Peter Hurd- Recollections of a Friend
Peter Hurd- Self Portait
Modern American Painting
How it all started.
My father always has cherished art. He collects it, he designs it, and he produces it. I remember, even when I was very young, my father covering the dining room table with a huge cardboard poster that he would turn into the officers’ club calendar, richly illustrated with small figures that represented the doings for that day.
When my father was young, delivering newspapers in Roswell, New Mexico, one of his customers, if you will, was a nationally renowned artist by the name of Peter Hurd. The idea that a famous artist lived on his route fascinated my father and he tried to learn all he could about him. He spent a week’s wages on a book that featured some of the art of Hurd entitled Modern American Painting. He still owns that book today.
In 1929, Peter married into the Wyeth family of nationally famous authors when he married Henriette Wyeth, also a remarkable artist. Among her credits are still-lifes and portraits including portraits of Helen Hays, the actress, and First Lady Pat Nixon.
Hondo Valley Gold.
Fast forward to the 1960s when my mother and father met and became friends with Peter while he was living on his ranch at San Patricio in the Hondo Valley of Southeastern New Mexico. You can read about Peter all over the internet so I wanted to write about those personal experiences that no one is aware of.
Peter Hurd loved the Hondo Valley landscape and used it as a background for much of his art. One day my parents had driven up to the ranch to visit. During the course of the visit, Peter suddenly announced that he had discovered gold on his property. He told my mom and dad to hop into his pickup and he would prove it to them. Out they went to the old red pickup for a trip across the ranch. The old red pickup, by the way, is the same one in his painting “The Red Pickup”. They drove to a high point above the Hondo River as the sun began to set. Peter hesitated as if trying to remember where the gold was. Then he announced “There it is!” My parents looked down in the direction he was pointing just as the setting sun turned the river into a ribbon of gold winding through the valley. That was Peter Hurd’s gold.
Peter loved to collect things also, aside from art. He had a collection of officers’ military swords set in a fan shape above his massive fireplace at the ranch. On seeing the display my dad told him about the sword that he had found in Europe. Back in the 50s when my family was stationed in France, we went to the World War 1 site of Verdun. Among the places that we visited was an area called the “Bayonet Trench” where about a dozen bayonets were discovered in a row projecting from the ground. A German Howitzer round had exploded by the trench in which French soldiers had stacked their rifles against the rampart waiting for the charge. The dirt from the crater buried the soldiers beneath each bayonet. They were reburied as they were found.
While exploring the area of the battle, my father stepped on something sharp. He looked down to see what was there and saw a piece of metal poking out of the ground. Thinking someone else might get hurt on it, he pulled it up. It turned out to be a military sword dropped at some time during the battle. He brought the sword home to the U.S, for his collection. When Peter heard about the sword, he had to see it. Once he saw it, he asked my dad if there was any way he would part with it. Dad gave the sword to Peter who proudly displayed it in his sword collection.
The Red Pickup
The Oasis- then and now
One of Peter Hurd’s most popular paintings called “The Oasis” shows a young boy getting ready to jump into Stock tank by a windmill for a little skinny dipping episode on a hot New Mexico day. Another artist friend of my father’s named K. Gunnar Peterson enjoyed the windmill painting so much that he decided to do an update of it with the same windmill in the background and a little more modern skinny dipping episode with a cowboy and a young woman. Dad wasn’t sure how Pete would like it but showed it to him anyway. He was met with total approval. Peter loved the new version.
Being a close friend of Pete’s, my dad has collected some more personal momentos of that friendship. One pen and ink sketch shows a young Peter Hurd marching with a bugle during his time at New Mexico Military Institute, which he attended from 1918 to 1921. The pen and ink was done at Peter’s studio while he told dad about his experiences at NMMI as the bugler. He went over and picked up a piece of watercolor paper and started to tear it up. Dad started to protest saying that there was a picture on the other side. The watercolor was of Robert O. Anderson, a prominent Roswell oil man, during a bird hunting trip. Peter showed dad a flaw, which he circled, in the paper. He then tore the painting into smaller pieces and penned the bugler drawing. My father framed it so that both sides can be seen.
While in a particularly playful mood, one day, Peter told my dad that he had another picture he wanted to paint him. He took a copy of one of his prints called “The Sheep Herder” and added a touch of naughtiness to it, renaming it ‘Poncho’s Dream”. It gives you a pretty good idea of his sense of humor.
Peter Hurd Originals
President Lyndon Johnson
In 1967, Peter was commissioned to paint the official presidential portrait of President Lyndon Johnson. He was only allowed one sitting during which President Johnson fell asleep. He was forced to finish the portrait from photos of the President. Upon presenting the portrait, President Johnson pronounced it the “Ugliest thing I ever saw.” It is now hanging at the Smithsonian Institute. My father has the unofficial version done by Pete while he was letting my dad know his opinion of President Johnson with the words, “Here’s something to remember me by. Me an’ ol’ Mewl ears. This is the ugliest thing I ever saw.”
As is too often true, disease robbed us of a great talent. During later years, Peter Hurd developed Alzheimer’s disease and was admitted to a nursing home in Roswell. The disease robbed him of almost all memory. Dad remembers the last time he and mom visited. Pete looked at my father and let him know that he didn’t know who he was and further, didn’t like him. He never forgot my mother though. That was the last time my parents saw this great artist. Peter Hurd died on July 9th in 1984 at the nursing home in Roswell.
After his death, and knowing that my father was a pilot in the air force, my father was offered a large painting from the estate at a much reduced cost. The painting was called “The Straggler” and featured a B-17 bomber with smoke coming from one crippled engine returning from a bombing run to England. The painting was the last in a series for Life Magazine. It has some damage from age and humidity so my father sold it to the Military Museum at New Mexico Military Institute as a centerpiece. A life size copy was made and is displayed so that the original can be stored under controlled conditions to stop the deterioration.
The rest of the pieces have been placed in museums for safekeeping and may someday be put on display for the public. Meanwhile, you see them first here.
If you visit Roswell, skip the UFO museum for once if you are short on time and visit the Roswell Museum and Art Center on North Main, They have a permanent collection of the paintings of Peter Hurd and his wife Henriette Wyeth along with their son Micheal Hurd’s paintings. You will enjoy it.
Enjoy your Treasured Pasts.