Harvesting the Light: The 1890 Paris Art Mission
by Giles H. Florence, Jr.
Associate Editor, Ensign (1988
Five Latter-day Saints Sent to Paris to Refine Their Skills
When Latter-day Saints made the Rocky Mountains their refuge in the West, they saw painting and sculpture as integral to their efforts to bring culture, grace, and beauty to their growing settlement.
Unfortunately, LDS artists who wished to contribute to that beautification were isolated from the cultural centers where their skills and gifts could be refined. Consequently, in 1890, two LDS artists, John Hafen and Lorus Pratt (son of Orson Pratt), hit upon a solution. They went to the Church and requested financial assistance so that they and several other promising artists could receive the training they needed. In exchange, they would paint murals in the temples and render other art services.
President George Q. Cannon, of the First Presidency, informed Brothers Hafen and Pratt in June of 1890 that their proposal had been accepted. Three artists—John Hafen, Lorus Pratt, and John B. Fairbanks (father of sculptor Avard Fairbanks)—were soon set apart as art missionaries and sent to Paris; Edwin Evans joined them three months later, and Herman Hugo Haag arrived the next year.
Evidence that these missionaries devoted their talents to the Lord and wished to use them in his service was well demonstrated by John Hafen: “Being a firm believer that the highest possible development of talent is a duty we owe to our Creator, I made it a matter of prayer for many years that He would open a way whereby I could receive that training which would befit me to decorate His holy temples and the habitations of Zion.” (Linda Jones Gibbs, Harvesting the Light: The Paris Art Mission and Beginnings of Utah Impressionism, Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1987, p. 3.)
The conditions these missionaries faced in Paris were difficult: Food and lodgings were obtained at the least expense possible, and the Julian Academy where they studied was crowded, with strict and demanding teachers. The students were in constant competition with others from Europe and America. Still, the artists from Utah distinguished themselves, winning a number of competitions.
The work of these and other Utah artists, prior to their study in Paris, is considered unsophisticated, with inaccuracies in perspective and proportions and showing limited technique. Following their training by the academic masters in Paris in the 1890s, these Utah artists painted with greater proficiency. They not only acquired new techniques, such as a loosening of brush strokes and freer use of color, but they began to see their subjects differently. Painting outdoors, beyond the limits of their studios, for example, enabled them to more clearly observe the effects of light on their subjects. Many of them brought home to Utah the influence of French Impressionism, with its emphasis on landscapes and harvest scenes.
As the name implies, Impressionism seeks to create an impression of a scene or figure rather than an ordered composition strictly rendered. Daubs of strong color in short, broken brushstrokes are often used to capture the atmosphere of a scene or the immediate feeling of the moment. An impressionist landscape often has dramatic contrasts of brilliant, often shimmering, sunlight and shadows in subdued but rich colors.
Because of the economic difficulty in which he had left his wife and children, John Hafen was able to spend only a year abroad. As the first art missionary to return to Salt Lake City, he was the first to begin the Salt Lake Temple murals. He worked alongside Danquart Weggeland, a Danish convert who had taught these artists before their missions and had encouraged them to go. A year later, Brothers Hafen and Weggeland were joined by Brothers Evans, Pratt, Haag, and Fairbanks. By the time of the Salt Lake Temple’s dedication [on 6 April 1893], they had completed the murals in the world and the garden rooms.
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