Important Mormon Art – The Earliest Portraits of Joseph Smith

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People have often wondered “exactly” what did Joseph Smith look like. There are no photos we can be sure are him, though every once in awhile someone digs up an image of a young man that they proclaim is the young prophet. There is also the death mask of Joseph, which you can see in the Museum of Church History and Art in SLC. But there are two reasons why that face is not exact: If you have ever seen a dead person lying in a coffin, you know that there is a distortion or “settling” of the face due to blood flow, muscles relaxing and the weight of the face. Also, the death mask, made of plaster, changes a bit as it dries and can be distorted as it is removed from the face. Still, though, it should be the closest evidence we have of the prophet’s features. There are some painted and sketched portraits of the prophet, but I’m afraid we can’t rely on an artist to “get it” exactly. There’s also another “catch” that I’ll tell you about in a minute. The Church has put up a gallery of all the historical portraits of Joseph at http://bit.ly/dHuPKu

In fact, I have worked on (conservation/restoration treatments) over a dozen portraits of Brigham Young so I’ve seen them up close and personal (I’ll do a blog post on that sometime). Its amazing how different they can all be of the same person! Anyway, this may the earliest known reliable portrait of the prophet Joseph that I know of…

Joseph Smith in Nauvoo Legion Uniform

Detail of painting of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo Legion uniform

As you can see, the portrait is of Joseph in his Nauvoo Legion uniform. Some list it as having been painted in 1842, others in 1844. The Church says it was painted by Sutcliffe Maudsley. The Church History Museum has done a really nice job putting together an online review of Maudsley’s work that can be seen at

http://lds.org/museum/exhibits/maudsley/home/1,13480,4088-1-3,00.html

As you’ll be able to see at this website, there was more than just this one image that he painted or drew.

With the prophet’s busy schedule and his murder within a few years after this little painting, there was not a lot of opportunity for other artists to paint the prophet’s portrait. So, some the Church’s art history scholars have expressed to me that they think that the images by Maudsley were the basis for, or at least heavily influenced, every portrait of the Prophet Joseph that we have that was painted thereafter. Here’s a portrait that you may recognize:

Close up of Joseph

Detail of Portrait of Joseph

This is a detail from the famous portrait of Joseph that was probably painted in Nauvoo by David W. Rogers. When I did the conservation work on the painting in 1980, the Church didn’t know who painted it. But you can see how similar it is to the Maudsley image and it is believed to have been copied from a drawing or painting by Maudsley. It may have been done right after his murder to memorialize the prophet. It was rolled up and brought across the plains with the pioneers and the cracking patterns in the painting still attest to this ordeal. I worked on this portrait right after I first set up the conservation laboratory at BYU. Sister Florence Jacobsen had me work on this painting (and its companion piece, the portrait of Hyrum) as one of the first projects to complete, once the new lab was set up. The painting was flaking a little bit. In order to stabilize the flaking and minimize the cracking patterns, the painting was lined or given a reinforcement backing to support the original canvas. Some of the cracks were not removed and you can still see horizontal cracks caused by being rolled up. A yellowed varnish was also removed to allow the original colors to be seen and it was revarnished. Minimum touch up, or inpainting, was needed. I recently had a chance to to see these portraits again, 30 years after I worked on them, in the Museum of Church History and Art in SLC. Here’s a quick video I took of the reunion:

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The frames on the two portraits are original, probably 1850ish and typical of the time period and resources of the Church. I think they look great. So, there you go, the inside scoop on some of the Church’s most important paintings.

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About Scott Haskins

Scott M. Haskins has been in the field of professional art conservation since 1975. He studied and worked doing mural and painting conservation in Italy until 1979. He headed up the painting conservation laboratory at Brigham Young University for the BYU Permanent Art Collection and the LDS HIstorical Department until 1984. He works from Santa Barbara, CA providing art conservation services nationwide. He is also the author of "How To Save Your Stuff From A Disaster."
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2 Responses to Important Mormon Art – The Earliest Portraits of Joseph Smith

  1. Loyd Ericson says:

    Scott Haskins,

    I am interested in the painting that you posted of Joseph Smith in his Nauvoo Legion uniform.

    We are about to publish Davis Bitton’s last book on Joseph Smith and would love to be able to use this image on the cover. Do you have a high quality image of this painting, or do you know where we might go to acquire one?

    Thanks,

    Loyd

    Loyd Ericson

    Greg Kofford Books Inc.
    (801) 432-0682 Office
    (877) 240-1615 Fax
    P.O. Box 1362 Draper, UT 84020
    loyde@koffordbooks.com
    http://www.koffordbooks.com

    • Scott Haskins says:

      Loyd,
      The portrait belongs to and is hanging on exhibit at the LDS Museum of Church History and Art. You can call Carrie Snow, Registrar to initiate your request. She’s on vacation till May 9th, I think. So if you need to have a word with someone before then, the head of the Church History Dept is Brent Thompson.
      That’s the best I can do for you. Best wishes!
      Scott

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