The Incredible Tale of a Long-Lost Charley Harper Painting

original painting by Charley Harper

Cincinnati-based Fabulous Frames & Art is both a custom-framing gallery and the world’s largest dealer in the work of the late Charley Harper. Recently, we had the amazing opportunity to combine both of those capabilities when a customer brought in a painting for us to reframe, which turned out to be a rare early Harper commission. Let’s take a closer look!

Our customer works for a Cincinnati-area architecture firm. A few years ago, when the company was moving offices, he found the painting above in a dumpster and decided to hang it in the new office. After seeing a selection of Charley Harper prints in our gallery, he brought in the painting, thinking that it may have been done by the same artist.

original painting by Charley Harper

Indeed! The signature is unmistakable, as is the rendering style.

This is a very early painting by Harper. Our own research, along with information that our customer was able to obtain, confirms that this original was commissioned in 1950. Charley was asked to paint a diagrammatic view of a water treatment plant, which was one of the firm’s specialties at the time.

Placing this project on a timeline of Harper’s early career, this was done three years after his graduation from the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He started working as an illustrator for Ford Times Magazine beginning with the December 1948 issue. Then, about a year and a half later, he executed this painting.

original painting by Charley Harper

original painting by Charley Harper

Harper injected a bit of his usual whimsy into what might have otherwise been a rather dry, technical subject.

original painting by Charley Harper

But, what really struck us as we examined this painting was this large yellow fish. It looked so familiar!

original painting by Charley Harper

Further research into Harper’s early work yielded his first cover for Ford Times, for the April 1951 issue. Note the fish in the upper right corner!

Ford Times Magazine cover by Charley Harper

Ford Times Magazine cover by Charley Harper

Harper’s fish images reappeared as individual illustrations in the article “Eight Familiar Fish” in the March 1952 issue of the magazine, and also in the book Ford Treasury of the Outdoors, published that same year. The March 1952 issue also contained an offer for subscribers to purchase any of the fish serigraphs for $5 each. Harper continued working in this way, creating illustrations and limited-edition prints, for a number of years, resulting in a variety of highly collectible Ford Times prints of fish, birds, insects, and destinations.

Sunfish by Charley Harper

Sunfish by Charley Harper

So, that explains why the fish image looked so familiar to our design consultants. But, where else have we seen this particular fish shape? Ahh, in the extremely rare 1969 limited-edition print on canvas entitled Anhinga!

Anhinga by Charley Harper

Anhinga by Charley Harper

Notice the similarity? It’s not exactly the same shape, but it’s very similar to our other examples.

detail of Anhinga by Charley Harper

detail of Anhinga by Charley Harper

Of course, we also reframed the painting for our customer. The original frame, dating back to 1950, was fairly worn, and the canvas was backed by cardboard, which is a no-no for a precious original such as this. We mounted and framed the painting to the highest archival standards, and protected it with Museum glass, which offers UV protection and a non-glare surface. Reframing customer artwork is one of our specialties.

Charley Harper was born in Frenchton, West Virginia and came to Cincinnati to attend the Art Academy. During his long and distinguished career, he illustrated numerous books, most notably The Golden Book of Biology and Betty Crocker’s Cooking for Two, magazines such as Ford Times, as well as many prints, posters, murals, and other works. Harper’s work focused on the natural environment, and Harper often created works for nature-based organizations, among them the National Park Service; Cincinnati Zoo; Cincinnati Nature Center; Hamilton County, Ohio Park District; and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania.

Harper was best known for his highly stylized wildlife prints, posters and book illustrations. He called his style “minimal realism,” capturing the essence of his subjects with the fewest possible visual elements. Using graphic shapes and bold colors, Harper distilled and simplified complex elements. His nature-oriented artwork is often contrasted with the realism of John James Audubon and the simplicity found in Inuit Art.

Cincinnati-based Fabulous Frames & Art is a family-owned business and the world’s largest dealer in the work of Charley Harper, including books, serigraphs, lithographs, giclee prints, and posters. We are proud to also carry work by Charley’s wife Edie Harper and their son Brett Harper.

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3 thoughts on “The Incredible Tale of a Long-Lost Charley Harper Painting

  1. Thanks for your interest! This particular painting dates from 1950, but Charley painted throughout his career. We have a selection of his Ford Times originals [painting and collage] for sale of our site. Feel free to get back in touch if one of those originals catches your eye!

  2. Pingback: Fish Prints by Charley Harper « Fabulous Frames & Art Blog

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