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 Carl Tolpo  (1901 - 1976)

About: Carl Tolpo


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Lived/Active: Illinois/Michigan      Known for: landscape painter and portrait sculptor

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BIOGRAPHY for Carl Tolpo
1901 (Luddington, Michigan)
1976 (Chicago, Illinois)


Self portrait - Artist self-portrait
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landscape painter and portrait sculptor

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, submitted October 2004, is from Carolyn Tolpo Smith, daughter of the artist.

Carl Tolpo was born in Ludington, Michigan in 1901. During the course of his career, he established his reputation as a portrait, genre and landscape painter as well as a portrait and figure sculptor. As a painter, his works in fine oil portraiture particularly include State portraits and landscape oil paintings of the western USA, mostly the Yellowstone (Park) region of Wyoming. As a sculptor, his reputation was gained especially from likenesses of Abraham Lincoln.

Tall and rugged, Carl Tolpo was the eldest of a large Finnish/Swedish American family and was raised on a farm. While working in the fields at a young age, he unearthed a windswept matchbook cover depicting a Raphael painting, and soon it and then art supplies became treasured gifts. He claimed this chance find inexplicably caught his fancy and inspired him to draw, never knowing his distinguished Finnish heritage in the Arts. The author of the Finland national epic poem, "Kalevala", and master builders of the world's largest wooden church (Kerimaki, Finland) hailed from the Tolpo clan.

The extreme Michigan winters caused the family to lose their farm and move to Illinois. At seventeen, he enlisted and was ready for deployment in World War I when the Armistice was signed. He worked his way through Augustana College, the University of Chicago, and attended the Chicago Art Institute briefly - leaving just days before the stock market collapsed in 1929. Throughout most of his life, he considered himself largely self-taught and self-directed.

In 1929 he established the first of his studios in Illinois and stayed in the state for his entire career. While continuing private study in Chicago he gained the friendship of Frank O. Salisbury, acclaimed Royal Painter of England, who also became a critic and mentor. Sculptors Wheeler Williams and Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of the Mount Rushmore presidents heads, were also friends and critics. He developed strong ideas and opinions that shaped the scope of his work and became topics for essays and speeches.

Tolpo made trips west and by 1931 became interested in painting extensively on location in the Yellowstone (Park) region of Wyoming - particularly the Yellowstone Grand Canyon. In 1941, he married Lily Mark Tolpo, another dedicated artist, and soon their trips west became family painting/camping adventures. Their three children enjoyed over 20 summers in Wyoming, and today all work as professional artists. By 1953, park officials had named him the "Yellowstone Painter." His favorite vantage point of the canyon also became known in the park as " Tolpo Point." His final trip to "Tolpo Point" was in 1971 to complete his colossal work of the Yellowstone Grand Canyon ( 8 ft x 15 ft), done in sections, oil on panels, entirely on location. Upon his passing in 1976 at his Illinois studio/home, his ashes were scattered in the whirlpool above the Lower Falls to swirl in the flow and cascade over the edge.

Carl Tolpo was a patriotic man and admired the exemplary virtues of Abraham Lincoln. As such, he devoted much of his career to creating Lincoln likenesses. He believed that art must have a morality to it, "a wholesome, constructive purpose." His research and studies of Lincoln for approximately twenty years resulted in several sculptures, with a final heroic 42" head completed in the 1950's (carved in plaster.) He also enjoyed Lincoln's humor and would refer to such quotes as often as fittingly possible in everyday life and in his essays and speeches.

His first one-man show that showcased fine portraiture came in 1938 and was sponsored by the All Illinois Society of Fine Art. From 1945-1972, he completed fourteen official portraits for the State of Illinois. Reproductions of several paintings of the Yellowstone Region were sold at Yellowstone National Park for years with recollection of such paintings as early as 1934. In 1955 his World Wide YMCA mural was published and distributed internationally by the Young Men's Christian Associations for their centennial celebrations.

By 1956, Lincoln historians such as the late Paul M. Angle (among others) acclaimed his presidential Lincoln likeness as one of five best Abraham Lincoln sculptures. His smaller bronzes of Lincoln can be found in many collections - including the Illinois State Historical Library and the White House. The presidential Lincoln bronze was the featured front piece for the1960 exhibition catalogue for Grand National American Artists Professional League Member Exhibition in New York City. He spoke in various places around the country including the Illinois State Senate and Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C. where a bronze cast of his heroic head of Abraham Lincoln is publicly displayed.

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