue stripe for the sky and a red strip for life. The middle band could one day contain pictographs of war exploits or symbols that the family found important or lucky.

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Terpning was born in November 1927 in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.  His father worked on the North Western railroad and his mother was an interior decorator.  Even as a young boy he wanted to be an illustrative artist although, and as many young boys of his age, he also hankered after a career in the US Air force as a pilot, a “calling” his brother Jack actually fulfilled as a B-24 bomber pilot but who was sadly killed during World War II.  As a teenager Howard Terpning became enthralled with the Wild West and the Native Americans.  This interest was fired up after a Colorado summer camp, close to Durango, which he attended along with his cousin.

Journey to the Medicine Wheel, by Howard Terpning
Journey to the Medicine Wheel, by Howard Terpning

This painting is all about the healing power of the Medicine Wheel , sometimes referred to as the Sacred Hoop, and before us in the painting, we see a Plains Indian family offering up a sacrifice to this very sacred place.   It was the Native American belief that the Four Cardinal Directions (North, East, South and West) are linked to great Powers, or intelligent forces, whose energy (or Medicine) can be harnessed. The directions can be charted on this circular map, the Medicine Wheel, which could enable one to come into alignment with these spiritual powers and absorb something of them.  Each Native American tribe interpreted the Medicine Wheel differently.

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In 1945, when Terpning reached the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was posted to China as an infantryman where he remained for nine months.  When he left the Marines in 1947 he wanted to enrol at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.  The cost of his art course was paid courtesy of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the G.I. Bill, which was a law that provided a range of benefits, including vocational education, for returning World War II veterans.  It proved difficult for Terpning to gain access to the Academy as, like other educational establishments, they were oversubscribed due to the large number of returning veterans.   However, through the good auspices of his father’s friend and neighbour, Harold Mundstock, an illustrator, he was granted a place at the academy and it was here that he studied life drawing and painting.  He graduated from the Chicago Academy of Fine Art in 1948 and in 1949 attended the American Academy of Fine Art.

The Teachings of My Grandmother by Howard Terpning
The Teachings of My Grandmother by Howard Terpning

In the painting, The Teachings of My Grandmother, Howard Terpning depicts the Native American people buit like many of his works, it was not focused on their battle with the “white man” but concentrated on the lifestyle of the Native Americans.  In this painting he examines the way the young children were nurtured and taught and the importance of passing on such knowledge which would ensure a better future.  Young females of the tribe learnt to cook and make clothes whilst the training given to the young boys concentrated on hunting and building them into warriors who one day may be called upon to protect their village.  Before us we a six year old Blackfoot girl, who clutches her doll as she concentrates on watching what her grandmother is doing. 

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On completion of his time at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the American Academy of Art, Terpning decided to seek employment in New York but after several days of visiting various art studios without any success, the disappointed young man returned to Chicago.  Once again, his father’s friend Harold Munstock intervened and introduced him to the foremost illustrator of his time, Haddon (Sunny) Sundblom.  Sundlom is best remembered for his work for the Coca Cola Company which commissioned him in 1931 to create a wholesome version of Father Christmas.  Sundholm was described as arguably the most famous advertising icon in history and the American author, Roger T Reed wrote of him:

“….  ‘More than any artist including Norman Rockwell, Sundblom defined the American Dream in pictures, proved by his work for virtually the entire Fortune 500’. I think it’s important to remember that ‘Sunny’ was about a lot more than Santa…”

Sundblom saw some of Terpning’s work and recognised the talent of this young artist and in 1950; he employed him as an apprentice in his Chicago studio.  His starting wage was a princely sum of thirty-five dollars per week!  Life as an apprentice was difficult to start with as all Terpning did was to be at the beck and call of his bosses, running errands, building crates and cleaning their paint brushes.  However, he did what was asked of him and after eighteen months he was able to work on his own first commission.  He remained in the Chicago for five years, before moving to an art studio in Milwaukee in 1955.  It was during these years in the mid West that he started to paint pictures depicting farmers, their farm equipment and life on the farm.

Gone with the Wind film poster by Howard Terpning
Gone with the Wind film poster by Howard Terpning

Three years later, in 1958, he returned to New York, the first city where he first unsuccessfully tried, a decade earlier, to gain artistic work.  However this time he managed to land a job with Stephens Bionde de Chico, a leading Chicago studio.  In 1961 he painted the first of over 80 movie posters, The Guns of Navarone.  Later he would produce film posters for such films as  The Sand Pebbles, The War Wagon, Gone With The Wind (reissue), Ice Station Zebra, Doctor Zhivago, Cleopatra, Grand Prix, 55 Days at Peking and Lawrence of Arabia.  He carried on creating illustrating film poster illustrations until the mid 1970’s.

By 1962, he was working as a freelance artist and had his own studio and agent who set about finding him commissions.   As a result, Terpning was able to work from his home studio eliminating the long commute into NYC.  During this time, his output of illustrations was phenomenal.

Moving Up Marines South of Hoi An, South Vietnam, 1968, by Howard Terpning
Moving Up Marines South of Hoi An, South Vietnam, 1968, by Howard Terpning

In 1967 Terpning was approached by the Marine Corps to join the The Combat Art Program run by Colonel Raymond Henri who had gathered together a number  of Marine and civilian artists and illustrators and sent them to Southeast Asia to record on canvas the events of the war.  Terpning agreed and was sent to the battle front with the temporary rank of Major where he was given freedom to go out on patrol with the marines, be on a medivac helicopter which picked up the wounded troops and by doing this, seek out material for his paintings.  He stayed in Vietnam for six months.  In all he completed six paintings featuring the Marines at war which now can be seen at the Marine Corps Museum in Washington DC.  During his six month stay in Vietnam not only did he witness the bravery of the American troops he witnessed the suffering of the Vietnamese civilians and developed empathy for their plight.  A decade on this empathy for the downtrodden would be transferred to the lot of the Native Americans at the hands of the white settlers and prospectors who wanted their lands.

Passing into Womanhood by Howard Terpning
Passing into Womanhood by Howard Terpning

Another of Terpning’s paintings which focused on the transition of Native American children to adulthood can be seen in his work, Passing into Womanhood.  The picture looks at the rite of passage of a young Cheyenne girl, who is taking part in a ceremony which announces her coming into puberty.  The Cheyenne had the tradition that they would reveal to the rest of the people in the camp the fact that the girl had reached the age that signified the passage in her life  when she moves from being a child to life as a woman.  This initiation ceremony was normally carried out by the girl’s grandmother

There are three women in the painting.  To the left, we see the white haired grandmother and to her right is the young girl with her hair combed out of the normal braids.  She wraps her nakedness in a robe.   In the foreground is a woman  mixing up a red dye which she would later daub onto the naked body of the young girl.  On the floor of the tipi, before the young girl, there is a smouldering fire onto which has been sprinkled with  sweetgrass, juniper needles, and white sage.  The young girl leans towards the smoking fire, opening her robe so the rising smoke from the incense would pass about and over her body. Following the conclusion of the ceremony, she and her grandmother would leave their home lodge, and the young girl would then stay in a smaller one for a period of four days.

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Terpning worked as a very successful commercial artist for twenty-five years, seventeen of which were in New York City. His work as a commercial artist was varied.  Besides his numerous movie posters, he worked on advertisements, book illustration and illustrations for articles in prestigious magazines such as Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, Newsweek, and Time.   The work as a commercial artist was financially rewarding but became less rewarding as time passed.  In the summer of 1974, Terpning then forty-seven years of age, took a three month break from his commercial work and spent the time painting.  He completed three works of art including one for his daughter Susan – a portrait of  Gall, the great Sioux chief and warrior who took part in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  Terpning revelled in this new found freedom of being his own boss and painting whatever he liked.  He sent the completed canvases to Troy’s Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, which sold them in January 1975.  He began to sell his artwork and soon realised he could survive financially on the sale of his paintings.  He completed all his commercial artwork commissions and finally retired from the business in 1976.  His plan was to concentrate on his own art and decided that through his paintings he would narrate the story of the nineteenth century Native Americans.  Over the next forty years he produced almost five hundred beautiful works of art including charcoal drawings which featured the free spirited tribes of the Great Plains of America who struggled to survive the hardships of nature and the avarice of mankind.  These were paintings full of emotion.  Terpning, through his paintings, weaved a story.  He himself described his work and what he wanted to achieve, saying:

“…I am trying to tell the story of the Plains people, and in my art I have always been a storyteller – I just do that naturally – so the two come together.  I respect the way they lived – the horse culture and the buffalo people.  It was an exciting period in our history.  There is an awful lot about them we could have learned from if we had the sense to do it…”

Comanche Spoilers by Howard Terpning
Comanche Spoilers by Howard Terpning

In his painting,  Comanche Spoilers, Terpning recounts the story of an uprising of  the Comanche which when adding up the number of warriors to the number of women and children  involved, came to almost a thousand people.   The incident happened in August 1840 when this large horde of people moved south off the Plains towards the Gulf of Mexico.  On their journey south they pillaged ranches and settlements.  Once they had loaded all their horses up with pilfered goods they headed back north to the Plains.

In the painting, we see the Comanche returning home with all the goods they had stolen.  Warriors are seen holding ladies umbrellas, which they had stolen,  above their heads to shade them from the sun.  Others wore stove pipe hats and ribbons which had all been stolen.   Their return journey was halted when they met resistance from a large group of Texans who overwhelmed them, killing many and scattering the rest.

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In 1977 Terpning moved to Arizona in an attempt to document Native American culture and the America West and in 1979 he was elected to the National Academy of Western Art and the Cowboy Artists of America.

The Last Buffalo by Howard Terpning
The Last Buffalo by Howard Terpning

The depletion in numbers of the Plains people was due to a number of factors but one of the most  telling factors was lack of available food on the Plains.   Buffalo and bison meat was their main source of food but there was only so many to go around and when white hunters began their slaughter of the buffalo, they were bringing an end not only to the buffalo population but also the Plains people as well.  Besides the buffalo meat, the bones of the dead animals were also used by the Plains people for tools and weapons.  In this work, entitled The Last Buffalo, we see a small hunting party which has just killed a bison.  Strangely, there is no sign of their horses.

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In Tulsa, Oklahoma there is the The Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, which is commonly referred to as the Gilcrease Museum.  It houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of art and artifacts of the American West, including an unparalleled collection of Native American art and material.  Its former director, Fred Myers said of Terpning and his art featuring the Native Americans:

“…Terpning is simply the best and best-known artist doing Western subjects at this point… He is among a very small group of painters of the West in the late 20th century whose art will still be hanging in museums and appreciated a hundred years from now…”

Proud Men by Howard Terpning
Proud Men by Howard Terpning

My final painting I am showcasing is one entitled Proud Men and in his book Plains People: The Art of Howard Terpning, the author Howard Hedgpeth hailed the Plains people, writing:

“…They followed the warrior’s way.  They were proud prairie horsemen with an appetite for honour and the visceral thrill of danger. They looked death in the face and fought on, emboldened by bravery and the armour of their medicine. They rode for revenge but would fight too for no other reason than to plumb the depth of their courage. There was blood on the prairie where they passed by, and women wailed in the lodges of their enemies…”

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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