The Birth of Utah Impressionism
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Pioneer Magazine
by Brandi Rainey
Beginning as early as 1840 in Nauvoo and certainly by the second year of the pioneers settling the Salt Lake Valley eight years later, Latter-day Saints have been encouraged by Church authorities to indulge their artistic talents. Driven by an inspired desire to share the message of the Restoration, LDS artists have always looked to the arts as a means of expressing the revealed truth. And LDS painters, whose roots run deep into Europe through early Church converts such as Sutcliffe Maudsley (1809-1881) and William Warner Major (1804-1854), were no exception.
Mostly didactic, concentrating on the narrative tradition… reverence for nature, absence of nihilism, support of traditional societal values, and respect for the human body,” these early LDS painters perfected their skills in order to teach the growing Church and give glory to God. This anthem was proclaimed through generations of LDS artisans and resulted finally in the Paris art mission, “a unique incidence of church patronage of the fine arts in which the artists received financial support to study art in exchange for artistic services.”
Inspired by the expansion and increased construction of the Salt Lake Temple, four young Saints, who were to become the Church’s only “art missionaries” to date, began to implore the help of the Lord and the support of the Church in funding their fine arts education in Paris* In the spring of 1890, john hafen (1856-1910) and Lorus Pratt (1855-1923), son of LDS Apostle Orson Pratt, approached George Q. Cannon, first counselor in the First Presidency, to discuss the possibilities of their traveling abroad. The artists prepared a detailed list of expenses and the proposed duration of their stay in Paris, and in a letter addressed to President Cannon dated March 25, 1890, they offered the following as justification for their journey:
“What are we going to do, Brother Cannon, when one beautiful temple in Salt Lake City is ready to receive inside decorations? Who is there amongst all our people capable to do… justice to artwork that should be executed therein? I must confess that it is impossible for me to see any other course to pursue… than to give two or three young men who possess talent in this direction, a chance to develop the same. If it should ever fall to my lot to receive assistance in this way… I would esteem it the highest honor and the crowning point of my ambition.”
Led primarily by John Hafen, these men would fulfill their “art mission” to Paris and go on to paint the murals in the beloved Salt Lake Temple. They would also return to teach and share their skills with newer generations of LDS artists, becoming the “nucleus of Utah’s art circle for years to come.”’
Hafen began his serious study of art in Salt Lake City around 1868. His family immigrated to America from Switzerland when he was a mere six years old; the family lived in various places across the United States before settling in Salt Lake. In Utah, Hafen studied under noteworthy painters George Ottinger and Dan Weggeland, who originally encouraged him to further his education in Paris. While considering the possibilities of studying in Europe, Hafen met and married Thora Twcde. The couple had five children in less than ten years, pushing the thoughts of Paris far from the young father’s mind.
It was during this period that Hafen befriended John B. Fairbanks, who would go on to join him in his missionary efforts. Fairbanks was a novice at painting and found refuge from his field labors in Hafen’s studio. Eventually Hafen’s artistic influence rubbed off, and Fairbanks began to sketch and paint on his own. At first, he “was secretive about his work and would carefully hide his drawings and paintings to avoid upsetting his disapproving father.” Luckily, his talent was finally discovered and applauded by his immediate family.
Fairbanks continued to paint in earnest, dedicating all his free time to the perfection of his skills until he received a call as a missionary to the Southern States. Fairbanks originally feared that a mission would stifle his budding art career, yet after its completion and his subsequent marriage to Lilly Huish, he returned to Ogden, where he joined John Hafen and resumed his artistic endeavors.
Around 1890 John Hafen and his artist friend Lorus Pratt “conceived the idea that the church might subsidize study in Europe in exchange for work on church buildings after their return.” It was during this period that he and Pratt initially approached George Q. Cannon with the idea. The artists originally requested one thousand dollars for each year of their commission to cover travel expenses, lodging, and tuition. After further investigations, they later amended their request, finally concluding that the three artists (John B. Fairbanks now included) could all spend a year in Paris for only $1,800.00. “Both Pratt and Fairbanks would have the means to provide for their families at home, but Hafen requested an additional $360.00 for his family. The total for all three men would thus be $2160.00” per year.
While they waited for the decision of the First Presidency, the three men went into the mountains to pray, asking that the hearts of the Church leaders be touched and that they would be wise in making their decision. They later acknowledged that the decision in their favor was in direct answer to their prayers.
“I made it a matter of prayer for many years that He would open a way whereby I could receive the training which would benefit me to decorate His holy temples and the habitations of Zion” recalled Hafen.
On June 30, 1890, John Hafen, Lorus Pratt, and John B. Fairbanks were set apart as official missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Apostles Anthon H. Lund, Heber J. Grant, and Seymour B. Young of the First Council of the Seventy blessed the young men and gave them advice and instruction. They were warned to avoid trouble but encouraged to “see everything on earth that you can.”
Perhaps the most important element of the Paris art mission was that in theory it was not unlike any other missionary service. The elders were to use the opportunity to develop their talents for the service of God and the beautifying of Zion. Though Hafen was assuredly aware of the growling influence of the Impressionist movement in Paris and had desires to perfect his craft under skilled tradesmen, his aims, as well as those of the other artists, were primarily religious.
The missionaries took their callings seriously and worked hard to make their study a truly religious experience. They took the opportunity to preach the gospel as often as possible and set strict guidelines to regulate the use of their time. “We made a rule between us that we must produce a sketch every day or be fined ten cents,” Hafen remembers, “The only fine Imposed so far on our trip was on Lorus, one day he was so busy teaching the gospel to fellow passengers that he forgot to make a sketch so he had to fork over ten cents.”
The elders left for Paris on June 23, 1890. “Their eleven-day voyage on the steamship Nevada was not very pleasant. Their second-class tickets entitled them to a cabin about seven by eight feet with four bunks and one small porthole.” The Nevada reached England on July 12, and the missionaries spent several days in London touring the local art museums and buying supplies for their studies. They reached Paris on July 24, the 43rd anniversary of the Saints’ arrival in Salt Lake.
Their experience in Paris would prove to be unlike any they had previously been subject to, “(Paris) was exciting, volatile, swirling with innovations in science, government, morality, social order, and art. During the year that Hafen, Fairbanks, Pratt, and Evans (Edwin Evans became the fourth art missionary in September of 1890) were in Paris, Monet was at Giverney painting haystacks in various kinds of light . . . Degas and Renoir were painting their impressions of Parisian life. While Cezanne and Seurat were converting Impressionism into a more classical and severe style, Van Gogh… was pursuing an opposite course.”
These missionaries found themselves surrounded daily by the Parisian avant-garde. Interestingly, however, the Utah artists had little or no association with the French Impressionist movement. By early August, they were enrolled in the Julian Academy, which was considered at the time the most important and influential school in Europe.
The conservative methods taught and preserved at Julian appealed to the missionaries’ “desire to consecrate their learning to their faith. (Hafen’s) desire was to draw from his study the truth, the very basis, the foundation of what would be his life’s work and to join it successfully to his fervent faith and belief. Their study at the academy was therefore “conservative and academic. Students primarily copied engravings and drew from plaster casts, particularly of the human figure. This course of study had changed but little since the 17th century Much like conventional LDS missionary ies, the artists woke daily by 5 a,m. to complete their personal study of French or anatomy, Classes at Julian commenced promptly at 8, and they drew for 45-minute intervals divided by short breaks until noon. This process was repeated after lunch until 5 p.m., after which the missionaries attended night classes until 10 or later.
Above all else, the elders sought the influence of the Spirit to facilitate their study. Hafen wrote:
I hope above all things God will give me divine assistance so I can make unusual progress, for there is lots to learn. I feel satisfied with the aim of the art as it is understood by artists and professors of the school here: and also acknowledge the hand of God in answering my daily prayers for guidance in my calling… There is a herculean task before me which if I accomplish in so short a time allotted for me here it will be through the miraculous power of God and nothing short of that.
In March of 1891, not quite one full year from the date the group entered Julian, George Q, Cannon wrote the missionaries updating them on the state of Church affairs and Issuing a promise that their skills would be much needed upon their return to Utah. Though finances were scarce, President Cannon promised to send $500,00 to “enable you to pursue your studies undisturbed by the fear of want.” It is obvious that as the art mission progressed. Church leaders and authorities were continually supportive of the men’s cause.
Shortly after having received Cannon’s letter, John Hafen determined to conclude his studies in Paris and return to the states. Fairbanks, Pratt, and Evans all decided to dedicate another year to their studies at Julian. Hafen returned in Salt Lake City on August 17, 1891. One year later he began work on the Garden Room mural in the Salt Lake Temple. Hafen wrote to his friends and former companions in Paris, informing them of the temple’s near completion and his need of their newly acquired expertise on the mural paintings, Fairbanks and Evans returned the following year to paint the original World Room murals.
After finishing their work on the temple, John B. Fairbanks and Edwin Evans went on to teach in local universities. They were associated with community causes and administration, always sharing the special skills they acquired in Paris. Lor us Pratt’s work, unfortunately, was somewhat less respected after his mission than in years previous. He continued to paint, though he was never able to support his family based on the sale of his paintings alone. John Hafen completed his work on the Salt Lake Temple murals and then went on to paint seascapes in Seattle and Monterey, California. He received a second commission from the Church in 1901, which included a series of portraits of General Authorities and various other gospel subjects.
- Notes and Sources
- Booklet prepared by Eliza R. Snow and John Hafen,
- Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Daniel H. Ludlow, Ed. Vol 1. (New York: Macmillian Publishing, 1992), p. 70.
- Linda Jones Gibbs, Harvesting the Light. The Paris Art Mission and the Beginnings of Utah Impressionism (Salt Lake City; Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1987), p. 15.
- Gibbs, Harvesting the Light. The Paris Art Mission and the Beginnings of Utah Impressionism, p. 17.
- Gibbs, Harvesting the Light. The Paris Art Mission and the Beginnings of Utah Impressionism, p. 3.
- Martha Elizabeth Bradley and Lowell M. Durham, Jr., ‘Art Missionaries,” Journal of Mormon History. Vol 12. (Salt Lake City: Mormon History Association, 1986) p. 92.
- Bradley and Durham, “Art Missionaries,” p. 93.
- Bradley and Durham, “Art Missionaries,” p. 93.
- Bradley and Durham, “Art Missionaries,” p. 94.
- Gibbs, Harvesting the Light. The Paris Art Mission and the Beginnings of Utah Impressionism, p. 18,
- Bradley and Durham, “Art Missionaries,” p* 96.
- Gibbs, Harvesting the Light. The Paris Art Mission and the Beginnings of Utah Impressionism, p. 19.
- Bradley and Durham, “Art Missionaries,” p. 97.
- Bradley and Durham, “Art Missionaries,” p. 97.
- Gibbs, Harvesting the Light. The Paris Art Mission and the Beginnings of Utah Impressionism, p. 20.
- Bradley and Durham, ‘Art Missionaries,” p, 97*
- Bradley and Durham, “Art Missionaries,” p. 102*