Renowned Wildlife Photographer and Bon Vivant Peter Beard Has Been Found Dead at Age 82, Three Weeks After Disappearing in Montauk
The artist and notorious man-about-town was suffering from dementia when he disappeared.
The artist and wildlife photographer Peter Beard has has died at age 82. He was found dead on Sunday in the woods near his home in Long Island after an extensive, 19-day search effort. The artist suffered from dementia, and had disappeared from his home last month. The cause of his death is not yet known.
The Beard family said in a statement provided to Artnet News that they are “all heartbroken by the confirmation of our beloved Peter’s death,” adding that “he died where he lived: in nature.”
Beard is best known for his searing photographs of endangered African wildlife, though he was also notorious among gossip columnists for his own wild lifestyle. In art, he put himself at risk to get the best shot, swimming with crocodiles and once getting impaled by an angry elephant during a shoot in the 1990s. In life, he was a party animal, a resident fixture in the halcyon days of Studio 54, and he continued partying until dawn well into old age.
“Peter defined what it means to be open: open to new ideas, new encounters, new people, new ways of living and being,” his family wrote. “Always insatiably curious, he pursued his passions without restraints and perceived reality through a unique lens.”
The artist’s most famous work is the 1965 tome The End of the Game, in which he shone a light on Africa’s vanishing wildlife and its big game hunters. His later work fused his photography practice with drawings, diaristic text, and even used blood as a material, which the artist told Interview Magazine in 2016 “is better than any ink or paint.” He had solo shows at New York’s International Center of Photography and Paris’s Centre National de la Photographie. Taschen will republish its Peter Beard monograph later this month.
Born in Manhattan on January 22, 1938, Beard was, by his own account, the “black sheep” son of a Wall Street broker, and the heir to fortunes from the Great Northern Railway and Lorillard Tobacco. After growing up on the Upper East Side, he attended university at Yale and soon dropped out of his pre-med major to study art history with Josef Albers and the art historian Vincent Scully.
Beard first visited Africa at age 17. He fell in love with Kenya during the trip, which he took with a great-grandson of Charles Darwin. Later, after a brief stint working for a New York advertising agency, he returned to Kenya and bought a 45-acre property, where he began to live and work on and off over the years, splitting his time between there and his homes in Manhattan and Montauk.
Ever a pleasure seeker, Beard described himself for a Vanity Fair profile in 1993 as “the most irresponsible person you ever met.” His friends included the likes of Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Salvador Dalí, and Francis Bacon (who painted his portrait more than once). Beard also conducted fashion shoots for magazines including Vogue and Elle, and discovered the supermodel Iman.
“Peter Beard, in his prime, was active, engaged, always slightly out of control, and resolutely determined—whatever the cause or desire. His passing leaves behind a legacy—a legacy reflected in the work, appreciation for living, all the while understanding the wild world he always loved and lamented was disappearing,” his agent of the past 20 years and friend, Peter Riva, tells Artnet News.
“There can be little doubt that, on balance, the planet was better off for Peter’s presence. As his mother often told my wife and I, ‘Peter is lucky to have friends like you who overlook his habits and help promote his genius.’ In the end, that is what helping legacy is all about.”
Beard’s flamboyant life was peppered with many romances, earning him a reputation as a playboy. These included relationships with the fashion model Candice Bergen and Lee Radziwill, the socialite younger sister of Jackie O. He married the supermodel Cheryl Tiegs for a spate, after his first marriage to art collector and socialite Minnie Cushing ended in divorce. At the time of his death he was married to Nejma Beard, née Khanum, his wife since 1986, and with whom he had a daughter, Zara.
A 2004 book that Beard wrote and illustrated for his daughter, titled Zara’s Tales, offers some insight into the approach the artist took to his own life. “Yes, if you crave something new, something original, particularly when they keep saying, ‘Less is more,’ remember that I say: Too much is really just fine,” he writes. “Only by going too far can we break the boring mold and stumble into something a little different.”
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