Ralph Burke Tyree was an American artist who was the most prolific portrait artist of the South Pacific peoples of the 20th century. He was from central California and his art education took place in San Francisco. Seven weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he joined the Marines and was soon shipped off to Samoa. Private Tyree was befriended by his Commanding General and became the Marine’s base artist. His portrait career began painting the officers’ and their loved ones. He also began corresponding with “10,000 word” love letters to his girlfriend Margo back home in Turlock, California. After the war he began his professional career in California. He traveled back to the South Pacific to live for years in places such as Guam, Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island of Hawaii. Often from there he would travel to other island paradises: Palau, Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands over his thirty-year career. Most of his first works were sensual island wahines in island beach and jungle settings. He painted primarily with oil onboard but also occasionally on canvas and with pastels. To add depth and texture, he switched in mid-career to painting with oil on fine, French silk, black velvet. This was in the midst of the1960s' Tiki revolution and many of his demure nude pieces would be displayed in Tiki bars and restaurants. He was likely the most prolific artist of black velvet portraits of island women and men during this Tiki era. In the1970s, he started painting endangered animals to call attention to their limited numbers. He died suddenly of a heart attack at age fifty seven in 1979.
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