Weekend (Re)Visitor: Arnold Friberg


Arnold Friberg’s passing this week is cause to reexamine him. His work has been a victim of backlash lately from the High Minded. (I suspect because of the massive influence his Book of Mormon paintings have had on depictions of the book’s characters, particularly of Lehi’s family. It’s simply understood now that, for instance, Nephi wears leather over one shoulder, Lehi has a long white beard, Laman and Lemuel are physically brutish. His influence has so overwhelmed Book of Mormon art that sometimes people seem to forget that his work is not The One True Depiction.)

Then there’s the fact that he’s Mormon and you know how Mormons think other Mormons can only make crummy art. So for them, here’s some worldly acclaim:

Friberg originated the iconic looks in DeMille’s second Ten Commandments movie and received an Oscar nod for his efforts.

Friberg was commissioned to make his famed Washington portrait for the Bicentenniel, when it hung at Valley Forger.

Friberg was commission by Britain’s royal family to paint Prince Charles in 1978 and the Queen in 1990.

He’s an honorary Mountie.

His original works are expeeeeeeensive.

But no matter who makes the point for me, I cannot doubt that Friberg’s work was consistently iconic and has shaped the way Mormons in particular view ourselves in significant and real ways.

Let’s return to taking him seriously.

26 thoughts on “Weekend (Re)Visitor: Arnold Friberg”

  1. I had never seen that painting of the Brooklyn before and as a former Bay Area Mormon, I found it very moving and an excellent choice of what to depict. The pioneers arrive in San Francisco and find their way cloudier than they had expected. The area now belongs to the United States. According to the wikipedia page linked to above, they cheered that fact, but there had to be some tension and uneasiness. Then there’s the fact that they had a long trek ahead of them through some harsh territory. All this is captured because Friberg chooses to show them in the landing ship instead of say, celebrating on deck. We know it’s the pioneers in that little boat because of all the bonnets. They are crammed in and huddled together and leaving the (relatively-speaking) the safety of the ship, which represents the East. And then are the three seagulls. I’m not art history critic. But what first glance looks like a fairly drab painting seems to me to be loaded with meaning and the more I look at it the more poignant and beautiful it appears.

    Does anyone know who owns the original of this painting and if there are fine art prints available? A quick google search brings up nothing.

    I also think you chose the right Book of Mormon painting to highlight. The way Lehi, Nephi and Laman’s bodies are positioned and posed in relation to each other and the Liahona is a master class in narrative composition.

  2. Th., I’m so glad that you posted this! When I heard of Friberg’s passing, I thought a post like this was needed, but personally I felt totally inadequate to the task.

    I also agree with you about recent criticisms of his work. Personally, I prefer much more abstract work (I really dislike our cultural preference for imitating photography), but Friberg both predates the dominant role of that preference and demonstrates how symbols can be used without being trite. Friberg is simply the victim of his own success — his Book of Mormon work created what became cliché.

    William, we here in NYC also have an affinity for the Brooklyn, and for many years another painting of the ship hung in our stake center (it was a copy of a portrait of the ship done a few years before the voyage of the pioneers from New York to San Francisco — at more than 14,000 miles, the longest move by a religious group in history).

    To emphasize your point, before the Brooklyn left, local leaders and visiting authorities were urging members to get out of the U.S. and travel to meet the rest of the Saints in “Upper California” — i.e., the territory owned by Mexico that covered what is now the western U.S., including California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and parts of New Mexico and Colorado. The message was clearly anti-U.S.

    I’m not sure how much of a relief it was when the Brooklyn sailed into San Francisco harbor and discovered a U.S. warship there.

  3. Thanks for filling some of the historical detail, Kent. That was exactly my impression.

  4. .

    My wife and I would also like a print of the Brooklyn. I suspect it’s owned by the Church. Is there any online catalogue of what they own?

  5. The Church offers a limited selection of fine art prints of paintings in the Museum of Church History and Art, but the Friberg is not one of them. Deseret Book only appears to have two Valley Forge paintings.

  6. .

    I served my mission with Nate Oman. I just noticed a couple months ago that he’s kind of a big deal on the bloggernacle. I knew his dad worked for the church in some sort of some way, but that’s good info, Kent, thanks.

  7. Thanks for this. I just wanted to add that while I think Friberg has become iconic in LDS circles, I love that he doesn’t seem to have spawned a wave of copy-cats. You can’t escape Friberg’s Book of Mormon paintings, but you also aren’t flooded by cheap knockoffs. Del Parson photo-realism combined with Wasatch Front models on the other hand…dime a dozen knock-offs. And I ain’t a fan of the original to begin with. But Friberg, you just can’t beat the guns on the dude with the spear at the waters of Mormon 🙂 Rest in peace Arnold Friberg, your paintings live on and deserve the credit for the serious artwork they are, despite my snarky comments.

  8. I remember seeing Arnold Friberg speak once. I was immeasurably impressed with him. It wasn’t until then that I realized what a truly great artist he was. I could have listened to him talk about his paintings all night. He was a little goofy and had a bit of the stereotypical “dirty old man” about him, but for all that there was something special that made me anxious to learn from him.

    He will be missed.

  9. At least as of 3 years ago, the Brooklyn painting was not in the Church collections.

  10. .


    (I wonder where it is then….)

    Oh: By “Church collections” do you mean SLC holdings or all buildings worldwide?

  11. Th., that’s a very good question — it probably depends on whether the Church has a unified database of all the artwork it owns worldwide, or if the museum has one that coves its collection only. Since I’ve never heard of the Church asking about what art local units have (our stake has a few pieces, IIRC), I suspect that the database is probably the museum only.

    I suspect that it is unlikely that the Brooklyn painting is in any LDS building anywhere.

    If you really want to know, I have a couple of contacts who may know where it is — people who have done research on the Brooklyn and who know those who actively research the Brooklyn. I’d bet they will know.

  12. .

    I’m starting to get interested, yes. The family maintains a website too. I’ll try there as well.

    And I agree that, with the exception of temples and perhaps institutes, probably the Church does not database art. Of course, that’s not too surprising since it’s mostly reproductions in buildings anyway.

    One anecdote (unverified):

    The institute building in Berkeley once belonged to Phoebe Hearst and was purchased by the Church, including the artwork inside. An ancient Chinese vase was included. After purchasing the building, the Church carted most/all of the art away. Years later, that vase was spotted in a temple abroad.

    Speaking of temples and art (tangent alert), I was recent inside my first small temple and I’ll admit to disappointment. The building felt stamped out without many signs that it was an expression of the local Saints’ piety. One original painting that I saw and a spattering of Friberg and Anderson reproductions. Sad.

  13. I have a hard time believing the church wouldn’t have an inventory of every piece of anything in every building everywhere, repro or not.

    Aside to Th.’s aside: In the Nauvoo temple, there is (at least) one stitchery that took my breath away. It takes a lot for a piece of stitchery to take my breath away, but I got a supergood idea what went into designing and creating that (much less the superb frame job).

    I have found all of the temples I’ve been in, except Nauvoo, to be curiously generic.

  14. The data base is becoming increasingly complete, and includes not only a comprehensive list from headquarters (CC, COB, CAB, RSB, SLTemple) but also other temples and mission homes and at least some chapels. I guess it will always be impossible to know if/when everything has been cataloged.

  15. Reproductions are not tracked. The large vase was/is in the administrative area of the museum.

    #14 Check out some of the newer temples. Thanks to Richard Oman, many of them contain local art, representative of the area. Even the new temple murals are increasingly site specific.

  16. .

    I went to a presentation by the artists who did the murals in Nauvoo and those sound very cool. I haven’t been in Nauvoo since the temple was rebar, but someday I look forward to that.

    I love seeing local art in buildings and am happy to learn that more of that is happening.

    Marjorie, if I’m not prying, may I ask how you know all this? Do you work for the Church?

  17. .

    Also, it just occurs to me that I would love to write something about how all of Phoebe’s art has been used over the years.

  18. While Fribetrg’s depictions of christ and the prophets are exaggeratedly muscular, with exaggeration of other aspects–like the height of the wall that Samuel the Lamanite stands on–the implication of all the exaggeration is that Christ and his prophets are not namby-pamby “spiritual men” but are bold representatives of God, the Guy in Charge. I think that bold character comes through as the personality of prophets like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. (Ironically, I don’t think Friberg ever depicted Joseph or Brigham in one of his paintings.)

    That confidence and power of Friberg’s heroes is an embodiment of the Church in the 21st Century, firm in its purpose, and with absolute faith that it is carrying out a Mission from God. These are guys who are lenghthening their stride, and beckon us to follow them. I think many people out in Evangelical Land sense that power and momentum, and are afraid of it, motivating them to attack Mormons and Mormonism, in much the same way the Jewish establishment of First Century Palestine feared and resented Jesus.

    I wish Friberg had been in shape to do a group portrait of our current First Presidency, three leaders who actually have the physical stature to be Friberg heroes.

  19. .

    You make a good point. People who knock the BofM paintings for their musculature are being a little too literal in their interpretation of his work. Thanks for brining that up.

  20. I too am very interested in learning the whereabouts of the original Duncan McFarlane painting of the “Brooklyn” off Skerries Reef. I would like to purchase a print if one is available. My wife and I own the hutch which was onboard the ship and and is identified with the original seal of the City of Brooklyn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s