Ernest Trova’s 1947 Sketchbook

As you may have read recently, the Modern Graphic History Library has acquired the archives of St. Louis artist and sculptor Ernest Trova. During the next few months while we process the collection and prepare it for use, we’ll occasionally highlight pieces we come across that we think are particularly interesting, noteworthy, or important.

This week’s post features images from a 1947 sketchbook of the artist’s. This was an important year for Trova: while working as a window decorator for the department store Famous-Barr, a painting of his appeared in a local exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum and won first prize, a serious feat for a 20-year-old self-taught artist showing his work in public for the first time. Although we have several of Trova’s sketchbooks and many of his sketches, this item is unique in its use of watercolors and for being one of the oldest items in the collection. While some of these illustrations may upon first glance look surprisingly different from Trova’s later output, the faceless, armless figures can’t help but evoke the Falling Man series for which Trova would become famous. (Check out some examples of them on the Ernest Trova website.)

mghl_trova 6 mghl_trova 5 mghl_trova 3 mghl_trova mghl_trova 2

In 1947 Trova also received national attention when his work that won first place in the exhibition — a mixed media painting entitled Roman Boy — was featured in LIFE magazine (a scan of Trova standing beside the piece is below). While this sounds like an undeniable honor, the article’s tone of bewilderment and hostility are hardly complimentary:

“Ernest Trova is 20 years old, lives with his parents, and earns his living by decorating the windows of a St. Louis clothing store. For recreation he writes poems that few can understand [and] paints pictures that are about as eloquent.”

Fortunately for us, Trova wasn’t deterred by such criticism.

mghl_trova 7

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.