“Art could not be nobler than the religion that gave it life.”
When a teenage Joseph Smith entered the woods on his family farm to pray over his soul and inquire which church he should join, the vision that burst forth from heaven changed his life and laid a pathway for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The First Vision is among the scenes of the Restoration most often depicted by artists. Portrayals of the First Vision were published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Ensign magazine 167 times between 1971 and 2019, nearly double the representations of any Restoration theme other than depictions of pioneers.Today in Church curriculum, if we talk about the First Vision, we nearly always have a painting to accompany it.
This abundance of institutional imagery was not always the case, however. It took about a hundred years for the restored Church to regularly use artistic imagery in its institutional publications to portray its founding events and doctrines. From 1832 until 1900, there were fewer than three dozen images dealing with Church history or doctrine published in tens of thousands of pages of Church periodicals, and the First Vision was not one of them.The first painting of the First Vision was not printed by the institutional Church until 1912, nearly one hundred years after the event occurred.
This essay traces the development of First Vision art and how it has evolved over time, examining how an artistic symbol of the First Vision has emerged that can simultaneously enhance but also limit our understanding of the vision. I will first explore how cultural factors influence art, including First Vision art. Next, I will trace in thirty-year periods a chronological development of First Vision artistic imagery and how that imagery has created a recognizable First Vision symbol. Last, I will analyze current cultural forces that might be influencing the way the First Vision is portrayed now and possibly will be in the future.
Art as Cultural Representation
In the quiet mountains of Ephraim, Utah, a Danish convert to the Church named Carl Christian Anton (C. C. A.) Christensen worked away in his studio behind the old Ephraim Roller Mill on a series of twenty-three religious paintings. His images, each ten feet wide and about seven feet tall, represented prominent moments of Latter-day Saint history. Stitched together into a single canvas scroll about 175 feet long, each new scene could be slowly unveiled to an audience by assistants operating a crank, accompanied by a prewritten narration. Between 1878 and 1888, Christensen’s “Mormon Panorama” toured across the Western United States with wide acclaim.Why? Christensen’s images were born of and spoke to cultural crosscurrents. When Christensen’s panorama paintings were created, pressures were again mounting on the Saints, who had been driven to the Rocky Mountains. The transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, had ended Utah’s relative isolation. Utah’s practice of polygamy was under attack by new laws from the United States federal government. Brigham Young—the longtime Church President who brought the Church west—had died in 1877, and his successor, John Taylor, was forced into hiding for refusing to comply with polygamy legislation. A new generation of Latter-day Saint children and converts who never personally knew Joseph Smith needed to understand, learn, and embrace their sacred history. Under these cultural forces, Christensen picked up his paintbrush and went to work, producing canvases that reflected a people born by restored revelation and persecuted because of it. The first image in the panorama? Christensen’s narration begins, “This scene represents the first vision of Joseph Smith, the prophet.” Audiences loved it. Joseph’s story was their story.
Christensen’s story illustrates what art critic Kerry Freedman explains: art is a “form of social production,” and “visual culture creates, as well as reflects, personal and social freedoms.”Societal values act like tectonic plates upon artists, creating pressures that collide in creative minds and give rise to their masterpieces. However, this relationship between art and society is often symbiotic. One contemporary author asked, “Does the artist help create the cultural moment they are in, or are they only a reflection of their cultural milieu?” and then answered her own question with an example of an artist who “is both a reflection of our culture and creating culture.” C. C. A. Christensen was producing art reflecting his social values, but his art also contributed to new culture. When Christensen was painting The Vision, a young musician on a sales call for D. O. Calder’s Music Palace came to Ephraim and was invited to Christensen’s studio. The musician’s name was George Manwaring. Manwaring’s son recalls that Christensen “took him into his studio and showed him The Vision which he had just finished. It was a painting of the Father and Son appearing to Joseph Smith in the sacred grove in answer to prayer. It made such an impression on the mind of George Manwaring, then about 24 years of age, that he was inspired to compose the song.” That song was “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer,” today sung by millions the world over. As scholar James Allen writes, “It was thus four decades after the organization of the Church that the vision found its way into artistic media, but it was largely through these media that it eventually found its way into the hearts and minds of the Saints.” The monuments created by artists affected by cultural values also serve as new guideposts to look toward and as peaks upon which to stand and see new vistas.
Cultural Factors Influenced First Vision Art
What, then, were some of the cultural factors that may have influenced the lack of First Vision art in the early Church for members to look toward and stand their faith upon? One influence may have been that early Americans largely eschewed religious art,and Joseph Smith himself was not known to connect visual art with religious instruction or worship. The Kirtland Temple (the only worship building completed in Joseph’s lifetime) was devoid of religious paintings, stained glass art, or sculpture. As Terryl Givens has noted, Joseph Smith was born into a culture of “domestic arts, such as simple portraits, stenciled furniture, and both wall and floor painting,” but “none of [Joseph’s] actions or writings suggest that he paid any notice to an effete art like painting.” The only known reference Joseph Smith ever made to religious art was when Benjamin West’s Death on a Pale Horse, depicting the four horsemen of the apocalypse from Revelation 6:8, was exhibited in his reading room, just two weeks before Joseph was martyred.
The lack of religious art may have been due to the Church’s financial constraints (because art is generally considered a luxury, supported and afforded usually by those who are more wealthy), and the simple fact that the Church lacked trained artists in its New York, Kirtland, and Missouri periods. It was not until the Church settled in Nauvoo that the first painters emerged.
These explanations, however, do not sufficiently answer why artistic First Vision imagery did not appear in the Church for most of the nineteenth century, since compositions could have been produced by lesser artists from 1830 to 1850 and by gifted artists such as Dan Weggeland and others who emerged in the 1850s to 1900, including the Paris art missionaries.The single most salient cultural reason is that the First Vision simply was not emphasized by the early Restored Church as a focal point for its historical or theological narrative. Despite the First Vision’s doctrinal prominence today in Latter-day Saint history, it has been documented by historians that the First Vision was not well known or circulated among early general Church membership. The early narrative for the initiation of the Restoration was usually the visitation of Moroni to Joseph Smith and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, not Joseph’s personal prayer in the grove. Most Saints gathered to the Church in Ohio, Missouri, Kirtland, and Utah without hearing about the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who went to the woods and saw God and Jesus in a vision. Other than an obscure reference to the First Vision in D&C 20:5 in April 1830, the First Vision was not published anywhere in the 1830s. James Allen writes, “Only in 1838 did Joseph Smith prepare an account of it for official publication; not until 1840 did any account appear in print; and not for another half century was it publicly discussed with great regularity or used for the wide variety of purposes to which it lends itself today.” Although Joseph Smith told the vision to some in the 1830s, Steven Harper writes that “he did so privately among small groups of followers.” Joseph had the vision documented in his 1832 history and again in 1835, but these two accounts did not see the light of day until the mid-twentieth century, packed away in a trunk by Willard Richards and forgotten for nearly a hundred years. It would not be until influential apostle Orson Pratt began emphasizing the First Vision in print and discourse that Church members began to use it as a doctrinal Restoration narrative, particularly in the 1860s and 1870s.
In 1880, the Pearl of Great Price was canonized, including excerpts from Joseph Smith’s history, which included his 1838–39 First Vision narrative. The Pearl of Great Price placed an account of the First Vision in the hands of the Saints, who were ready to read, quote, analyze, and apply it as scripture. At roughly the same time the Church canonized parts of its official history, the United States waged literal and ideological war against the Latter-day Saints, largely over their practice of plural marriage, attacking through an army in the 1850s and federal legislation in the 1860s, ’70s, and ’80s.
When the Church formally abandoned the practice of plural marriage at the turn of the century, it also abandoned part of its identity. Scholar Kathleen Flake writes that at this time President Joseph F. Smith (1901–1918) engaged in “re-placing memory” for the Church, acquiring sacred sites such as the Smith family farm in Palmyra-Manchester to solidify Latter-day Saint collective memory and to reestablish its founding stories. Flake writes, “The Latter-day Saints felt the need for ‘places of memory’ at the very time when they felt at risk of a breach with their past. . . . In the First Vision, Joseph F. Smith had found a marker of Latter-day Saint identity whose pedigree was as great as—and would be made greater than—that of plural marriage for the twentieth-century Latter-day Saints. . . . New emphasis on the First Vision maintained a sense of religious difference . . . from social action to theological belief.”From the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, the First Vision moved from relatively little-known history to Restoration 101 for the Saints. It summarized unique Latter-day Saint doctrine in one sacred story: There was an apostasy, divine authority was lost, new revelation was needed, God spoke to Joseph initiating the Restoration of truth, the heavens are now open, God speaks to a prophet, his authorized Church is back, and God will speak to you about its truth as he did to Joseph. To see this increased narrative emphasis, tables 1 and 2 show the rise of references to the “First Vison” and the “Sacred Grove” in general conference talks by decade.
The First Known First Vision Image
The first person to visually depict and publish an artistic image representing Joseph Smith’s First Vision was likely Thomas Brown Holmes (T. B. H.) Stenhouse in 1873.(fig. 1).Although Stenhouse had been “twenty-five years a Mormon elder” and a pioneering missionary for the Church in Italy, he was now pioneering a new work against the Church in Utah: his book, The Rocky Mountain Saints, published in New York in 1873. Stenhouse and his wife had grown critical of the Church’s teachings on plural marriage and of the combination of Brigham Young’s ecclesiastical, economic, and political influence, “a Theocracy which practices polygamy” in Stenhouse’s words. The subtitle of Stenhouse’s book provides one reason why his book was pioneering: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons, from the First Vision of Joseph Smith to the Last Courtship of Brigham Young. The book’s many illustrations include a captivating image of the First Vision by an unidentified artist
A black-and-white engraving with a sense of motion, it shows the Father flying in front of the Son, each with an upraised hand and with rays of light beaming downward from them toward a very boyish, curly haired, and seemingly frightened Joseph Smith in a dense wood. This first visualization of the First Vision is markedly different from the artistic symbol of the First Vision that developed a hundred years later.
The Damaged C. C. A. Christensen First Vision Painting
The next known artistic depiction of the First Vision was C. C. A. Christensen’s painting, created about 1878, as discussed earlier. After a successful touring run, Christensen’s panorama paintings were eventually rolled up and put away, forgotten and lost for a time. The panorama was remembered in the mid-twentieth century by a group of Church Educational System employees working on a Church film.The murals are housed today at Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art, but unfortunately Christensen’s first painting in the series, The Vision, is nowhere to be found today. In researching what may have happened to it, I made contact with Alec Andrus, whose father, James Andrus, was chair of the art department at Brigham Young University and was involved in BYU’s analyzing and acquiring of the Christensen Mormon Panorama canvases. Alec Andrus recollects Christensen’s panoramas being brought to his home. The paintings smelled of mildew and were unrolled to air out and have the damage assessed. Alec recalled that Christensen’s First Vision painting was present and part of the large scroll he saw as a child. Acknowledging the faulty nature of memory, Alec Andrus remembered:
My reaction, through the filter of 65+ years later, was that Brother Christensen’s painting of the first vision was different than my mental image of the event and I asked dad why. The presentation of the Father and Jesus was not at all what I envisioned. He told me about the use of the display as the Christensen brothers carried it through the LDS communities. . . . I think that may have been the first painting or illustration of the first vision that I had seen and it was not nearly as grand or ethereal as I thought it should be.
What became of the panel of the First Vision? Andrus concludes, “I think the first panel was damaged by mildew and mold and I think that was the first vision panel or it may have just been that the first vision panel that was outside the way the scroll was rolled up in the box and therefore more exposed to the elements. Dad said the collection was in a shed or outbuilding and not well sheltered.”
Thus, based on this recollection, it seems that Christensen’s The Vision may have been present when the scroll was rediscovered but due to damage was likely unrepairable. It is unknown whether this image was discarded in the trash or whether it was separated from the other intact canvases housed at BYU yet remains preserved somewhere today.
Stained Glass in Temples and Chapels
Perhaps the earliest depiction of the First Vision produced by the institutional Church was a stained glass image. In 1892, the Church began completing the interior of the Salt Lake Temple. They contracted some of the stained glass work with Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company in New York, including one window to be placed in the Holy of Holies. “The subject is the first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” wrote Joseph Don Carlos Young to Tiffany.(fig. 2).Young gave a highly detailed description of the event of the First Vision, including clear demands for what he wanted it to look like: “A boy in the 15th year of his age clad in the ordinary garb of a farmer’s son kneeling in the attitude of prayer. . . . The facial expression should also be modestly turned upward.” Young then took some expressive license not found in the historical First Vision accounts when it came to depicting the Father and Son, requesting “robes of exquisite whiteness, reaching to the ankles, and the arms were covered. . . . The feet were also covered with a sort of shoe. . . . The hair was of snowy whiteness and worne more after the early oriental style. . . . The faces of both these Celestial Beings were adorned with full grown Beards, also, of pure white color. . . . The countenance of the one indicated that He was older than the other. . . . The Son being on the right hand of the Father.” He then emphatically underlined that “both were without wings.” Although it is unclear where Young received some of this direction, this description set a standard for First Vision art that many future renderings followed. Young asked that Tiffany’s artists send a sketch to be approved, which suggests that Tiffany’s artists composed the scene
This stained glass window in the Salt Lake Temple serves as a pivot point in Latter-day Saint depictions of the First Vision. Not only was it likely the first depiction commissioned by the institutional Church, but by being placed in its holiest place in the temple the window is evidence of the rising centrality of the First Vision in Latter-day Saint theology. The Tiffany First Vision window also set a pattern that other stained glass images later reproduced and followed. In the early 1900s, stained glass representations of the First Vision were created for a few Latter-day Saint chapels in places such as Salt Lake City, Brigham City, and Los Angeles.
In 1907, the Salt Lake Seventeenth Ward placed a large replica of the Tiffany stained glass window in their chapel, encased in a much grander and ornate window with diamond-shaped sides. The painted portion of the glass was done in Belgium, and the window was designed and constructed by Harry Kimball and the Bennett Paint and Glass Company of Salt Lake City (fig. 3).
In 1908, the Salt Lake Second Ward also placed a replica of the Tiffany First Vision stained glass in a gothic-style arch window with a wonderful decorative background. The vision scene was painted by the LaCross Glass Company of Indiana, and the window was again designed and constructed by Harry Kimball and Bennett Paint and Glass Company (fig. 4). That same year, 1908, the Liberty Ward in Salt Lake City also installed a stained glass inset of the First Vision in a large gothic window in their chapel. The creator of this window is unidentified. The inset is a small window (25″ wide by 47″ tall) and is based on but is somewhat different than the previous Tiffany copies. Joseph is again clad in dark clothing in the lower right, but now his hands are pressed together in prayer; the Father and Son are more directly above him, wearing unique, complexly folded robing; this time the Son has his left hand down and open, and his right hand up. Symbolic rays from heaven also shoot down behind God and Jesus (fig. 5).
In 1911, the Brigham City Third Ward purchased a large 12′ × 8′ First Vision stained glass window for their building, created by Henry Kimball, Fred Brown, and the Bennett Paint and Glass Company. It was hauled up from Salt Lake City to Brigham City in the freezing cold by men holding onto the glass in a truck with no windshield.(fig. 6).
In 1915 in California, the Los Angeles Adams Ward commissioned a much larger version of the Salt Lake Liberty Ward’s composition. This window now resides in the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City (fig. 7). In 1930, the San Bernardino Ward placed a First Vision stained glass in their chapel. This image also follows a typical pattern established in prior windows: Joseph again is in the lower right, both arms raised as in the Tiffany window, clad in dark clothing (with a green shawl); the Father’s face is nearly an identical copy of the face in the Los Angeles Adams Ward image. But the overall composition is at a unique angle, and Jesus is standing with both arms open in a very receptive manner. The Father and Son also have reds and golds in their divine clothing. This window resides today in the Redlands California Temple.
Each of these early stained glass windows follows a similar composition based on the Tiffany window: a boy kneeling, three-quarter turned to show the side of his face, in dark brown or black coat and clothing; the Father and Son standing next to each other, usually front-facing the viewer; the Son at the right hand of the Father, wearing white robes. These images were seen and stared at during weekly Church services by an entire generation of early twentieth-century Saints.
It is notable that about a hundred years after the original First Vision stained glass was produced by Tiffany for the Salt Lake Temple, the Church again commissioned a stained glass window of the First Vision, for the Palmyra New York Temple.The Church hired stained glass artist Tom Holdman and his Holdman Studios to produce all the stained glass windows for the building, including a large 5′ × 8′ stained glass of the First Vision that patrons see upon entering the building. The Holdman Studios First Vision follows patterns similar to those of the early Tiffany and Bennett windows. Tom Holdman said that the Church’s Temple Art committee gave him specific instructions and feedback on compositional sketches for the window. Holdman remembers their directions about the Father and Son: “We would like them to be the same height, and that they look really close to each other, but you can tell one is older than the other,” repeating nearly verbatim the instruction given by Joseph Don Carlos Young to Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company. When I asked Tom Holdman about his inspiration for the composition and whether he looked to any earlier First Vision imagery, he said he referenced “the one in the Holy of Holies. I also went to that chapel by the Conference Center,” likely the Salt Lake Seventeenth Ward on 142 West 200 North. He said, “I really did . . . analyze those before I went to the temple to get my own inspiration and interpretation.” Thus, the early stained glass images of the First Vision laid a foundation for artistic interpretation of the First Vision that influenced subsequent artists from the nineteenth century through today.
First Artistic First Vision Images Published by the Church
Around the same time as the proliferation of stained glass windows of the First Vision in turn-of-the-century Latter-day Saint chapels, the first known artistic image of the event to be published by the institutional Church appeared. The year was 1912, nearly one hundred years since the First Vision had occurred. William A. Morton wrote and published a book for the Deseret Sunday School Union called From Plowboy to Prophet: Being a Short History of Joseph Smith for Children. The 130-page book included eighteen illustrations by the artist Lewis A. Ramsey. The inside sheet is a portrait of the prophet Joseph Smith done in 1910, and the remainder of the book includes illustrations such as Moroni visiting Joseph, Joseph and Oliver receiving the priesthood, the witnesses of the gold plates, and even lesser-known events such as Joseph stopping a runaway coach and his healing of Elijah Fordham. Most interesting for this article, opposite page 8 of the text is the first known image of the First Vision published by the Church (fig. 8).
Ramsey was born in 1875 and came to Utah with his family in 1887. He was trained by the celebrated artist John Hafen and studied at the Art Institute in Chicago and in Paris before returning to Utah to practice and teach art. He worked on commissions from the Church, including painting murals in the Laie Hawaii Temple.Ramsey’s illustration of the First Vision is a simple black-and-white reprint of what appears to be a pastel drawing.
The Rise of First Vision Art in Official Church Periodicals
Although the Church had published a myriad of monthly publications since as early as 1832’s The Evening and the Morning Star, it was relatively slow to use imagery to accompany the printed word. As mentioned, in the nineteenth century the institutional Church printed only a few dozen images dealing with Church history or doctrine in tens of thousands of pages of Church periodicals. Early Church history or doctrinal images are the Book of Abraham facsimiles, profiles of Thomas Sharp and Joseph Smith, the Kinderhook plates, and a diagram of the kingdom of God by Orson Hyde. Overall, artistic imagery was basically nonexistent for decades. For example, the Improvement Era (1897–1970) is voluminous, with thousands of pages in print, but offers very little visual art. Almost all imagery is photography of people and places. Church publications embraced photography before visual art like painting and drawingand began to circulate George Edward Anderson’s classic 1907 photo of the Sacred Grove with a boy standing in the lower right corner among the tall trees—a powerful image.
Compared to how frequently and adeptly national periodicals (such as Harper’s Weekly) used art during this time to illustrate its pages and engage its readers, Church publications like the Millennial Star or the Improvement Era needed a lot of improvement when it came to unleashing the communicative power of visual art. As a case in point, the April 1920 edition of the Improvement Era was dedicated to the one-hundredth anniversary of the First Vision. It contains three photographs of the Sacred Grove and the land around it, photographs of other places in Joseph Smith’s life, a painting of the Hill Cumorah, a drawing of Joseph Smith as an adult, poetry, a cantata, and many articles praising the Prophet in its 112 pages, but no First Vision artwork appears.
The first artistic rendering of the First Vision to appear in a Church periodical came one hundred years after the organization of the Church, when the Instructor printed a photograph of the Tiffany stained glass in the Salt Lake Temple Holy of Holies in December 1931.(fig. 9). J. Leo Fairbanks was the son of one of the Paris missionary artists, John B. Fairbanks, who worked on murals in Utah temples. J. Leo Fairbanks was a masterful, well-rounded artist who painted and sculpted, although he became somewhat eclipsed in history by his more famous sculptor brother, Avard. Together with Avard, J. Leo worked on the Hawaii Temple, creating four sculpture reliefs of 130 life-sized figures. J. Leo also illustrated various Church manuals and book covers and experimented with stained glass, including this stained glass window of the First Vision.A few years later, in 1933, the Improvement Era published an article on the Church’s participation at the World’s Fair in Chicago and featured a photo of part of the display including a small image of J. Leo Fairbanks’s stained glass of the First Vision. This 6′ × 4′ stained glass was designed by J. Leo Fairbanks and made by the Drehobl Brothers Art Glass in Chicago. It was created with a companion window of Elijah holding a key in front of the Salt Lake Temple and was later installed in the Salt Lake Temple lobby. In February 1938, the Millennial Star printed a slightly larger version of this same image
The Expansion of First Vision Art (1920–1950)
The 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s were a turning point for the First Vision in the Church, both pedagogically and artistically. The one-hundredth anniversary of the First Vision was recognized in many talks in the April 1920 general conference, and the vision was discussed more often in succeeding conferences than it had been before. In 1938, President J. Reuben Clark told Church Educational System employees that not only was a belief in Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission necessary, but also that “in all its reality, the First Vision” was a foundational theology for the Church, and any teacher who did not believe in it “has [no] place in the Church school system.”
Another cultural factor that pressed upon how the Saints viewed the First Vision in these decades was the 1945 publication of Fawn Brodie’s psychobiography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History. In the book, Brodie claims that the First Vision was a later invention by Joseph Smith in 1838, “some half-remembered dream” or “sheer invention,” casting doubt by claiming that nobody knew of the vision prior to 1838.Church leaders and scholars came to the public defense of Joseph Smith and the First Vision.
As the First Vision enlarged in doctrinal and historical importance in the eyes of Church leaders, teachers, and critics, Church magazines increased their visual publishing of artistic imagery related to it. The cover of the February 5, 1942, Millennial Star for the British Saints showed the Tiffany stained glass image from the Salt Lake Temple.(fig. 10). Discussing the cover painting, the Millennial Star calls the First Vision “one of the most outstanding events in the history of mankind. As a matter of fact, it stands alone in religious history.” It then states in all caps how the First Vision teaches central doctrine of the Restoration: “GOD IS A PERSON; CHRIST IS OUR REDEEMER.”A few months later, the cover of the May 14, 1942, Millennial Star featured a copy of a First Vision oil painting by J. Leo Fairbanks
At an unknown date, J. Leo Fairbanks also created a compositional sketch of the First Vision intended for a building mural. Following patterns established in his other two images, Fairbank’s oil-on-board image clothes Joseph in a white shirt and dark pants (fig. 11). This clothing was atypical of prior First Vision imagery, which put Joseph in a dark, heavy overcoat, but (as will be discussed later) Fairbanks’s clothing for Joseph later became a standard part of the First Vision symbol recognized today. In June 1957, the Millennial Star again showed an artistic image of the First Vision, a photograph of a sculpture by Fairbanks’s brother, Avard Fairbanks, accompanied by the text from Joseph Smith—History 2:10–17 (fig. 12). Slowly, artistic images of the First Vision began to be produced and published more consistently in Church publications between 1920 and 1950.
During this period, mural painter Minerva Teichert also undertook depicting the First Vision. Born in 1888, Teichert came of age as an artist just as the First Vision was being established as a foundational Latter-day Saint narrative. Teichert studied art in Chicago and New York, where her mentor, Robert Henri, recognized her brilliance and encouraged her to paint the “great Mormon story.”(fig. 13), which now hangs in the Brigham City Temple, and another in 1934. Her 1934 painting (fig. 14) was hung in the Montpelier, Idaho, Stake Tabernacle, being donated by Teichert as tithing in kind. The image is striking and reflects Teichert’s independence of style as an artist, breaking from patterns established in the First Vision stained glass at the turn of the century and also from J. Leo Fairbanks’s look and feel. The Father has his right hand gently placed on the Son’s shoulder, who stands open armed and accepting, the marks of the Crucifixion in his palms. They have distinct, non–Euro-American features. Their hair and beards are brown. There are symbolic white lilies in full bloom on the floor of the grove with other blue and purple flowers, and vibrant colors abound. Bright yellow emanates from behind the glorified figures. Joseph, wearing a brown striped shirt, is sprawled on his back, sitting up slightly, his dark hair capping his surprised look. In the hand-painted border, the Book of Mormon golden plates are depicted at the bottom center, and on the top center is the published Book of Mormon. This is a First Vision painting unique from its predecessors in content and style and is simply magnificent in execution and effect.In her paintings, Teichert embraced her mentor’s admonition to “love reality, but abhor photographic representation.” Her canvases are stylized, loose, colorful, abstracted reality, and painted with thinned-down oil paint (almost at times approaching a watercolor-like wash), and often include hand-painted decorative borders. Her work found success in the Intermountain West during the 1930s and 1940s, being hung in schools and churches and civic buildings. It was during this time that Teichert painted at least two known depictions of the First Vision, one circa 1930
The Standard of First Vision Art (1950–1980)
The 1950s and ’60s produced a period of artistic renditions that have stood as symbols for the Church ever since, creating a visual artistic canon hitherto unmatched in the Restoration. During these decades more than any others, the institutional Church looked to visual artists to tell their story jointly with the published word. Rejecting popular postmodern and pop-art trends of the time, the Church relied heavily upon illustrators whose realistic artwork could be easily interpreted and used didactically. In the 1950s, Arnold Friberg (whom fellow illustrator Norman Rockwell called the “Phidias [Greek sculptor of the Parthenon] of religious art”) created perhaps the best-known scriptural images in the history of the Church—his twelve Book of Mormon paintings, which were subsequently reproduced millions of times in missionary copies of the Book of Mormon. Friberg also created an image of the First Vision in 1962. Considering Friberg’s masterful ability to dramatize, this painting is surprisingly subdued and peaceful for such a grand event. The style, pose, forest greenery, and overall feel of the painting evoke an illustrative, almost fictional scene, punctuated with Joseph on one knee, hands clasped, and head bowed in humble submission, wearing a bold red shirt. Friberg later used his compositional sketches of Joseph bowing in prayer as the basis for George Washington’s pose in his famous painting Prayer at Valley Forge.
Recently, another Friberg First Vision image has also emerged, completed around 1953 or 1954.This image never saw the light of day, literally. It was drawn on the walls of Friberg’s studio in Holladay, Utah. The entire plywood wall was removed and has been subsequently displayed, such as at the Springville Museum of Art in 2017. The 8′ × 16′ chunk of wall containing this image weighs more than 600 pounds. It is a compositional black-and-white pencil sketch without a lot of detail that creates an ethereal, mystical feel—the ghostlike images of the Father and Son sketched in white charcoal creating the sensation of a glorious vision. I find this sketch mesmerizing. Friberg’s 1962 First Vision painting, however, was not used by the institutional Church, never appearing in the Improvement Era or the Ensign. During this time, the Church looked to two non–Latter-day Saints to create its most-often-used First Vision images.
In the 1960s, the Church hired a network of illustrators outside the faith to create much of its standard artistic imagery—namely Harry Anderson, Tom Lovell, Kenneth Riley, and John Scott. Anderson painted the Church’s classic biblical scenes still used in churches and temples worldwide, and Lovell made Book of Mormon scenes such as Moroni burying the plates and appearing to Joseph Smith in his bedroom. Among Kenneth Riley’s first commissions for the Church was The First Vision, circa 1965 (fig. 15). During this time, fellow illustrator John Scott created classic panoramic images such as Jesus teaching in the western hemisphere, the Last Judgment, and in 1970 his own rendition of the First Vision (fig. 16). The Church turning to non–Latter-day Saints to give expression to their most iconic images of the time is reminiscent of Tiffany being hired to create artwork for the Church’s holy space.It is notable that both images produced by Riley and Scott during this time period follow a similar pattern: A boy in a white shirt and brown pants in a grove of trees in the full leaves of summer reaches openly upward toward rays of light from heaven. However, in a departure from earlier First Vision imagery, in Scott’s and Riley’s commissioned images the Father and Son are not directly depicted. Why? Although the reasons are unknown and it may merely be artistic preference, it is possible that emphasis from Church President David O. McKay (1951–1970) could have influenced these commissioned compositions. McKay “wanted church-sanctioned art to avoid literal, physical depictions of God and Christ,” apparently because, according to Arnold Friberg’s recollection, President McKay felt “the finite cannot conceive of the infinite.”
Other First Vision images also appeared in print from the Church during these decades. In November 1961, the Instructor showed a flannel-board story of Joseph “kneeling in prayer as he asks our Heavenly Father his questions” (fig. 17). In April 1962, an inelegant black-and-white drawing of the First Vision appeared in the Millennial Star with no identifier of who created the image other than “an artist’s impression of the first vision—in a grove close to Joseph Smith’s home.” The image, however, matches a portion of a 1965 panorama painting, “Scenes from Biblical and Mormon History” by Dorothy Handley, almost as though it was a preliminary study for the panorama. Another First Vision depiction appeared in the Millennial Star in August 1964, an issue reporting on the Mormon Pavilion at the World’s Fair, which showed a diorama depicting the First Vision with a half-sized mannequin figure of Joseph Smith and a background of the grove painted behind it, perhaps by artist Sidney King (fig. 18). Jerry Thompson’s 1970 illustration of Joseph looking up into the heavens (again, avoiding depicting Deity) was published in the Improvement Era accompanying James Allen’s groundbreaking article “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Ted Henninger’s 1975 image re-introduced direct depictions of the Father and the Son, white robed and bearded, Jesus with open arms, floating directly above Joseph’s upheld right hand in a zoomed-back, green-leafed grove. This image was first published in the January 1976 Ensign (fig. 19).
In 1979, Gary Smith painted the First Vision, an image often reproduced in later years by Church magazines (fig. 20). One notable aspect of Smith’s image is an axe stuck in the stump in the lower left corner of the composition, consistent with Joseph Smith’s 1843 interview with David Nye White, in which Joseph said he “went to the stump where I had stuck my axe when I had quit work, and I kneeled down, and prayed.” I interviewed Gary Smith about this detail, interested in how and why he consciously chose to include it, since his was likely the first artistic representation of the First Vision to do so, reflecting broadening knowledge of various First Vision accounts (such as were emphasized and published in the 1970 Improvement Era). Smith told me, “Yes, the [various First Vision] sources were all important. In fact, I thought the axe was a very important part of that because it shows he was familiar with the area. He went to the place he was most familiar with. He didn’t walk through the brush and say, ‘Oh this is a pretty spot.’ But he went to a place he was familiar.” Other than that detail, Smith’s image follows a growing pattern: Joseph on his back or knees in a white shirt and brown pants, his arm upraised like in Friberg’s 1960 sketch, Riley’s 1965 painting, and Henninger’s 1975 painting. The Father motions to the Son, who is at the right hand of God, his arms open, in a green summer woodland.
These patterns that were becoming normalized for First Vision imagery were occurring simultaneously with another cultural factor that may have influenced the pattern of First Vision art from 1950 to 1980. In 1960, “the modern era of correlation officially began,” says scholar Michael Goodman, going into effect with “fully correlated curricula” in 1967.Although Church correlation took on a much broader task than curriculum, one purpose of correlation was to standardize the Church’s message in its printed materials under the direction of the priesthood across formerly independent auxiliaries and organizations. It should not be surprising that, in these decades of standardization, a standard of First Vision imagery also began to emerge, largely established by commissioned, institutionally approved, and Church-reproduced images.
The Explosion of a First Vision Symbol (1980–2020)
From 1980 to 2020, four artists’ depictions of the First Vision have accounted for about half of the published Ensign images of the First Vision: Greg Olsen’s (1988 and circa 1996) images of the First Vision have been published 24 times, Gary Kapp’s (2000) paintings 21 times, Walter Rane’s series of five First Vision images (circa 2005)18 times, and Del Parson’s (1987) image 15 times. Since 2010, Rane’s images account for about one out of every three First Vision paintings printed in the Ensign.
Parson’s 1987 image has achieved the status of visual canon, being included as the First Vision painting in the Gospel Art Kit, reproduced innumerable times and placed in various Church buildings worldwide.(fig. 21).Brilliantly, the viewer is placed behind Joseph Smith and roughly at his eye level, looking up with Joseph at God and Jesus. The Father and Son are identical in appearance, in white robes with grey hair and beards, the Father motioning to the Son at his right, who has his left hand extended. Joseph follows the increasingly normalized pattern, in his white shirt and brown pants with his arm raised
Greg Olsen’s 1988 painting has also become a classic, reproduced countless times.This image omits the Father and Son as 1950s and ’60s images did, but a soft light (which Olsen is a master at) descends from heaven. Joseph, in white and brown costume, is on his knees, right hand upraised to block the light. Between the popularity of Parson’s 1987 image and Olsen’s 1988, this look and pose have become cemented as the visual symbol of Joseph Smith’s prayer in the grove.
Space will not allow me to elaborate much on each of the following images, and this list is by no means comprehensive, but the following images exemplify the explosion of First Vision art in this time period and the established accepted expression of the event.
George Handrahan’s 1989 piece features not the vision itself but the direct aftermath of the event that changes the course of his life, with Joseph walking calmly on a path out of the green grove back to his home (fig. 22). Conversely, Jerry Harston’s 1995 illustration depicts Joseph standing upright as he enters the green leafed grove, prior to offering up his prayer.
William Lee Hill’s painting (year unknown) is unique in its pastel portrayal of the event, focused only on the boy Joseph’s face, a purplish light cutting diagonally across the composition (fig. 23). Similar to Hill’s composition, Liz Lemon Swindle’s circa 1998 image zooms in only on Joseph, lying on his back amidst green leaves and a few purple flowers, left arm half raised to block the light.
Leon Parson’s 1999 paintingtakes the opposite approach of Swindle’s and Hill’s, pulling the viewer further back from the scene, looking through trees from a distance as Joseph sits on the ground and speaks to two heavenly beings. Prominent in the left foreground is a white tail deer looking at the event while its fawn looks directly at the viewer.
Gary Kapp’s 2000 painting is one of the most oft-reproduced images in the Ensign, with Joseph profiled sitting on the viewer’s left, his arm upraised, the Father and Son on the right hand side in a column of light.Realistic and representational in style, it is a prototype First Vision scene.
Glen Hopkinson’s 2002 image is highlighted by a bright burst in the middle of the scene, rays shooting through the leaves of the trees, with Joseph leaning back in awe and wonder. The viewer sees no divine beings, just an exploding flash of light (fig. 24).
Walter Rane’s 2004 The Desires of My Heart is also one of the most oft-reproduced images in modern institutional Church publications (fig. 25). Vertically columnar in shape, Rane’s image frames a kneeling Joseph, hands on his knees, between two trees in an early spring, barren brown grove. A few spots of green suggest leaves ready to burst, symbolizing the impending Restoration. Soft light emits from the top left corner, but no visuals of Deity are seen. Joseph’s clothes look well-worn and homely, his ruddy face looking upward with an innocent, sublime expression. Of this image, Rane said he “wanted to emphasize the youthfulness of Joseph. Not having him shield his eyes from the light I felt worked to show that there were no barriers to separate him from The Father and Son.”
Simon Dewey’s 2005 image also captures an innocent looking Joseph, kneeling and looking upward toward beaming light, omitting the Father and Son from the scene. Tightly painted in his signature style, Dewey’s composition is horizontal, drawing your eye left to right from Joseph to the light and then down toward yellow flowers and Joseph’s overcoat and hat piled against a tree (fig. 26).
Michael Bedard’s 2008 painting is composed columnarly, and almost divided in two.On the right Joseph kneels, looking upward from barren trees ready to blossom, and the left half is a white column of light with the Father and Son standing side by side, one being with outstretched arms. The viewer is pulled back and floats slightly above the ground, looking downward to Joseph.
A quick visual review of these images (22–26) reveals that by this time period a standardized Joseph Smith’s First Vision look and pose is established: a boy in a white shirt and brown pants on his knees or back usually with one hand uplifted to heaven, as a bright, soft-white light sits above him, often with two floating bearded beings in white clothing surrounded by a green grove. While this symbol may not be historically accurate (as will be discussed in a later section), this has become the common look most artists have employed since 1950. Compare this to the first depiction in Stenhouse’s 1873 book, with rays of light coming from the Father and Son as they fly through the air, appearing nonsimultaneously to a noticeably young, curly-haired Joseph with arms open and in dark clothing.
Developing a recognizable religious visual symbol is often necessary and almost inevitable over time, as it can communicate quickly, clearly, consistently, and intimately with viewers. A man with a long white beard, a staff, and a red robe with black and white stripes is Moses. A bearded man in a robe holding a set of keys represents Peter. John the Beloved is historically depicted as beardless and younger. Nephi wears a headband. Abinadi is shirtless and old. A man with high cheekbones and shoulder-length brown hair parted down the middle with a forked beard and a robe over one shoulder is Jesus. Joseph Smith wears a white shirt and brown pants, kneeling or reclining on the ground among the trees, lifting one hand to heaven toward the light.Joseph’s costume and pose have been replicated in multiple Church films as well, enhancing the symbol through video, such as in the early 1976 The First Vision and 2005 Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration (revised in 2011). These symbols aren’t necessarily based on history or scripture, but they survive and thrive through the natural selection of artistic adoption and reproduction. The symbol has become so ubiquitous that even popular media deploys it, such as Latter-day Saint musician Brandon Flowers in his music video for “Only the Young,” where on his knees he lifts his right hand to block a flood of light from above as angelic dancers descend and ascend. Even pejorative cartoons such as South Park show Joseph Smith in a white shirt and brown pants with his hand uplifted to block a heavenly light in the grove.
From Symbol to Abstraction
When a symbol has become commonly accepted and understood for a culture, the symbol allows for artistic abstraction, or the distortion away from realistic representation. In 2010, Jeff Pugh painted a powerful abstracted image of the First Vision that plays on the accepted symbol, omitting common realistic details of typical First Vision paintings and reducing the image down to basic geometric shapes and blocks of color. The Father and Son are simple palette-knife featureless forms of white. Joseph sits on a flat green plane, the rest of the bottom third of the painting a dark mass suggesting that, as Pugh said, “[Joseph] was going to be crushed, like he was alone. . . . And that had to be as dark as I possibly could get, and what happens is that on top of that darkness, it makes the brightness of the Father and the Son just explode” (fig. 27).
When Latter-day Saints see these commonly accepted symbols, even abstracted, it communicates the First Vision. J. Kirk Richards does so similarly, abstracting the Vision with accepted symbols to basic colors and shapes. Faces are not painted in his 2015 First Vision image, yet our minds see the Father and Son through two figures in white, side by side, one motioning to the other on his right, floating above a kneeling boy in a white shirt and brown pants, with sienna-brown vertical lines suggesting trees in a grove.(fig. 28). Michael J. Card’s 2003 painting simplifies the First Vision down to two generic light forms, floating in a blue sky, one motioning to the other on his right, the underpainting’s light umber suggesting trees or foliage. The boy isn’t wearing the customary costume of a white shirt and brown pants, nor is he on his knees with his hands uplifted. Instead he sits pensively with his arms wrapped around his legs. But the heavenly forms and positioning of the figures alone tells a Latter-day Saint to see the First Vision in it (fig. 29).Richards avoids detail, but we don’t need it by now. His 2016 First Vision painting follows the same pattern, brilliantly reducing the composition, shapes, poses, and colors to communicate the understood message
To show the communicative ability of this established First Vision symbol for Latter-day Saints, I created a geometric abstraction on my computer and showed it to random students sitting in the hallways of the Joseph Smith Building at Brigham Young University (fig. 30). Without providing them any context, I asked, “What do you see in this image?” Within a few seconds, each identified it as an image of the First Vision. Here is my conversation with a student named Emily:
Anthony Sweat: What do you see in this image?
Emily: It reminds me of the First Vision.
AS: Why does it remind you of the First Vision?
Emily: [Pauses for a few seconds] Because we always see in pictures of the First Vision Joseph Smith kneeling with his hand to his face and two bright images, or two personages I guess, in the picture.
AS: Anything else?
Emily: I guess the pants. We always see him in a white shirt and brown pants too.
Another student, Jacob, responded this way:
AS: Tell me what you see in this image.
Jacob: That’s Joseph Smith and two personages of light.
AS: Now, why do you say that’s Joseph Smith?
Jacob: Um, to be honest, brown pants. . . . Definitely the brown pants. And the arm [lifts his hand as if blocking a light from above]. That’s why.
Ben Crowder’s 2019 image, used on the cover of this issue, is a potent example of reducing the symbol of the First Vision to geometric shapes. Because the shapes suggest a kneeling pose, a column of light, with appropriately colored brown and green shapes, most Latter-day Saints can interpret the image as Joseph’s vision in the grove. Such abstraction would likely not communicate the event to someone outside of Latter-day Saint visual culture.
Thus, as artists today continue to create new images of the First Vision, they can rely upon readily understood and accepted symbols of the First Vision to communicate their views of the event.
Reinterpreting First Vision Symbols
One problem with relying upon accepted artistic symbols of an event, however, is that over time symbols can overshadow sources. Visual imagery has such a powerful effect upon the mind that some learners, even unconsciously, begin to use the accepted imagery based in symbols as the historical and doctrinal reality of the event, which can simultaneously enhance yet also limit understanding. Elise Petersen and Steven Harper have called this phenomenon “source amnesia,” writing, “When the Saints rely too heavily on visual or cinematic arts as the catalysts of their memory, the problem of source amnesia can be compounded. . . . It is common to hear Latter-day Saints talk about, even testify of, elements of the vision that are suggested by artistic or cinematic representations.”
For example, although it is an appropriate expression and a commonly accepted artistic First Vision symbol to place the Son at the right hand of the Father, none of the existing historical accounts of the First Vision specify that detail. It seems to stem from Don Carlos Young’s directions to Tiffany to position “the Son being on the right hand of the Father,”which visual symbol has subsequently been repeatedly adopted. As another example, a beautiful symbol has been established to commonly depict the column of light in soft or luminous white. However, some contemporary First Vision sources also use the word “fire” to describe the column. Orson Pratt’s 1840 version said that Joseph feared the grove would be consumed in flames. What if the “pillar of flame,” to use Joseph’s 1835 description, were more firelike and yellow?
Also, there may be visual omissions our commonly accepted and perpetuated First Vision symbols have overlooked. In Joseph’s 1835 account of the heavenly vision, he concludes by saying, “I saw many angels in this vision.”(fig. 31). At the base of the statue is a sculpture of the First Vision, among the earliest (if not the earliest) First Vision sculptures executed. Situated below Joseph and Hyrum is a scene of the young boy Joseph Smith, hands clasped together in prayer, with the Father and Son appearing to him on billowing clouds (interestingly, the Son is to the left of the Father). And what is behind the Father and Son? Four angels seated on clouds (fig. 32).This rich detail has largely been historically absent in our standard First Vision iconography. Interestingly, perhaps one of the earliest artistic depictions of the First Vision suggests this artistically overlooked element of “many angels” in the First Vision. In the Celestial Room of the Salt Lake Temple, a large statue was placed on a pedestal. It appears to be an artist’s concept version of a potential large public monument to Joseph Smith, and the sculpture is beautifully executed. Joseph and Hyrum stand grasping a column underneath cherubic angels and a woman holding a torch. The artist is unknown, and sadly the statue is unaccounted for today, the pedestal base having been located but not the sculpture that was once set upon it. Our knowledge of it comes from photographs taken in 1911 by Ralph Savage of C. R. Savage Company
As one who repeatedly teaches about the historical accounts of the First Vision in my role as a religion professor in Church history and doctrine, and also as a practicing artist with a bachelor’s degree in fine art in painting and drawing, in 2018 I painted a First Vision scene that attempts to bring together into one cohesive picture a harmony of the nine contemporary First Vision historical accounts, including some of the aspects previously discussed that are not typically depicted in First Vision imagery (fig. 33). In my painting, you see bright yellow fire blazing out from heaven, wrapped around the figures in dramatic fashion, as Joseph’s 1832 and 1835 accounts use the word fire. The pose of the Father is meant to suggest that the Father has just finished speaking to Joseph and has now turned to the side, opening up Joseph’s view to the Savior, who is descending down from heaven, attempting to represent their nonsimultaneous appearance. Joseph’s 1835 account describes one divine being appearing followed shortly by another, and David Nye White’s 1843 account reports Joseph saying, “Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage, and the first personage said to the second, ‘Behold my beloved Son, hear him.’”
In a departure from one historical account, I purposely painted the skin color of the Father and Son more bronzed, rather than Euro white that we see in most other Christian/Latter-day Saint imagery, to appeal more broadly to people of color across the world.As mentioned, in Joseph’s 1835 account he says, “I saw many angels in this vision.” The event may have been far more expansive in scope than we often depict it. Depicted above the Father and Son is a gathering of many types of heavenly angels—female and male and of all races, to signify the global impact of the First Vision—divinely assembled to witness and testify.
Joseph is kneeling on the ground, wearing a light brown overshirt, purple vest, and blue pants to set him apart from the white clothing of the Father and Son and the brown earth tones of the foreground. In the bottom right corner of the painting, there’s an axe in a stump, a detail mentioned in David Nye White’s 1843 account.In the bottom left corner, Satan is painted fleeing, a flat pillar of darkness being pushed away from Joseph by the vertical pillar of flame. Satan’s pose is an homage to Carl Bloch’s Jesus Casting Out Satan. Last, like in paintings done by Walter Rane in the early 2000s, in my image the grove is depicted without much foliage, instead of being full leafy green. Although we don’t know the month and day of the First Vision, the browns and trees suggest an early-spring grove getting ready to burst out of winter’s dark slumber, a fitting metaphor for the fruits of the First Vision itself.
It is evident that my image is both a reflection of current cultural values and is symbiotically meant to influence cultural norms by painting some aspects of the First Vision often omitted or not previously shown. It is merely one more way to look at it. My modern access to the nine contemporary accounts through the Joseph Smith Papers website,and my repeated analysis of them in my role as a religion professor, culturally influence how I see, interpret, and paint the event. While I draw heavily on the known historical accounts, I do not mean to imply that this is how it should or must be done. Visual art is about personal expression, communicating to viewers without words through line, balance, contrast, color, texture, shape, rhythm, and other principles and elements of design. Being 100 percent historically accurate is usually an unattainable, and at times even an undesirable, artistic ideal.
Why certain aspects of the First Vision are depicted and perpetuated, I cannot say, nor do I judge. It may be that some artists are simply unaware of various elements discussed in the other noncanonized accounts of the First Vision. Or maybe they are aware of them and consciously choose not to depict them, such as omitting the adversarial attack (which most paintings do not show) to focus more on Joseph’s vision of the Father and Son. It may be that artists reduce the vision to its core elements (boy, praying, Father and Son, grove). It may be that artists simply want to rely on the known and accepted symbols to communicate their message. It may be that there is a sort of artistic “biasing” or “priming” taking place that colors or limits how the visual is imagined—where once an image is seen, it can’t be unseen, and it is replicated both consciously and subconsciously. Whatever the potential explanation, I do believe there is room for rich expansion and continued exploration outside the mold of standardized First Vision art perpetuated in the last one hundred years.
The Future of First Vision Art
So, what will be the future direction of First Vision art in the next one hundred or two hundred years? If the past two centuries are any indicator, it will likely take shifts and turns in emphasis, substance, and style. Cultural priorities and pressures will act upon future First Vision art to push it in new directions, just as they have in the past. As the Church continues to spread and becomes more global, it is likely that First Vision art will reflect that increased diversity. Artistic symbols are often incorporated into and are reflective of the culture where they are produced and the people of that culture. Thus, we see Asian and African and Polynesian and Mexican nativity depictions of Jesus. In the future, we will also likely see similar international artistic interpretations of the symbols of the First Vision. Many such have already appeared in the last few decades. Joni Susanto’s expressive 1990 batik cotton textile of the First Vision image reflects marvelous Indonesian aesthetics (fig. 34). Emile Wilson’s 1992 batik textile employs standard First Vision symbols, but Joseph, the Father, and the Son are each brown skinned, speaking from and to where the image was produced in Sierra Leone (fig. 35).
Although the majority of the corpus thus far has been created by males, as contemporary modern cultures continue to call for and provide better gender equity in all aspects of society, it may be that more future First Vision art will be produced by women, resulting in different views and expressions of the Vision. Or it may be that First Vision art will depict more women in the grove, either representing Joseph, angels, or Deity.(fig. 36). They are featureless, white forms, haloed each with a nimbus, and it is impossible to determine who is who. Does the third glorified being in the grove represent our Heavenly Mother, or perhaps the Holy Ghost? The painting is open to “flexible interpretation,” Galen Dara told me, but that “a reference to Heavenly Mother is a very apt translation.” Recently, another female artist, Alice Pritchett, created a unique gilded linoleum print of the First Vision that includes a concourse of male and female angels, and even some animals (horses and dogs). Directly above the Father and the Son is a female figure with a large halo. Alice said she created this image seeking to explore such questions as, “Who fought off the devils who tried to stop [Joseph]?” and, “What was Heavenly Mother’s role during the event?” (fig. 37). Although none of the historical accounts specifically mention Mother in Heaven, doctrinal emphases can cause historical reinterpretation, and prophetic revelations can always add additional understanding.
Speaking of history, we are at a pivotal point regarding how Church history is being approached by the institutional Church. Efforts like the new narrative Church history Saints, the Church’s Gospel Topics Essays, the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and new Church Educational System courses such as Foundations of the Restoration are reflective of a transparent and open cultural approach to Church history. The Church and its members are becoming increasingly aware of and open to historical/doctrinal/policy nuances and alternatives that may have been closed off in the past, which opens possibilities for alternative expressions in art that may have been unacceptable to previous generations. Artist Gary Smith, who has and continues to produce many different paintings of the First Vision, said to me about First Vision art, “If you go too far afield on anything [in a painting], if you go too far outside of what is accepted, then they [the Church or its members] are less likely to use it.”In Church culture, we often associate what is faithful with what is familiar. As increased familiarity with various historical sources and doctrinal emphases shift, what was once heresy can become associated with orthodoxy and therefore with acceptability (even in art) in Church culture. Understanding the symbiotic nature of art as a reflection of culture but also as a driving factor in changing culture, Gary Smith countered that “the only way we get beyond just acceptability to the truth of things is to [paint] it and then be able to back it up. And then after a few of those paintings have been displayed out there and kind of accepted, that then becomes more of the norm, particularly for the next generation.”
As the Church moves to the next generation of members who are increasingly familiar with our sacred history but also familiar with certain difficulties, nuances, sticking points, and controversies, we may be moving out of a past culture of certainty and into a broader epistemological humility, embracing ambiguity and better acknowledging the limits of what is and is not known.(fig. 38). Set in atypical cool blue undertones, Joseph prays with hands clasped. Behind him high in the air come the Father and Son, surrounded by a concourse of angels flanking either side, reflecting the knowledge of the 1835 “many angels” historical account. Looking closely, ones sees a white line extending from Joseph’s head to God and Jesus, surrounding them. Kirk Richards told me:Notice these various elements of knowledge, history, humility, and ambiguity coming together in J. Kirk Richard’s recent painting of the First Vision (2020)
[This First Vision painting] has this bubble, like a thought bubble, like an umbilicus. The idea behind that was to say, because Joseph himself said he wasn’t sure what it [the grove experience] was, in so many words, and that’s kind of what the idea behind that is. What is this, is he out of body, is it a visitation, a vision, what is it? I am less interested in exactly what it was, than I am in carving out a space for different people to see [the First Vision] as different things.”
To conclude, United States politician and president John Adams once directed the famous artist John Trumbull that in painting history, “Truth, Nature, Fact, should be your sole guide. Let not our Posterity be deluded by fictions under pretence of poetical or graphical Licenses.”If the last two hundred years are any guide to the future two hundred years, it is likely that truth, nature, and fact will not be our sole guide in how, why, where, or when the vision is depicted. Culture factors and doctrinal emphases will play a major role. If Joseph Smith and the First Vision remain a central focal point of our doctrinal and historical narrative, which seems highly likely given its emphasis in this bicentennial year, then First Vision art will continue to propagate that foundational story, as it began to do in earnest in the 1900s. If, however, the focus and telling of our historical narrative and doctrinal message shifts, artistic emphasis will likely equally shift. This would not be to say that the First Vision did not happen or wasn’t important, only to say that priorities change, just as the Church from the 1830s to the 1870s had a different focus on which to rally energy and message, largely ignoring the First Vision. We do not paint the angel Raphael or Gabriel conferring priesthood to Joseph Smith very often (see D&C 128:21), do we? That does not mean it did not happen, just that it is not emphasized. Were the significance of the angel Raphael or Gabriel better known or consistently taught, paintings of those angels would probably proliferate, like numerous images of John the Baptist conferring the priesthood, or paintings of the First Vision did throughout the 1900s. Who is to say what cultural and revelatory factors may press upon the Church—and thus upon the artists who tell its story and sound its visual message—in the tricentennial year of 2120, or quadricentennial year of 2220? Depending which revelatory tectonic plates shift, the First Vision may visually recede and crumble into the oceans of the past or be thrust even higher up on the mountaintop of importance. Only time will tell, and undoubtedly there will be a visual record to tell it.