Arnold Friberg (December 21, 1913 – July 1, 2010)

American illustrator and beloved LDS painter Arnold Friberg passed away early this morning, July 1, 2010 in Salt Lake City.

Brother Friberg was born to Scandinavian parents settled in Arizona. In 1921, his family joined the Church, and Brother Freiberg was baptized at eight, the following year. As a young man, Friberg attented the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where he honed his natural gift for illustration and art. He first made a name for himself creating more than 300 paintings of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for a calender company. He is the only American to be made an honorary member of the RCMP.

During World War II, Friberg served in the United States Army, where he turned down an offer to draw recruitment posters for the Air Force and instead volunteered for service at the front. His artistic talents were there utilized in drawing maps for his company.

After the war, Brother Friberg married Hedve Baxter and settled in San Francisco, where he began work on a series of western paintings for another calender company. He and Hedve relocated to Utah in 1950, when he began teaching art at the University of Utah. Brother Friberg’s aspirations to paint for the LDS church were frustrated at the time, as the Church was commissioning very few painters and works of art.

In 1953, Brother Friberg was called to Hollywood by Cecil B. DeMille to work on conceptual paintings for the movie The Ten Commandments. Shortly after this work in Hollywood, the Church contacted Friberg to begin a series of painting on the Book of Mormon. Over the following decades, he was commercially successful, painting for advertising campaigns, historical publications, and even a casino in Las Vegas.  His early work with the RCMP garnered him attention and respect, and in 1977 he was commissioned to paint the portrait of HRH the Prince of Wales and in 1990, he was called to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II- both of which were painted at Buckingham Palace.

His most famous work, Prayer at Valley Forge, was painted in 1975 to commemorate the upcoming American Bicentennial. As Latter-Day Saints, many of us have been strongly influenced by Brother Friberg’s beautiful interpretations of scriptural events. The images he created were so strong, so striking- the have become a part of our collective religious experience.

Of his own work, Abinadi before King Noah (Mosiah 11—13). Brother Friberg said: “I composed it the opposite of the well-known principle in art, the ‘principle of the Jewel.’ . . . It is like a jewel setting—the central figure is the most interesting part. You use the strongest color and the strongest and most vibrant contrast around the center of interest, and then it goes into surrounding neutrals. I reversed it here for the purposes of this picture. Against the simplicity of Abinadi in his grey prison garb was the opulence of the court. The richness of the colors set off this simple, humble man… Then there are the priests of King Noah. I had somewhat in mind the man back here at the right might be young Alma. He was mightily impressed by the courageous testimony of Abinadi, so much so that he became a prophet.”

Interestingly, the man who posed in the painting as Abinadi is actually the same man who, as a young Elder, baptized the Friberg family in Arizona back in 1921.

For your enjoyment, here are some additional Friberg paintings:

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  1. Aaron R. says:

    Tracey, thanks for this. I have never seen the painting at the top before. Perhaps it is well-known in other parts of the world, but I hope it becomes more popular in the UK. That is really fantastic.

  2. Aaron, it’s one of the pieces he created to help conceptualize for The Ten Commandments. I really like it as well. He painted hundreds of paintings- and we are mostly familiar with only a dozen or so. His western work- of horses, cowboys, railroad building and native peoples- is extraordinary.

  3. Thanks for the obit. Condolences to the family.

    Keepapitchinin has posted some interesting pieces on Brother Friberg such as this one on his Book of Mormon paintings.

  4. Thanks for putting this up, Tracy. I particularly liked Friberg’s portraits of the 1st Presidency which were included in the recent David O. McKay biography.

  5. Count me as one who has had a long-abiding love of Friberg’s paintings, and especially his Prayer at Valley Forge. I may take time to search for more of his work, as I am also one of those who is only familar with a couple dozen.

  6. Thanks, Tracy. The Abinadi painting is one of my favorites.

  7. An excellent painter.

  8. RIP. I really liked the contrast, lighting and saturation of color of his paintings. I admit having criticized before what I thought were excessively muscular male physiques, but I have recently changed my mind about that and I think I actually like it.

    I think some of those illustrations were not intended to be only reflections of the events but the extreme muscular build of the physiques represented the strength of character of his portrayals (like the massive forearms of Laman and massive torso of Nephi in the painting Lehi Finds the Liahona, or the parading bodybuilders in The Stripling Soldiers).

    I believe his illustrations will be the signature images that will come to mind when remembering those BoM passages for generations to come.

  9. charlene says:

    Thanks, Tracy, for this media rich post. We are fortunate that this wonderful talent was able to be so prolific. I have a signed proof of one of the Mountie series. I doesn’t fit with anything else in my life, but it still spoke to my heart.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the lovely tribute, Tracy. I hope Karma gives you a good grade on your other paper.

    I like the one of the resurrected Christ. As I recall it only made one appearance in the Children’s Friend, and then was shelved due to the fact that it showed a nipple. But he wanted to show the piercing in the Savior’s side; what exactly was he supposed to do?

  11. Mommie Dearest says:

    He did his work so thoroughly well that within his lifetime his images became icons, for better or for worse. Even his style became iconographic. He humbles most other artists. And Tracy did her work thoroughly well too, locating and posting so many of his works that aren’t icons (yet) and posting my favorite one (well, one of them) of the buff old Abinidai glowing in the tarted-up court of flabby King Noah.

  12. Fitting that BCC should post something in Friberg’s honor. Heaven knows the the Church has gotten a lot of mileage out of this good brother’s work. Time for some serious institutional praise . . .

    “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord . . . that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.” Requiescat in pace, Brother Friberg.

  13. Antonio Parr says:

    Friberg. Teichert. Christensen.

    The best of Mormon art captures the spirit of Mormonism, and all three did so quite beautifully, albeit in very different styles.

    Amidst all of my complaining, I love being a Latter-Day Saint, and the art and music of my people help to remind me of the beauty of it all.

  14. Thanks Tracy! He was such a part of my conception of the BofM as a young missionary. These paintings are like old friends. My condolences to his family.

  15. Mark Brown says:

    Tracy, thank you for this tribute.

  16. Manuel–You’re right about the muscular builds of the BOM figures. (Even the aged Abinadi looks pretty buff, a nice contrast to the amusingly corpulent King Noah.) I remember when I was at Ricks College, the school newspaper ran an article about Friberg, and it quoted him as saying specifically that he made his heroes so muscular to physically depict their spiritual strength. That said, what football team wouldn’t want Nephi or Ammon playing for them?

  17. I also like the extreme muscular builds in Friberg’s paintings. I too would be pleased if Nephi or Ammon played for my team. Perhaps MikeInWeHo would agree?

  18. My favorite tidbit I learned today while poking around to write this was about his meeting up with the Elder who baptized his family, so many years later, in Utah. He said the Elder was older and had spent his life as a carpenter, and he immediately seized upon the idea of him posing as Abinadi. I’ll never look at that painting without some affection now for that connection.

  19. velikiye kniaz says:

    I had the privilege of speaking with Brother Friberg while he was at a book signing event at the old Zion’s Book Store before it became a coffee house. Even with my own B.F.A. in painting and drawing I would be hard put to live up to the title of ‘dabbler’ when compared to the enormous talent and skill of Arnold Friberg. He was a most modest, kind and self-effacing man and every inch a gentleman. We had a pleasant conversation and he signed my copy of the retrospective book that was memoralizing his work. Although that was the only time I ever met him, it was a comfort to know that a man of such talent was still among the Saints. Brother Friberg had a good sense of humor as well. I told him that, try as I might, I never succeeded in my bodybuildingto develop a four acre chest like Ammon has in the painting of him defending the flocks of King Lamoni. He laughed and said the he never could either.

  20. A good friend of mine, who is devoutly Catholic, saw some of Friberg’s paintings of the Saviour many, many years ago, and his comment was, “Whoa… Your Jesus is so… so buff!” We still chuckle about it today.

  21. Aaron R. says:

    Did anyone ever quiz him about the manliness of his characters? Did he ever respond?

  22. john willis says:

    I love the story about when Cecil B. DeMille was filming the final scene in the Ten Commandments and they were unsure how to have Moses give Joshua the authority to be the new leader of the children of Israel. Friberg suggested they do what the scripture said and have Moses lay hands upon Joshua’s head and showed them how to do it.

    I hate to be a wet blanket but while I love the picture of Washington praying at Valley Forge, (I’m sure it was exactly what it would of looked like if Washington did say a prayer at Valley Forge. )I say if ,because there is no contemperanous record of Washington praying at Valley Forge. All the stories about the prayer at Valley Forge are much latter. The prayer at Valley Forge is about as likely to have “really happened” as the story about Washington cutting down the cherry tree and telling his father I cannot tell a lie.

    My reading of Washington’s religous beliefs show him as a deist who while he belived in “providence” did not put much stock in petionary prayer.

    Washington was a GREAT man and the American revolution would not of been sucessful without him. He was as his biographer James Flexner said “the indispensable man”

    But stories of dubious accuracy like the prayer at Valley Forge do not do real justice to him.

    Honor Brother Friberg as an Artist not a historian.

  23. I know I am not supposed to respond here like this but….

    Yes, john that does make you a “wet blanket.” I think everyone here is aware of that. But, your timing is tacky.

  24. John Taber says:

    It’s the historic inaccuracy (and how it’s so unlike the other other artwork that is approved, and not in a good way) that makes me wonder why Prayer at Valley Forge is approved to be hung in meetinghouses.

  25. Also historically unverifiable:
    -Big cats in King Noah’s courts
    -Joseph standing next to Hyrum in a field with his arm around him
    -Jesus descending amid concourses of angels during His Second Coming

    All of these should similarly be removed from meetinghouses.

  26. John Taber says:

    None of those are loaded with political statements, or go against what is verifiable.

  27. Not political? I think King Noah’s supporters would disagree. So would all my student waiting for the Second Coming to come so that Jesus can wipe out all the liberals.

  28. Hey guys, knock it off. This is a tribute to a man who died yesterday, and his life’s work.

  29. Agreed, sorry.

  30. John Mansfield says:

    On reading that Friberg painted for a Las Vegas casino, I wondered “Caesars Palace?” But it was the Golden Nugget, a good old Fremont Street saloon. Congratulations, Tracy M., you’ve broadened my view of Friberg’s works beyond the small corner I’d seen before, and probably that of many readers.

    A favorite interview I read some years ago had Friberg talking about the different tasks of “Mr. Words” and “Mr. Pictures.” Mr. Words can gloss over vagueness in his subject in a way that Mr. Pictures can’t—when drawing the liahona, for example. The painter doesn’t have a tube of “I don’t know” available, so something has to end up drawn on the canvas.

  31. John Mansfield says:

    How large was the Liahona? How did they see the pointers? Did he open the lid? Was it made of open work? What did they do with it when they weren’t using it? Did they let it roll around on the deck of the ship?

    [ . . .]

    [But] now we come to Mr. Pictures. That’s me! I can’t duck. There is no tube of paint that says, “Don’t know.” I have to come to grips with it. You have to decide if [the Liahona] is going to be this big. Now I don’t know any more than [the next guy], but I have to paint something. I decided on a handy little size that they could hold in their hand, and I made a little tripod stand for it to sit in. Someone will actually demand, . . . “Then how dare you paint it, if you don’t know?” . . . All you can do is research the period as close as you can and picture something that makes sense. You just come up with something that somehow fulfills your idea of what it looked like.


  32. John Mansfield, thanks for that quote- fascinating, and very true. He had to paint something, and allow his own inspiration to guide him. You have now broadened my perspective as well. Thanks.

  33. Marjorie Conder says:

    Warning–I’m going to rain a bit on this parade. Last night on the news there was a clip where he said something like, he didn’t want to give too much credit, but maybe there had been a small amount of help from “up there.” This “humility” seemed right in character with the experiences I had with him. He was pompous and demanding and somewhat bitter towards the Church. Yet the Church gave him his start even before his BoM paintings. He did a centennial piece for the Sunday School, a commemorative piece for the Mormon Bridge in Omaha, and at least one cover for the old Improvement Era.

    Reading this morning’s paper, I wonder what the Utah Arts Council has agreed to and how much it is going to cost us Utah Taxpayers to build this “monument.” I am not enthralled.

    I also wonder why only his BoM and Christ paintings are so unnaturally “buff”. His other paintings are not so exaggerated and for that matter even the Brother of Jared looks pretty normal.

  34. John Mansfield’s interview 1986 (32) is very similar to the 1952 interview quoted in my Keepa post here (the one Edje remembers in an earlier comment). That must have been an idea Friberg used quite a bit — that he as the artist had to make decisions that were not spelled out in the text.

    As for whether or not his Book of Mormon illustrations are his only “buff” works, I defy anyone to look at this early Friberg and not think, as one commenter did, “Hen of God”!

    Friberg’s paintings have shaped our mental images of so many scriptural events. For that he will be remembered as long as any of us live, and probably beyond.

  35. Thanks for this post. Somehow I didn’t pick up on Arnold Friberg’s passing until this evening. His artwork and paintings are amazing. As a church we have been very fortunate to count him among us.

  36. #34 It’s not about raining on a parade. This is not the place to talk personal politics or to share a beef you had with the man, either private or artistically- it is inappropriate and disrespectful.

  37. Marjorie Conder says:

    Actually I very much like his Sunday School piece. It has a lot of “heart”. I understand it was the piece that got him the BoM commission from the Primary which in turn led to his Ten Commandments paintings, and as they say, “The rest is history. I’m guessing most of you have never seen the Sunday School painting. As I remember it, it was on the cover of the Instructor magazine in 1949 (or maybe 1950 if a publication deadline was missed.) Perhaps Ardis could find it and post it.

  38. I’ve posted half a dozen church magazines with Friberg covers — not sure which one you’re referring to, Marjorie.

  39. Marjorie Conder says:

    It is the first LDS Sunday School (in 1849). Richard Ballentyne is teaching a group of children.

  40. Marjorie, if I’m not mistaken, you’ve got it backwards: his work for The Ten Commandments finally opened a door for him to do work for the Church, which he had sought out earlier but had not been successful in obtaining — until he hit it big with Cecil B. DeMille.

    In any event, I do not understand what your problem with him is, even with your perspective of the timing of his Church-commissioned work. Is it that you think he did not give appropriate acknowledgement to the guiding hand of Providence in creating his Mormon-themed paintings? Frankly, I am glad he did not or else we all might have to believe that BoM characters really all did look like American suburban body-builders. What effectively became the de facto canonization of kitsch anyway with Friberg’s strong themes and imagination would have to be acknowledged as actual revelation and the artistic license he took would have to be considered binding on how we all conceive of the events described. So much for Minerva Teichert’s alternative view of how things might have looked in Book of Mormon times.

    And if Friberg had gone around saying his artwork had been dictated by God then (unless it were literally true) would that not constitute priestcraft, considering he was painting for a commission — it was his job?

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