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Howard Terpning's paintings keep Old West alive

'Tribute to the Plains People,' now showing at the Autry museum, encompasses the artist's 35-year career depicting 19th century Native American life.

May 17, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Artist Howard Terpning with his oil painting "Paper That Talks Two Ways — The Treaty Signing."
Artist Howard Terpning with his oil painting "Paper That Talks Two… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Howard Terpning paints how the West was lived and lost more than 120 years ago.

His subject is 19th century Native Americans, although he is not their descendant. Some of his canvases aim to capture the courage, dignity and desperation of the fight to keep their land. Many are carefully detailed depictions of the ways of life they fought to save.

"Tribute to the Plains People," now at the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park, is the biggest solo show of Terpning's career — a retrospective that covers 35 years and documents his standing as the acknowledged leader of a popular but not universally admired movement in which paintings become time machines into the Old West.

The 85 works in the show (not counting a self-portrait and a painting of his wife, Marlies) depict Plains Indian ceremonies, family moments and glimpses of everyday living as well as scenes of struggle. Only one is a battle scene — a recent painting of two Blackfeet warriors wielding flintlock rifles against an unseen enemy. Terpning says he rarely paints combat, dwelling instead on the mood before or after the bullets or arrows have flown.

Trim and erect at 84, with a firm, deep, gravelly voice, silvering hair and a Hemingway-esque beard, Terpning says he has always worked hard to get the details right — and continues to do so seven mornings a week in his home studio in Tucson. He studies archival photographs and books to ensure that he can render the events and places he's envisioned as realistically and accurately as possible. If he's painting the clothing and implements of a given tribe, he may pick colors that suit his composition, but he forbids himself the luxury of using hues contradicted by the historical evidence.

"With all the research I've done and all the artifacts I've studied, I'll think, 'I've seen everything,'" Terpning said recently, seated on a bench in front of a wall of his work in the Autry's special exhibitions gallery. "But then I'll come across something I've never seen. These people were so creative."

Terpning says he's thankful that Native Americans have allowed him to exhaustively photograph them observing their traditions, which has helped him build up an image bank he can draw upon for paintings. His 1997 "Crow Pipe Ceremony," for example, took shape from photographs he shot during a trip to Montana to observe an annual reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In the mid-1970s he tossed aside a lucrative 25-year career as a commercial artist. Among his achievements were Time magazine cover paintings, including presidential nominee George McGovern and Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as characters in "The Godfather" movies. He created dozens of movie poster paintings, including "The Sound of Music," with its famous image of Julie Andrews skipping through an alpine meadow with a guitar case in one hand and a valise in the other.

Terpning's paintings for "Cleopatra" sold at auction last year for $110,000 (a reclining Elizabeth Taylor with her leading men, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison) and $200,000 (Liz enthroned and alone). Other Terpning posters include"Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago," "The Sand Pebbles," "The Guns of Navarone" and a 1960s theatrical re-release of "Gone With the Wind." The studios owned his poster paintings, and he says most of the originals have been destroyed. He's managed to reacquire just one: Taylor and Burton as Kate and Petruchio in the 1967 film "The Taming of the Shrew."

Terpning was born far too late, it would seem, to be instilling his history paintings with the emotions of a first-hand witness. But he says that personal experiences have, in fact, been fundamental to his work. And something beyond historical accuracy must be attracting collectors who routinely pay more than $200,000 for his pictures. Prices have gone as high as $1.3 million to $1.9 million for certain pieces; collectors lacking that kind of money make up a separate market for giclée prints that are near-replicas of the original oil paintings.

Early in his new life as a Western history painter, Terpning says, "I started getting feedback from native people, and they were such favorable impressions. They seemed to relate to the paintings and respect what I was trying to do." It was gratifying, because "they are the people I'm honoring."

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