Special Feature

The Art of Mahonri Young
May 28, 2019
Special Feature
The Art of Mahonri Young
Author Abbie Norton

mahonri_young_artist.jpgMahonri Young, Brigham Young’s grandson, was an American social-realist sculptor and artist. According to Wikipedia, he created more than 320 sculptures, 590 oil paintings, 5,500 watercolors, 2,600 prints, and thousands of drawings, but he is primarily recognized for his sculpture, especially those sculptures commissioned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You may recognize his work from the Brigham Young statues on Temple Square and BYU campus, as well as the Seagull Monument in front of the Assembly Hall at Temple Square.

Exhibit Opening Event

This Friday is the exhibition opening event for “In the Arena: The Art of Mahonri Young” at the BYU Museum of Art.
The event page on the Museum of Art’s website quotes the artist’s son, “I rarely saw him when he wasn’t working. Now that included making drawings in a sketchbook, which was his idea of relaxation… He was a man who lived with no disconnection between life and art… One just flowed right into the other. He talked about art, he thought about art, and made art. Art in a very real sense was his life.” 

The Deseret News published an article about this upcoming exhibit: “He made celebrated sculptures of his grandpa, Brigham Young. Now this famous artist has a new art show at BYU”.
“For the Museum of Art exhibition, curator Ashlee Whitaker worked hard to encapsulate Young’s varied career. The gallery features Young’s sculptures, of course, but Young was also a skilled painter, and many of his paintings and oil pastel pieces are displayed, as well. The exhibition even spotlights some of Young’s sketches, both studies he did to prepare for sculptures and some just for practice. ‘We have thousands of pieces by Mahonri in our collection. Some of them are tiny sketches on scraps of paper,’ Whitaker said. ‘… It was quite a task. I spent too long—months and months—just going through sketches and trying to choose”.

His Work

BYU Studies has published four of Mahonri’s etchings. See them here:

Sawing Wood, an etching, BYU Studies Quarterly Vol 8, no. 1

First Snow—Leonia, an etching, BYU Studies Quarterly Vol 8, no. 2

The Hudson from Heine Cook’s, an etching, BYU Studies Quarterly Vol 8, no. 3

Baling Hay at Ganado, an etching, BYU Studies Quarterly Vol 8, no. 4

mahonri_young_-_the_heavy_sledge.jpgThese etchings show Mahonri’s mastery of gesture to tell the story of the moment. Each etching was drawn from nature. The figures are all in motion, in the middle of work or play. The images have the energy of an ordinary yet vivid memory and conjure the feeling of standing at a windowsill viewing the comings and goings of people in the street below. As art patron Alice Merril said, these etchings display “the animation, the movement, the vibration of life”. 

Dale T. Fletcher, professor of art and art history at BYU from 1965 to 1978 wrote:
“The artist prepared his etching plates in his studio by coating the sheets of copper with a thin ‘hard ground’ of asphaltum. These plates were taken along on the sketching trip and worked on out of doors directly from nature… We can imagine him holding the copper plate in one hand and drawing with the etching needle, the fine lines being scratched through the asphaltum. Later in the studio the plate would be bathed in acid to etch the lines, then cleaned, inked, wiped, and printed in editions of perhaps twenty-five or fifty… These sketching trips were a way of life with Mahonri Young and any other artists of his generation. It involved an unquestioning reverence or zestful appetite for reality. The visual world appeared as a field white all ready to be harvested. It was not pretty or entertaining; it was nourishing, healthy. The artists saw with grateful and joyous eyes.”

We have also published a book review about Mahonri Young if you would like to read more.

“Mahonri Young: His life and Art; a song of Joys: The biography of Mahonri Mackintosh Young – Sculptor, Painter, Etcher”, Book Review, BYU Studies Quarterly Vol 39, no. 4
“Suppose the moderator of a popular quiz show were to ask the identity of the following person: He visited the studios of both Rodin and Mailol and watched them work. He was hailed from across the lobby of the Cirque de Paris by Ernest Hemmingway, joined a club that boasted Theodore Roosevelt as a member, and was driven to Jack Sharkey’s training camp by Jack Dempsey. He often had lunch with Thornton Wilder and was a close friend of Leo Stein and his sister Gertrude. He was delighted when Charles Morgan II, president of Amherst, wrote that Robert Frost and Morgan were interested in exhibiting his work at the college. He taught a number of the nation’s finest young art students, was well acquainted with most of The Eight (America’s leading twentieth-century realist painters) and married the daughter of one of the best American impressionists. It is unlikely that these or additionally equally impressive clues would lead many to the correct answer: Mahonri Mackintosh Young, the Salt Lake City-born sculptor and painter and grandson on Brigham Young.”

Mahonri’s Artistic Style

young.jpg“A biographical history of Mahonri M. Young, a western American artist”, by Wayne K. Hinton, (Ph. D. Thesis) Department of History, Brigham Young University, 1974
Although Mahonri was taught classically and was surrounded by colleagues who rejected the classical style with impressionistic and post-impressionistic styles, Young was disinterested in idyllic or naturalistic images, and wanted to depict the realities of life that surrounded him. Therefore, his work is often associated with social-realism, as his work depicts laborers, immigrants, minorities, the West, and man’s interaction with nature. “Young excelled in ‘depicting figures in motion’ and ‘the psychological nuances of gesture’. Rather than emphasize light, appearance, and technical skill as had prevailed in traditional art, Young preferred to emphasize rhythm, balance, movement, form, and design.”

Young’s Training, and the Paris Art Mission

Mahonri had his formal training under James T. Harwood, who was one of the artists sent on the Paris art mission. Another artist, John B. Fairbanks, spent the most time of all the artists sent – a year and a half – in Paris studying his craft. Read about the history of the Paris art missions from Fairbanks’s account:

“With God’s Assistance I will Someday Be an Artist”: John B. Fairbanks’s Account of the Paris Art Mission”, Rachel Cope, BYU Studies Quarterly Vol 50, no. 3