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Charley Harper, Ford Motor Company and “Minimal Realism”

July 5, 2023 Archive Insight

Charley Harper’s unique approach to wildlife art — a style he called “minimal realism” — delighted popular audiences and earned the admiration of the scientific community. Best known for his simplified, geometric depictions of natural subjects (especially birds), his later work conveyed powerful messages about the environment. Harper credited early commissions from Ford Motor Company with encouraging both his focus on wildlife subjects and his signature style.

"Ford Times", July 1952
This updated take on a Grand Canyon landscape painted during Charley Harper’s honeymoon was the first in his “Horseless Carriage Adventures” series, which commemorated Ford Motor Company’s 50th anniversary in 1953. / THF706499


Charley Harper (1922-2007) began his career as a commercial artist in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the late 1940s. He’d just returned from a cross-country honeymoon funded by a traveling art scholarship. A portfolio Harper had assembled during the trip caught the attention of the Ford Times, a promotional magazine published by Ford Motor Company. Ford Times featured a mix of travelogues and general interest stories, with Ford advertising sprinkled throughout. Several pages near the back of each issue spotlighted noteworthy American restaurants. Charley Harper’s first Ford Times illustration appeared here, in the December 1948 issue.

detail "Ford Times," December 1948
Charley Harper’s first Ford commission was printed in the “Favorite Recipes of Famous Taverns” section of the December 1948 issue of Ford Times. / Detail, THF706474

Harper’s painting of the Gourmet Room, a restaurant atop the new Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, was the first of many restaurant illustrations by Harper that appeared in Ford Times and its sister publication, Lincoln-Mercury Times. Some were later reprinted in a series of recipe books (of which Harper also illustrated two covers).

Ford Times art director Art Lougee, who became a mentor and friend, offered Charley Harper artistic freedom. Unlike much of his other work, Harper enjoyed these commissions, using them to both hone his style and highlight personal experiences and interests. Many of Harper’s illustrations for Ford depicted the people and places of West Virginia, where he was born and raised, and Ohio, where he spent his adult years.

detail_Lincoln-Mercury Times
Charley Harper’s painting of the public library in his hometown of Cincinnati appeared in the July-August 1955 issue of Lincoln-Mercury Times. / Detail, THF706387

Through work for Ford, Harper explored a subject that had captivated him since childhood: wildlife. Harper’s first Ford Times cover, published in April 1951, depicted fish. Over the next 31 years, Harper would illustrate 36 Ford Times covers and two Lincoln-Mercury Times covers, many featuring wildlife subjects. Harper’s Ford Times cover art remains some of his most recognizable work.

Toward Minimal Realism

One of the most important elements of Charley Harper’s work for Ford was the opportunity to create and sell silk screen prints through Ford Times. His first series reproduced fish illustrations from the March 1952 issue. Before this, Harper had very little printmaking experience. The project inspired him to further reduce his illustrations to shapes and lines. Harper recalled, “Inevitably, the limitations of the silk screen process encouraged me to express my ideas in ever simpler terms.”

Ford Times March 1952
Charley Harper reproduced these 1952 fish illustrations as prints for sale through Ford Times — a project that encouraged him to produce simpler, more geometric work. / THF706497

For the November 1954 issue of Ford Times, Art Lougee requested illustrations of birds at a feeding station. This commission — Harper's first real attempt at birds as a subject — would change his career. Harper wrote, “The assignment was one of the best things that ever happened to me.” Through 1960, he would create bird illustrations for every November issue of Ford Times. With each series, Harper further refined his style and established himself as a wildlife artist.

"Ford Times," November 1959
Two of Harper’s “bird architects,” the Baltimore Oriole and Bank Swallow, printed in the November 1959 issue of Ford Times. / Detail, THF706558

Ford Motor Company publications — including Ford Times and Lincoln-Mercury Times, Ford’s recipe books, and the Ford Almanac for Farm, Ranch, and Home (of which Harper illustrated six covers) — provided Harper national exposure. Work for Ford also connected him with the publisher Golden Press, which commissioned him to illustrate the Golden Book of Biology (1961) and The Animal Kingdom (1968). These books exposed audiences of all ages to Harper’s illustrations and persuaded him to fully commit to a career in wildlife art.

Charley Harper joined a gallery in 1968 that helped promote and legitimize his work — unusual as it was in the wildlife art world. As he focused more on independent practice, Harper continued to accept some commercial commissions, and his illustrations appeared in Ford Times until 1982. Harper's later contributions reflect his identity as a wildlife artist, his full realization of “minimal realism” and his increasing focus on conservation.

"Ford Times," April 1978
Charley Harper’s later contributions to Ford Times, such as this April 1978 cover image depicting the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler, reflected his increasing focus on conservation. / THF706618


At a thrift store in 2001, popular designer Todd Oldham saw Harper’s bird illustrations in an old issue of Ford Times. Immediately taken, Oldham hunted down every Harper print he could find, only later realizing they were by the same illustrator as the Golden Book of Biology — a beloved book from his childhood. Oldham became a friend and collaborator. He hung Harper’s prints in the Todd Oldham by La-Z-Boy store in New York, incorporated Harper’s work in designs for La-Z-Boy, and published a Harper monograph in 2007, the year Charley Harper passed away. In his final years, Ford Motor Company commissions had once again introduced Harper to a new generation of admirers.

Todd Oldham by La-Z-Boy Trade Catalog, 2005
A selection of Charley Harper’s Ford Times prints hung in Todd Oldham’s New York City La-Z-Boy store. / Detail, THF707532

Saige Jedele is associate curator at The Henry Ford. The Charley Harper quotes printed here appeared in Harper's books, Beguiled by the Wild and Birds & Words.

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