Virginia Terpening, rediscovered

From rusty trailer to artworld reappraisal

Virginia Terpening, “Self Portrait, Artist And Canvas.” Oil On Canvas.25″ X 22″. Date unknown. Collection of The Hinge.

The artist reclines, painting rags in hand, gazing at a blank white canvas. Thick tubes of oil litter the table beside her. From a glass vase, brushes sprout like flower buds in winter, silhouetted against the snow.

Virginia Shoup Terpening (1917-2007) may have been an art-world outsider, but she was not naïve. “Self Portrait, Artist And Canvas” is a virtual catalog of painting technique. Thick impasto and thin glaze washes alternate with large areas of flat, patterned color, their surfaces scraped and wiped to reveal the ground layers beneath.

A lifelong resident of Lewistown, Mo. (population 534), Terpening enrolled at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Fine Art (now the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts) in 1937. Over the next several decades, she displayed work at galleries and museums across the United States, even garnering a note of thanks from President Jimmy Carter.

But by the time of her death, at age 89, Terpening’s art was largely forgotten. Hundreds of paintings and drawings sat in a rusty trailer on a deserted lot in northeast Missouri — a life’s work amidst the weeds and scrap metal.

‘Yes, Virginia, There Is…’

And there they might remain, if not for an injured construction worker named Jason Geisendorfer. As detailed by Chad Garrison in the Riverfront Times, Geisendorfer bought the entire property last spring for $600. Sifting through the debris with his teenage daughters, Geisendorfer discovered approximately 700 works of art, including drawings, paintings and commercial illustrations.

Eileen G’Sell

An auction last fall drew 89 bidders from coast-to-coast, raising more than $56,000. Later this month, Terpening will be the subject of an exhibition at The Hinge, a private, nonprofit St. Louis gallery that counts two WUSTL alumni — Lauren Pressler (MFA ’11) and Eileen G’Sell (MFA ’06) — among its co-founders.

“Virginia’s cause is a beautiful one—on both a narrative and creative level,” said G’Sell, a lecturer in writing in Arts & Sciences. “The discovery of her neglected works reminds one of the plot of an independent film or novel.

“What’s even more striking is the distinctive figurative style and quality that many of her works display.”

A reputation restored

Opening Jan. 25, “Yes, Virginia, There Is…: The Artwork of Virginia Terpening” is curated by G’Sell and Byran Laughlin Jr. It features a dozen paintings as well as sketches, drawings and archival materials. Highlights include the haunting self-portrait “Morning Prayer” and the brightly colored “Lewistown Church,” a pastoral, Sunday-morning scene that recalls regional artists such as Thomas Hart Benton.

Less bucolic are a pair of untitled cityscapes. Though of similar size and composition — both are defined by the repetition of vertical towers — the two paintings offer a study in contrasts.

In one, the towers are small-town grain silos, set amidst a warm, swirling riot of trees and sky. In the other, colors and edges are harder. The towers are smokestacks, belching blackly. A ghostly white shirt drifts serenely through dirty streets.

“These aren’t all merry country scenes,” G’Sell emphasized, “and much of her best work exudes a darker tone likely reflective of a difficult life. And yet she kept at it, sending work out all over the world. Based on our research so far, we know of no other female Missouri painter as decorated and prolific as she was in her time.

“The Hinge is thrilled to play a central part in restoring her reputation.”

For more information or to schedule a viewing, visit In addition, G’Sell and Laughlin have organized a small satellite show for the Carl Johann Memorial Library at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo.— only a short drive from Terpening’s home in Lewistown.