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Kenneth Riley

 (1919 - 2015)
Kenneth Pauling Riley was active/lived in Arizona, Kansas, Missouri.  Kenneth Riley is known for genre-figure-Indian painting, illustration.

Kenneth Riley

    RY-lee    click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

A realist painter of the Old West and a highly successful illustrator, Ken Riley was born in Waverly, Missouri in 1919 and has had a studio in Tucson, Arizona from 1971.

He was raised in Kansas and received his art education at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he was a student of Thomas Hart Benton.  Aware of Riley's unusual talent, a high school art teacher had paid for his first semester of tuition at the Institute.  In 1941, Riley went to New York to study with Frank DuMond at the Art Students League*, and he also took evening classes at the Grand Central School of Art* and with illustrator Harvey Dunn.

Riley began his illustration career by selling work to the pulp magazines* for fifteen dollars each, but enlistment in World War II as a combat artist* for the Coast Guard redirected his work.  During the war, he was on site at the invasions of the Gilbert, Marshall and Marianas Islands in the South Pacific.  One of his paintings of this period, The Last Supper, done in the motif of Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper, depicts eleven service men seated at and standing by a long table in a temporary structure with pole supports.  A description on the back of a photo of the painting reads:  "A new invasion of Jap-held Pacific Territory is only a few short hours away as Coast Guardsmen, Marines and Soldiers partake of their 'Last Supper' before battle aboard a Coast-Guard-manned invasion transport.  The Galley is filled with a tense excitement as the men tarry through the hot meal and then hurry to their quarters in this oil pointing by Coast Guard combat artist Ken Riley." (U.S. Coast Guard)

After the War, Riley returned to illustration, contributing to magazines including National Geographic, and the Saturday Evening Post.  President John F. Kennedy chose one of Riley's paintings for the White House Collection.

Riley went on painting trips to Yellowstone and the Tetons and taught at Brigham Young University in Utah and was so taken with the intensity of the light that he determined to move West.

He is a charter member of the National Academy of Western Artists*, and in 1982 was elected to the Cowboy Artists of America*, an exclusive group of painters and sculptors dedicated to western art in the tradition of Charles Russell and Frederic Remington.


Peggy and Harold Samuels, Contemporary Western Artists

Bakkom Collection, St. Paul, Minnesota, Courtesy of Matthew Bakkom.  The photo is provided by the Public Relations Division of the U.S. Coast Guard, Washington DC.

*For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary at

Biography from the Archives of askART
Born Waverly, MO., Sept. 21, 1919, Ken Riley was a painter who specialized in realist views of the Old West.  He was also an illustrator.  He spent his boyhood in Parsons, Kansas attending the public schools and the Parsons Junior College.

He went to Kansas City Art Institute in 1938 to study with Thomas Hart Benton, and to the Art Students League in 1941 to study with Frank DuMond.  Riley took evening classes at the Grand Central School with Harvey Dunn.

He enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1942 and served as a fighter and as a combat artist recording the Pacific War.  His illustrations were published in the Saturday Evening Post, Readers Digest, and Life.  In the late 1960's, after working as an illustrator for many years on the East Coast, he was commissioned by the U.S. Park Service to create several paintings of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. During that time, he decided to devote his work solely to western subjects.

In 1973, Riley moved to Tucson, AZ.

Susan Craig, "Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945)"
Sain, Lydia. Kansas Artists, compiled by Lydia Sain from 1932 to 1948. Typed Manuscript, 1948.; Samuels, Peggy. Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1976.; Who’s Who in American Art. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1936- v.1=1936-37 v.3= 1941-42 v.2=1938-39 v.4=1940-47. 6, 7; NMAA file; Reed, Walt. The Illustrator in America, 1860-2000. New York: Society of Illustrators, 2001.; AskArt,, accessed Dec. 23, 2005; McGarry, Susan Hallsten, and Michael Duty. A Poetic Spirit: The Enduring Art of Kenneth Riley. Oklahoma City: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 2003; McGarry, Susan Hallsten. West of Camelot: The Historical Paintings of Kenneth Riley. Indianapolis, IN: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art, 1993.

This and over 1,750 other biographies can be found in Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945) compiled by Susan V. Craig, Art & Architecture Librarian at University of Kansas.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, V
A realist oil painter of the historical West, Ken Riley was born in Waverly, Missouri in 1919 and has been living in Tucson, Arizona since 1971.  The intensity of the light "probably triggered the whole excitement about coming to the West," he commented, "especially the breaking light when you could see patterns.  When you get into a big space with immense patterns moving across the countryside, it's unbelievable. Trying to get some of these effects is a lifetime right there."

Raised in Kansas, Riley went to the Kansas City Art Institute to study with Thomas Hart Benton in 1938 when his high school art teacher offered to pay for the first semester. In 1941, he moved on to the Art Students League and Frank Vincent DuMond in New York City, with evening classes at the Grand Central School of Art and Harvey Dunn. Soon Riley was selling illustration, working for the National Geographic, the Saturday Evening Post, and other national publications. One painting was even accepted by President Kennedy for the White House collection.

Painting Yellowstone and the Tetons for the National Park Service and teaching at Brigham Young University influenced Riley to move west. Also, he says that he "became excited about painting this country and tying in the historical aspects of it." Riley has been written up in Artist of the Rockies, Art West and Southwest Art.

Contemporary Western Artists, by Peggy and Harold Samuels 1982, Judd's Inc., Washington, D.C

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

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"The Last Supper"

About  Kenneth Riley

Born:  1919 - Waverly, Missouri
Died:   2015 - Santa Barbara, California
Known for:  genre-figure-Indian painting, illustration

Essays referring to
Kenneth Riley

Western Artists