Saturday, March 26, 2011

Nauvoo Artists and Joseph Smith

Many have speculated who actually painted the famous RLDS painting of Joseph Smith Jr.. Joseph reported sitting for a painting by a Brother David Rogers on September 16, 1842. Some experts drew a line to the famous painting, claiming that the well-known RLDS painting was it. The problem with their theory? We have the painting done by Rogers and Joseph is sitting in his standard profile stance.
Well, if it wasn't the work of the artist Rogers, who did it? There has been a fairly large consensus that it was the work of a Nauvoo portrait artist named William Major. The problem with this theory is that in comparing the work of Major and the RLDS painting we see that the artist styles do not match. Whoever painted the RLDS painting knew a great deal more about layering skin in oil and creating depth. Artists tend to always have an individual style, kind of a fingerprint of their work. Especially when problem solving difficult issues in their artwork. Here is a portrait of Brigham Young done by Major around 1845.
While cruising the internet I stumbled onto an article about another artist that was present in Nauvoo in 1845, and as a matter of fact, he shared an artist studio with William Major. His name was Selah (Seal) Van Sickle and was a self-taught artist. I went back to scouring that internet for his work, the only image I found was a black and white, low resolution photo of Brigham Young, titled "Delivering the Law of the Lord". The original painting is located at the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers building. They have graciously allowed me to post part of their copyrighted painting on my blog. If you are interested in seeing the full work or getting a copy of Van Sickle's painting please contact them at Below is a side by side comparison of the Brigham Young painting and the RLDS painting of Joseph Smith.
The two faces have a very similar artistic style. Being an artist myself I could probably sit and list a good hundred similarities, but that's a bit boring and most readers can easily see what I am talking about without that aid. I will say, that when examining the entire painting, I am led to the conclusion that Van Sickle was quite talented when it came to painting faces, but an amateur in regards to understanding perspective. Though it's not uncommon for an artist to be highly skilled in one area and undeveloped in another. Van Sickle tended to elongate the necks of his subjects in an effort to create a regal-like effect but in reality it really only creates an unnatural appearance.

What does all of this have to do in regards to my Joseph Smith Jr. photo? Well, if Van Sickle or Major painted the famous RLDS painting, it was done after his death, because neither were in Nauvoo before the Prophet's death. Where did the artist get the source of information for such a detailed painting? Hmmm, perhaps the source was a daguerreotype and the artist used a Camera Lucida or Obscura to enlarge it. Remember, all the other known artist works of Joseph done during his lifetime were done as profiles.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hidden clues in a photo.

While studying a poster size print of the photo (Joseph Smith Jr.) in a meeting with the LDS Church, Head Photo Archivist Bill Slaughter pointed out that something seemed off with his left eye. My husband and I were in agreement. We wondered if perhaps he had a lazy eye, the gaze of each eye appeared off from the other. We noted the large scar over his eyelid and wondered if it was a contributing factor. A couple of months later while attending an eye appointment for my daughter my husband decided to take the poster in and get a professional opinion. The Optometrist informed my husband that from what he could tell it was not a lazy eye but a condition called Esotropia, which is a form of strabismus, in which one or both eyes turn inward. The doctor noted that it could have easily been caused by the apparent injury to the eye, noted in both the death mask and photo. The doctor also brought to his attention that the eyelid had a pronounced droop in comparison to the right eye, which was indicative of a severe injury/trama to the muscle.

Please note the following image has had the contrast enhanced as well as a reversed image for viewing. Some find it easier to view the issues in which I am speaking about if the photo is flipped.

Click on image to enlarge.

After hearing all of this, I began searching to see if any of the artists that had drawn or painted Joseph had translated these issues into their work. Oddly, out of my huge digital collection I could only find profile pictures of Joseph done during his lifetime. This got me thinking, why did he not pose straight forward? I understand why Sutcliffe Maudsley drew his images this way. He was known as a profilist, but what about the others? While this is just my opinion, I wonder if perhaps Joseph was a bit self conscious about his eye, or maybe he felt his profile was more distinguishing. Who knows?