2 ‘art detectives’ solve an LDS Church history art mystery

Credit: Courtesy of Ron Fox
Credit: Ryan Morgenegg, Church News
Credit: Courtesy of Anthony’s Fine Art & Antiques
Credit: Courtesy of Anthony’s Fine Art & Antiques
Credit: Ryan Morgenegg, Church News
Credit: Ryan Morgenegg, Church News
Credit: Ryan Morgenegg, Church News
Credit: Ryan Morgenegg, Church News
Credit: Ryan Morgenegg, Church News

Two "art detectives" have solved a Church history art mystery.

Enoch Wood Perry Jr. was a 19th century American painter known for his thematic and stylistic works, including many portraits and landscapes. In the 1860s he was commissioned by the Church to create portraits of early LDS leaders, such as Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and several others.

For a long time the location of some of the Perry paintings was unknown. But recently, with the help of Anthony Christensen and Ronald L. Fox, every known portrait has been found.

“The significance of these portraits is the fact that there was a very skilled artist who was featured in the Smithsonian and Metropolitan Museum who traveled out west before the train using horse and cart,” said Anthony Christensen, owner of Anthony’s Fine Art & Antiques in Salt Lake City. “Perry did portraits of major U.S. figures like Ulysses S. Grant and Jefferson Davis. The Church paintings are a significant discovery because they truly are the foundation of the Church’s art collection.”

“Perry studied with Emanuel Leutze (best known for his monumental painting of ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ currently located in the Metropolitan Museum) at the Dusseldorf Academy in Germany and with Thomas Couture in Paris,” said Linda Jones Gibbs, Ph.D., an art historian living in New York City who did her master's thesis on Enoch Wood Perry and was a former curator at the Church History Museum.

“Exhibiting a wanderlust not uncommon among American artists in the mid-nineteenth century, Perry headed west in 1862, establishing a successful portrait studio in San Francisco,” said Sister Gibbs. Even though he traveled out west to California, many people wonder how an artist like Perry made contact with the Church.

Sister Gibbs said, “There is one indication that Perry had initiated contact with Brigham Young some nine months before his arrival in Utah in 1865 with a request to hold an exhibition in Salt Lake City. In an extant letter written by Brigham Young to Perry in February of 1865, the Church President informed Perry that he could not promise him an exhibition of his work in Salt Lake City nor could he give him sufficient encouragement that a trip to Utah would be financially rewarding.”

Even with the indifferent response from Brigham Young, Perry set up a studio in Salt Lake City in November of 1865 and was soon busy painting portraits of not only President Young but also the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve, said Sister Gibbs. The commission between Perry and the Church lasted from November 1865 through May 1866.

Regarding the portraits done of local Church leaders, the Deseret News reported the following April 26, 1866: “Mr. Perry has produced some fine likenesses during the past winter, finished in a high style of art; and by the present portraits, his name will become well and widely known through the Territory. … They would make a handsome and capital beginning for a portrait and fine art gallery.”

Another reporter in Salt Lake City wrote that Perry had painted a portrait of Brigham Young that was “by far the most life-like and characteristic portrait yet made of the President.”

The portraits commissioned by the Church were primarily in storage through the years until the opening of the Museum of Church History and Art, now the Church History Museum, where they were put on exhibit. “Some may have historically been hanging in Church offices,” said Sister Gibbs. “Other paintings, such as the large portrait of Brigham Young, commissioned by then mayor of Salt Lake City, Abraham O. Smoot and the City Council, hangs to this day in the Salt Lake City and County Building.”

“The discovery of the additional four paintings [Brigham Young, Mary Ann Angell Young, Heber C. Kimball and John Taylor] gives us a fuller knowledge of how extremely prolific Perry was during his stay of not quite 10 months in Utah, during which time he painted about 21 works or about two a month, said Sister Gibbs. It appears that some of these were duplicate portraits, quick “pot-boilers” for sale, that lack the finesse of the original paintings.

It does seem that Perry took an interest in the larger art community of Salt Lake City, said Sister Gibbs. “He co-founded, along with local artist George Ottinger and pioneer photographer Charles R. Savage, the short-lived Deseret Art Union, based on the American Art-Union, a subscription-based organization whose goal was to enlighten and educate the public about art. That he and his art endeared himself to the locals is evidenced by their regret in seeing him leave. It seems that, despite Brigham Young’s efforts to dissuade him from coming, Perry experienced considerable monetary success, earning about $11,000 in sales.

“The story of Perry’s success in Utah speaks to the uniqueness of the frontier settlement; its appreciation for and support of the fine arts at a time when the inhabitants of the Territory were still struggling to obtain and sustain the basic necessities of life. As the Utah historian Edward Tullidge explained in 1886: ‘A large portion of our citizens are from the old world, fresh from the memories of countless art galleries … By these means they have unconsciously acquired much judgement and taste. Immediately upon their arrival, they have made themselves homes, and have been … disposed to patronize the artists in the embellishments of their parlors.’”

Utah Paintings by Enoch Wood Perry Jr.

These were commissioned works by the Church, the city of Salt Lake and by Brigham Young.

Portraits on display in Conference Center

Brigham Young

Daniel H. Wells

Lorenzo Snow

Ezra T. Benson

George A. Smith

Orson Pratt

Charles C. Rich

Franklin D. Richards

Wilford Woodruff

Edward Hunter, Presiding Bishop

Anthony’s Fine Arts & Antiques has four newly found paintings:

Brigham Young (this painting was the first completed in Utah)

John Taylor

Heber C. Kimball

Mary Ann Angel Young

On display in Salt Lake at the Salt Lake City and County Building, in the Council Chambers and in the Hall of Mayors on the same floor:

Brigham Young (a very large painting)

Abraham O. Smoot

Jedediah M. Grant

Painting in BYU Art Museum's collection:

George Q. Cannon

Paintings on display by the International Daughters of the Utah Pioneers:

Amasa Lyman

Orson Hyde

Portrait on display in the Springville (Utah) Art Museum:

Mary Ann Angel Young

Huntington Museum of California:

Brigham Young copy by E.W. Perry (It may have been requested by C.P. Huntington or just something the museum bought over time.)

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