Arnold Friberg, 96

Arnold Friberg, painter of 'Prayer at Valley Forge,' dies at 96

Arnold Friberg poses in front of one of his most famous paintings,
Arnold Friberg poses in front of one of his most famous paintings, "Prayer at Valley Forge," at his studio in Utah. (Deseret News Archives Via Associated Press)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Arnold Friberg, 96, an illustrator best known for his patriotic portrait of George Washington kneeling in prayer beside his horse in the snowy woods near Valley Forge, Pa., and whose paintings of religious subjects inspired many scenes for Cecil B. DeMille's film "The Ten Commandments," died July 1 at a Salt Lake City rehabilitation center.

He had recently broken his hip and never recovered.

Mr. Friberg began his career as an artist in his late teens and worked well into his 80s. The result was an immense body of work that included scenes from the Mormon bible, college football games, wagon trains roaming the Old West and portraits of British royalty.

Mr. Friberg was known for painting epic scenes with rich colors and sharp details -- often portraying central male figures with beefy physiques aboard toned, snorting steeds.

Mr. Friberg's goal as an illustrator was simple.

"I want my art to be perfectly understood," he told Meridian Magazine, a Latter-day Saints publication. "I hope no one ever has to explain my pictures."

In order to capture the realistic setting for his 1975 painting "The Prayer at Valley Forge," Mr. Friberg studied Washington's uniform at the Smithsonian Institution and later hiked to the Pennsylvania banks of the Schuylkill River in the middle of February.

To "recall the pain, and the cold of that cruel winter," he removed his gloves and sketched the snow-covered tree limbs until his fingers froze.

"I did that to pay tribute to Washington, to portray the burden that fell upon one lonely man," Mr. Friberg told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2000. "I'm a hero worshiper. I have to respect, almost idolize, whatever I paint."

"The Prayer at Valley Forge" is among the most reproduced paintings in the world, and a copy of it was displayed in the White House during the Reagan administration. The original was recently valued at more than $12 million and is on exhibition at the first president's home at Mount Vernon.

Mr. Friberg first achieved wide recognition in the early 1950s after painting a series of 12 pictures inspired by the Book of Mormon, the religious text of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

His art eventually caught the attention of DeMille, who hired Mr. Friberg to help visualize scenes for his 1956 movie "The Ten Commandments."

The director and the artist became great friends during the film's production, and Mr. Friberg's conceptual renderings provided the basis for many of the movie's visual elements, including Charlton Heston's red, white and black robe worn for the role of Moses. For his efforts, Mr. Friberg was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design in 1956.

The movie project had a transformative effect on Mr. Friberg, who made his allegiances clear with a sign that hung in his studio next to his personal set of the film's trademark stone tablets: "I believe in God and DeMille."

Arnold Friberg was born Dec. 21, 1913, in Winnetka, Ill., and grew up in Arizona as a member of the Mormon faith. As a teen, he made extra money painting signs for local businesses and perfected his skills as an illustrator by drawing his own comic strips.

After high school, he went to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and later moved to New York, where he attended night classes at the Grand Central School of Art alongside Norman Rockwell.

He served in the Army during World War II and turned down the option to be a military illustrator to fight in the infantry in Europe.

Mr. Friberg moved to Salt Lake City in 1950 to take a job as an art teacher at the University of Utah. His first wife, Hedve Mae Baxter, died in 1986. Survivors include his second wife Heidi Groskopf Friberg of Salt Lake City; two children from his first marriage, Frank Friberg and Patricia Friberg; two stepsons, Peter and Izzie Dominy; 10 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

In 1978 Mr. Friberg flew to Buckingham Palace to paint a portrait of Charles, the Prince of Wales, and Centennial, the royal family's favorite bay horse.

The royal family was so pleased with the painting that Mr. Friberg returned to Buckingham Palace in 1990 for a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II with the same horse.

Mr. Friberg's other work included a series of paintings for General Motors celebrating the history of college football, more than 300 paintings of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and dozens of Western scenes for the owner of a Las Vegas casino.

Despite his work for the Church of Latter-day Saints, Mr. Friberg resented being labeled as a "Mormon artist" and said critics who characterized his popular art business as "selling out" were being unfair.

Besides, he said in 2000, "I don't belong in the art world at all. I'm a storyteller."

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