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What did Joseph Smith really look like?


For the last century, Church members have been asking the question: "What did Joseph Smith really look like?"

Glen M. Leonard, director of the Museum of Church History and Art explains that there are no known photographs of the Church's first prophet - leaving people to question how reliable the images really are that they see of Joseph Smith."Church members are interested in learning more about the Prophet because they love him and they love the gospel he brought forth," said Brother Leonard. "He is the first president of the Church. . . . They ask, `Who is this man - I want to see him.' "

Brother Leonard, who has done extensive research on the images of Joseph Smith during the last decade, said written descriptions can help answer part of the question. Quoting John D. Lee, Brother Leonard said Joseph Smith "was rather large in stature, some 6 feet 2 inches in height, well built, though a little stoop-shouldered, prominent and well-developed features, a roman nose, light chestnut hair, upper lip full and rather protruding, chin broad and square and eagle eyed."

Continuing, he said there are only a few visual images of Joseph Smith that can be tied to original sources. Since Joseph Smith's time, artists have relied on three sources for their renderings of the Prophet. "Three images have influenced every other succeeding visual rendering of Joseph Smith," said Brother Leonard.

He explained that it is his conclusion that all images with any authentic resemblance to the Prophet Joseph Smith can be traced back to:

Profiles by Sutcliffe Maudsley (created between 1822 and 1844 from life).

An oil portrait done from life, accredited to David Rogers of New York, painted in Nauvoo, September 1842. This is the companion portrait to the oil portrait of Emma, which is now on display at the museum. Both works are owned by the RLDS Church.

Joseph Smith's death mask, June 1844.

While making any other authentic-looking images, artists have drawn from one or all three of these original sources, Brother Leonard said.

Two of Maudsley's original Nauvoo watercolors are currently featured in an exhibit, "From New York to Salt Lake," at the Church museum. One watercolor depicts Joseph Smith dressed in his Nauvoo Legion uniform; the other watercolor depicts his wife, Emma.

These formal paintings were created for the family and preserved by Emma and her descendants.

An original 1845 watercolor tribute featuring full-figure profiles of Joseph and Hyrum Smith is also on public display for the first time at the museum. It is signed by James Holt, one of Maudsley's associates in the textile mills in England.

Also of note in the display is a rare pencil sketch of Joseph Smith, drawn by an unknown artist in Nauvoo in 1842. The sketch is on short-term loan from the New-York Historical Society (proper name includes hyphen) and was exhibited in New York for the first time last summer.

Brother Leonard said the sketch was a remarkable discovery - one of very few new images of Joseph Smith created during his lifetime.

"The New York piece is not signed, but it carries an inscription reading `Joe Smith of Nauvoo, July 1842.' Maudsley was in Nauvoo then, but if this is Maudsley's freehand sketch it is unlike any other portrait he produced," Brother Leonard said.

He explained that if the New York sketch of Joseph was not created by Maudsley, even though it resembles Maudsley's work, it may very well be a new original sketch - bringing the total of authentic original sources of Joseph Smith's likeness to four.

"But it also may simply be a rendering based on a Maudsley," Brother Leonard noted.

The exhibit, which these works are part of, highlights events from the life of Joseph Smith and recalls the story of the westward migration led by Brigham Young and the early settlement of Utah. The exhibition will be on display though Jan. 18, 1998.

The museum and the New-York History Society collaborated on the exhibition by loaning items to each other relating to the early years of the Church. The Society furnished selections from its own vast collections of rare Mormon books, photographs, maps and engravings. The museum added 19th century art and artifacts.

"Latter-day Saint history is rich in its literature and in the way that history has been depicted by magazine illustrators and artists," said Brother Leonard. "This exhibition touches on the highlights of that history with materials rarely seen by the public."

Highlighted are key events from the New York years, the building of the Kirtland Temple, the troubled period in Missouri, the accomplishments and challenges of Nauvoo, and the migration of thousands from Europe and America to the Salt Lake Valley.

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