Scholars & Saints

Mormon Visual Culture & The American West (feat. Nathan Rees)

December 14, 2022 Stephen Betts Episode 29
Mormon Visual Culture & The American West (feat. Nathan Rees)
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Scholars & Saints
Mormon Visual Culture & The American West (feat. Nathan Rees)
Dec 14, 2022 Episode 29
Stephen Betts

Professor Nathan Rees (University of West Georgia) joins me to discuss his book Mormon Visual Culture and the American West. We chat about the role that visual art played in creating, mediating, and interpreting the experiences of nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints on the American frontier. Rees reveals that visual culture is more than just art: its about understanding and negotiating what is real. Join us to hear more about C.C.A. Christensen, The Mormon Panorama, settler colonialism, race, gender, and more. 

Show Notes Transcript

Professor Nathan Rees (University of West Georgia) joins me to discuss his book Mormon Visual Culture and the American West. We chat about the role that visual art played in creating, mediating, and interpreting the experiences of nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints on the American frontier. Rees reveals that visual culture is more than just art: its about understanding and negotiating what is real. Join us to hear more about C.C.A. Christensen, The Mormon Panorama, settler colonialism, race, gender, and more. 

Mormon Visual Culture & The American West


Stephen Betts: Welcome back to Scholars and Saints. I'm your host, Stephen Betts.


Stephen Betts: I'm joined today by Dr. Nathan Rees, associate professor of art history at the University of West Georgia. We're talking today about his book, Mormon Visual Culture and the American West published with Rutledge in 2021. Thanks for chatting today, Nathan. 

Nathan Rees: Hi. Thank you for having me. Yeah, it's a pleasure. 

Stephen Betts: So Nathan, your book is about, or it's structured around a series of vignettes in a panoramic painting that was done in the late nineteenth century by famed Latter-day Saint painter C.C.A. Christensen. Can you give us sort of the intro to who is C.C.A. Christensen, what is he known for, and what is the Mormon Panorama

Nathan Rees: Yeah, sure. So, C.C.A. Christensen, I chose this work as kind of the classic example of nineteenth century Mormon art. And I think it's the one thing that people outside of Mormonism actually kind of recognize. It was identified by a guy named Carl Kammer back in the 1970s as kind of a key work of American folk art. And it got exhibited at the Whitney in New York City in the seventies. So that really brought a lot of attention. It's also used all the time within Mormon culture, I guess in publications. It's at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, so people know it really, really well. And the book is not about that work or about Christensen specifically, but it seemed like a great kind of opening to a whole bunch of the different questions that I'm interested in throughout the book. And so, I use images from that panorama to introduce each of the individual chapters within the book. And so, it becomes kind of a touchstone throughout the book. 

C.C.A. is also a fascinating guy because he was really just right in the thick of the cultural world that I'm interested in exploring. He was a very nineteenth-century Mormon. He was a polygamist. He was a settler. He actually worked to help develop some of the new settlements in Sanpete County in central Utah. He was somebody who was fascinated by and interested in Mormon history. And he also did some work with the Church Historical department as well too in Salt Lake City. So,  he was just really in the midst of this. And this panorama is an amazing thing. He would go tour around little towns, big cities, everywhere throughout the Mormon cultural region with the Panorama, starting in, I think 1879.

And he got a lot of attention for this. So, people of his era were really fascinated by his account about the history of Mormonism. And then it's also kind of a fascinating thing too, because a little bit of deeper investigation reveals that this is not just an illustration, you know of the history of Mormonism, but instead actually really shows Christensen's own viewpoint. And that's one of the main points that I make in this book as well too, is that many of these images that we tend to think about as just, you know, representations of what happened, pictures of the past, you know, are filtered through, mediated through individual perspectives of individual agents. And Christiansen's Panorama is no exception to that.

Stephen Betts: Yeah. You kind of draw out in the book how art in many ways for Latter-day Saints is filtered through what you call a “theology of visuality” and certain values like truthfulness and a kind of straightforward representational quality in their art, which as you just noted, is a way that personal interpretations of events sort of gets masked in the ways that art gets created. The other interesting thing about The Panorama of course, which contains, what is it, seven or eight different vignettes about Mormon history or how many? 

Nathan Rees: It's 23. It is 23. 

Stephen Betts: Oh my gosh. Oh wow.

Nathan Rees: Yeah. There's only 22 that actually still survive, but it was, yeah, he kind of did it in stages, but the final product was 23 different scenes. Yeah. It's extensive. It's 175 feet long, by the way. 

Stephen Betts: Oh, wow. Yeah.

Nathan Rees: It's a gigantic artwork. 

Stephen Betts: So, he's touring around the Mormon culture region. So, we're talking northern Utah, southern Utah. Does he go up into Idaho at all?

Nathan Rees: He does, yep. Yeah, I think so. I'm not sure if he ever crosses into Wyoming or Arizona. I’d have to double check on that one. But yeah, up and down Utah and into Idaho. 

Stephen Betts: He's touring around. And part of this spectacle, which you characterize as a “multi-sensory spectacle,” and that I think deserves talking about a little bit, is that he has lectures on history, right, that are very evocative, very expressive. So, talk a little bit about the sensorium that's being evoked, not just by the pictures, but by other things that are going on.

Nathan Rees: Sure. Well, this is a very nineteenth-century phenomenon that we don't really appreciate. Just the idea of the panorama as a form of entertainment. It was super popular throughout the period that Christensen was working. Towards the end of his life, it declined, and then of course, in the early twentieth century as cinema became a thing, then panoramas kind of fell by the wayside. This was a thing that, you know, you would just experience in ordinary life as a form of entertainment in big cities. Lots of panoramas toured. And so, there's plenty of examples of this, by the way too, of panoramas coming from places like San Francisco to Salt Lake.

So you could go see these big traveling productions. And a lot of them were like really super high-end things. So, like monumental, even much bigger than Christensen's work. They'd go to theaters, pack out the house. They would have sometimes lighting effects, special effects. Like, there's an example of one that's about like a boat journey where apparently there's actual water getting like sprinkled on the audience at some point.

All kinds of ways of making this more of a form of entertainment. And for Christensen, he's adopting that kind of mode. But he's also insisting that this is not just entertainment, that this is actually a religious thing. This is a religious experience that he's teaching about this important history about Mormonism. For him, truths about Mormonism in a very serious way. But he borrows from that whole language of entertainment from the The Panorama. This way of appealing to multi-sensory experience all at once. And so, for his shows, obviously they were a lot lower tech than, than some of the big productions, but they always involved music in addition to The Panorama presentation itself.

We have some evidence of that actually from his very early showings. And we know a lot more about what this looked like actually towards the very end. And honestly we know more about what it looks like when his son took over, really at the very end of Christensen's life. There's, there's more recorded about that. But the audience would join in singing hymns. Christensen would deliver a lecture that was copious. We have some notes from the lecture as well too that we're really fortunate that have survived, that he would go through in extensive detail and describe all of the individual little things that are happening in this image and highlight the drama that's taking place within his visual compositions as well too. So, he had done some painting for stages, scenery painting, and he understood how you could use the visual elements of art to create affect, to make these images not just mere static representations, but really dynamic, emotionally appealing kinds of images.

And I talk a little bit about how he uses illusionistic lighting effects, for instance, within some of the images themselves to give you this sense of action, intensity, drama, that's happening and all of this, you know, combined with the music, combined with the motion as the Panorama actually turns from scene to scene, and as he moves through time to create this really immersive kind of experience so that he's hoping that when you leave this presentation, you've had this real like vicarious experience, or you feel like you've had this vicarious experience of the actual events as they've transpired that through this transfer of affect, now you leave with this sense of the importance, the truth of the things that he's presented in this presentation. So, it is more than just, you know, like static artworks and Christensen really was, I think, masterful at turning this into a full-on religious experience. 

Stephen Betts: I think the other aspect of this is of course, that, and we'll get into this a little bit later, but talking about the felt need on the part of Christensen to make this an immersive experience, to make this an experience where you would come away feeling not just that you had received historical information. And of course documentary focus of Latter-day Saints from the very beginning has always sort of tended towards a kind of, you know, very historical consciousness rather than a visual, you know, what most people would think of as a “visual consciousness” or the invoking these other senses of the body in religious experience.

But what I think you highlight by using Christensen as a window is the ways that visual culture was so important to not only Latter-day Saint worship, but to broader American religious culture in general and the culture of the American West of how images helped create not just your experience of culture, but your experience of reality, right. So talk, you know, give us a sense of how do you look at the vignettes in this panorama and reveal culture behind that. How do you key those two things to each.

Nathan Rees: So I think, just to maybe even take a little bit of a step back is it's important to realize, as you note, the ways in which visual culture contributed to American religious experience, and there's been a longstanding kind of perception that within at least Protestant American religion it’s like, well, you know, art isn't a part of that. It's like art is proscribed, or art is thought of as potentially being idolatrous. And yet as scholarship has really developed over the last a generation or so, there's a huge visual culture associated with Protestantism in the United States. And so, it's been fascinating to kind of think through that as well too in Mormonism where occasionally, you know, people will note that there are uses of images that are uniquely religious related to practice or ritual within Mormonism.

But there's actually this huge, broader visual culture associated with Mormonism as well too that's really important to explore as it's one of the primary ways in which people engaged with their religion during that time period, learned about their religion, and experienced the religion as well too. So, yeah, Christensen is right on there.

A bunch of other, you know, Mormon artists. Christensen certainly in the scenes in his vignettes, is describing things that happened in an earlier generation. So, the end of the Panorama presentation is actually the arrival of the Latter-day Saints into the Salt Lake Valley. So nominally, it ends in 1847, but as you note, you note, it's actually addressing lots of cultural issues that Latter-day Saints are facing in the era in which he's presenting the Panorama.

And maybe the most obvious place to see that is in how the Panorama's narrative focuses so intently on the idea of persecution. And this to me is, as you see all these scenes, you kind of can't help but realize this. It doesn't look like the kind of condensed version of early Latter-day Saint history that I think a lot of contemporary folks would probably be familiar with, because it's missing so many of the important kinds of like spiritual moments or even just like moments about the organization of the Church or the printing of the Book of Mormon.

It really kind of just jumps right from the Hill Cumorah into the disasters, tragedies, of persecution as the Mormons went through Missouri and then into Illinois, and then being driven out West. And to me, looking at the contemporary world that Christensen was a part of, his audiences would've understood just immediately that this is not just about the 1830s and forties.This is about right now in the 1880s especially, as Christensen was kind of at the height of the Panorama moment when Latter-day Saints are, from their perspective being persecuted in a very similar kind of way by the federal government as they're cracking down on the practice of polygamy and then increasingly putting pressure on the Church as an institution, but then also on individuals.

And a fun fact about C.C.A. Christensen is that he was actually arrested, he was charged, he got off really much better than most other folks. There was a technicality, I think with his, I'm trying to remember now the, the legal language exactly. But the charges, initial charges had, or his initial trial had to be redone. And by the time he came to a second trial, that 1890 Manifesto where Wilford Woodriff began the process of stopping new polygamous marriages in the LDS church. That had already happened. And so, as kind of a part of the deal there with the Manifesto, a lot of these other charges were dropped, including C.C.A.’s.

So, he really almost, you know, he could easily have, if this process had happened a little sooner, he could have even faced jail time for this. So, I think for us in the present, you know, we don't really realize the stakes being quite so high that these are not just questions about religious belief, or even about religious practice, but about rights, and potentially having freedom taken away for following those practices. So, yeah. If you're watching this Panorama in 1880, you understand what this whole focus on persecution is about, and it's not just about establishing that the Mormon church developed through persecution. 

The only scene in the panorama that actually has text on the painting is on the scene where Joseph and Hiram Smith are being assassinated. And, uh, it has this line on the bottom that says “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”[1] And it's pretty clear, you know, that this is the key moment that this revolves around. And that just as Joseph Smith's sacrifice in 1844 is what established then this flourishing church that Christensen’s a part of in 1879. Your work in 1879 needs to be to rise to the occasion in the same way that Joseph Smith did. And, and whether that means, you know, probably not actually facing martyr. But being willing to give everything on behalf of continuing this religion and its practices. I think that's pretty clear the way that Christensen frames that in the Panorama.

Stephen Betts: I feel like in order for our listeners to understand, what you articulate as an emergent Mormon theology of visuality that develops through their engagement with visual culture, we need to understand what kinds of misunderstandings modern interpreters of nineteenth-century Mormonism typically have about how Mormons and other Americans would've engaged with art. You already mentioned this sort of like an iconic emphasis in Protestantism where people like David Morgan, as you note in the book, have really complicated the general idea that Protestants didn’t use images in worship.[2] They don't have, you know, images in their churches.

Well, as it turns out in nineteenth century Mormonism, although they tend to follow that in sort of general ways, we have the use of murals in temples; very, you know, complex, evocative murals. We have the use of other paintings in church buildings. But again, like you note, visual culture goes beyond these kinds of official uses. So, talk to us more. What we need to understand about nineteenth century religious culture and Mormon culture and how they used visual art.

Nathan Rees: Yeah, so those are really great points. And there's a lot that I think that gets overlooked. One of the things that I think is really important, so a lot of people have written about these artists have written about Mormon art and have focused from more of an art historical perspective where following a very kind of traditional art, historical perspective where you'll look at the example of an individual artist, kind of think about their oeuvre, think about their training, and think about their output in their work and, and kind of move through these catalogs of artists, which, you know, is really important work. And I'm really glad and grateful for all the people who have done that. But it's also very important to think about how these artists contributed to the cultural context of which they were a part. And so, I think that's maybe one of the most important things that's been overlooked in this study of Mormon art. I think that's actually where a lot of the fascinating stuff is, and it helps us to get away from another kind of stumbling block too, which is to think about some of these early artists as “pioneers” and Christensen often gets grouped there as well too.

And frankly, I think this is why Christensen's popular, maybe nationally is because he looks like a folk artist, right? And there's so much like freight that comes along with that kind of term, that it looks like he's bringing this kind of like naivete and charming Americana kind of approach. But in fact, what he's doing is really sophisticated. The work he's doing is profoundly sophisticated and his work is actually much more nuanced than maybe it initially looks like. So, when we talk about these artists and we, you know, they get grouped into this kind of like, well idea of like, well pioneer artists were really just kind of laying the groundwork for understanding how art works and developing an art culture in Utah or in the West. Then you kind of fall into that assumption that that means they're just sort of naive, that they're not really addressing other critical issues, or contributing in significant ways to the rhetoric of their religious movement, which when you actually really start to drill down, they're doing all the time.

So that's one I think, important thing for folks to understand as well too. The other thing that tends to be a stumbling block is that when you say “Mormon art,” then you're typically thinking about a very small corpus. So, it’ll be like, well, the handful of sculpted images, a somewhat larger body of maybe painted images and then occasionally, you know, some fine art prints that get included with that as well too.

That's really not how Mormon audiences actually experienced art during the nineteenth century. There was so much more of it too, that they had access to all kinds of printed imagery, engravings, things that are being published in periodicals, photography, stuff that they have access to all the time that they're using to help, whether understand, construct, reinforce, interpret, all of those things, their religious beliefs, cultural practices, et cetera. And a lot of it was not made by Mormon artists. And so that was really important for me to think outside of that kind of category. And that's why I use the framework of “visual culture” specifically instead of just thinking about this as the study of art. Because so much of the imagery that shaped Mormonism and that Mormons used to shape their own world, came from other sorts of sources.

Maybe the classic example of this is The Juvenile Instructor, so I talk a lot about this.  I think it really is probably the single largest vehicle for disseminating art among Mormon audiences in the nineteenth century. It's a children's magazine that's published by George Q. Cannon, sort of in association with the Deseret Sunday School Union, and it was important for Cannon to include images from the very beginning. So, from 1866, not just because it's partly because you really can't sell a children's magazine that doesn't have images. That's important. He understood that, but then also because he was really committed and probably more so than any other Mormon leader from that era to the idea that images can be a part of worship, at least a part of religion, an important part of religion, and that they have the opportunity to teach people truth through images in ways that words can't necessarily do. So, he went to great lengths to try to find images from all sorts of different sources that would work to illustrate the various kinds of, whether virtues that he was promoting or histories that he was discussing, scriptural lessons that he was drawing.

And of course, there's not the technology, there's not the kind of printing infrastructure doesn't exist, especially in the 1860s when he is starting it out in Salt Lake City. And so, he has to borrow images from other places, but he's able to very effectively do that and to find images that are, you know, recycled from some entirely different publication.

And then to take it and use it to illustrate some point that's relevant to what he's trying to teach within Mormonism. And that could be as, as simple as something as just like taking an image that shows a young woman and talking about the way that she's dressed and thinking about how that relates to conceptions of morality that that Cannon was promoting. It could be much more nuanced. Sometimes I can't even figure out what the original image was supposed to have been about, and you know, who knows where he's getting all these things from. But the point that I'm trying to make is, and it’s not just him, is that these images become a part of Mormon worship experience. They become a way in which people learn about religious ideas, whether that's history, practice, or belief. And they become a way of expressing their religious commitment, even if these images don't even necessarily originate from a Mormon setting. So, it's really important to think outside of just that very narrow little niche of what is nineteenth-century Mormon art and instead think like, well, what was their visual culture actually like? And it turns out it's really pretty expansive. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, that's really interesting that they're not just producing art, they're not just producing fine art and sculpture and things like this. They're engaged in a much broader, visual culture. And they're appropriating other people's visual culture too, to resignify it in ways that are related to moral formation and even worship.

Why did truthfulness, the value of truthfulness, become so central to the ways that Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century thought about the function of art? You mentioned, you know, George Q. Cannon’s  I think probably pretty common at the time, use of art as a way of, you know, illustrating virtue for instance, or like trying to inculcate virtue in children. But what about truthfulness? Why is that such an important value for Latter-day Saint?

Nathan Rees: Yeah, that's a really good point. And I think part of this also comes to questions, debates that were happening in that era about the proper use of art in religious contexts. And in particular debates about Protestant versus Catholic uses of art in this time period.

And for a lot of especially early converts to Mormonism, there was a suspicion of images associated with Catholic practice, with thinking about images that could be considered more iconic images that might lend themselves a little bit toward that blurry line between are you learning from the image or are you worshiping the image? And so to stay really clear, to make a clear demarcation between what's acceptable religious practice involving images and what shifts into idolatry, that idea of education, that if this image is something that you are teaching truth through, then that's acceptable. That it's understood that this is a representation that has that didactic function and isn't really serving in a kind of iconic function.

And you know, it's not just about the subject. It's not just about saying, well, you know, this is like an artwork that's illustrating something from the Bible, therefore it's acceptable. It's also about the aesthetic, right? Because images that seem too iconic are gonna be those images maybe that include more symbolic content. They're more metaphorical that have taken figures from particular biblical narratives, but then disassociated them from the narrative context. And that looks suspicious both because of what I've noted in terms of these debates, but also because of the strong sentiments, anti-Catholic sentiments in America at that time as well too.

So, this, it is not just a religious thing, it's also a cultural argument. And for Latter-day Saints, and they're not unique in this of course, but they're strongly committed to this. Making images that signify truthfulness in that particular kind of way, and I call it “truth-signaling naturalism,” that it's an image that you look at and you're supposed to say, “okay, I'm seeing a scene that happened whether in the Bible or in the Book of Mormon or in Mormon church history.”

You're not learning through this kind of iconic, symbolic mode. Instead, it's like you're looking through this little window and as long as all the details are right, that's really the critical thing to people like Cannon. And so, Cannon for instance, would go on rants about images of angels with wings. Hated to know that there were Mormons out there that had wherever they got these things, that had images in their house that showed winged angels.

And it might not seem like that big of a deal right from a Mormon perspective that angels don't have wings. But for Cannon, it violates that kind of core principle. And it's not just that you have a detail that's wrong, but then that that means that that artwork can start to slip across that line of what is didactic and then move over into that suspicious realm of potentially the iconic, or even worse, the idolatrous.

And so, Christensen, all these artists, really, people like Ottinger, they embrace theories of art where the ideal is to create things that look real and not just in the sense either of like illusionistic. And that's important to point out too, because I think that's kind of the first thing we think of when we think about, you know, what realism means and Christensen's, frankly pretty bad at that, right?

Is like, he's not the world's most accomplished academic painter. But that's not really what it is either. It's more about the reality of the situation, right? Of the, the place and the context and the things, the material particularity of all of these individual, itemized objects, people in places within these works of art that really is what's signifying truth to their audiences, even more than the illusionistic kind of idea of making things that actually look, you know, real to your visual sight.

Instead, it's supposed to be this kind of realism in terms of, “this is really what it was like. This is the real thing that actually happened.” And then it reinforces so many other aspects of Mormonism as well too. And we were talking a moment ago about the idea of witnessing that if you are seeing, you know, what was really there, if you're witnessing this scene as you, as you actually saw, then it gives you that chance to then be able to build that testimony based on that witness that's a sensory experience and you know, it's a vicarious sensory experience and Christensen's audience, all these artists’ viewers understand that what they're seeing is something that's at least once-removed from reality. But by being able to witness it through that physical sense of vision, that it builds that sense that they've witnessed it, themselves.

And this is also, this gets worked into Christensen's aesthetic, to a lot of these other artists in a variety of different ways. I talk about this actually at his representation of the Hill Cumorah. It's like, you gotta stop and think about the choices, you know, that these artists are making. And I wish I could, you know, visually describe this or describe through words what, you know, what these artworks really look like.

But if you look at the choices that Christensen made when he represents the Angel Moroni handing off the Gold Plates to Joseph Smith, there's some kind of strange choices that he takes this step really quite far back and the action is all just happening within just a very small proportion of the canvas in the center. I think that's really purposeful because Christensen is imagining you not being a person, seeing this as a symbolic, iconic representation, but instead you being there watching this like from a distance where it would seem comfortable and it gives it that effect. You don't feel like you're looking at a picture. You feel like you're in the woods looking, you know, a little further into the woods and seeing these people, or this person and, you know, former person, angelic figure that are in the midst of this divine experience. And as a viewer that gives you that sense of “this is really what it's like.”

And then of course for Christensen as well too. And we were talking about this earlier as well, in terms of his multimedia kind of approach to this. Well, his lecture is all about that as well too. So, he's gonna tell you about how, if you go to the Hill Cumorah then, there used to be, you know, this number of trees and it's on this particular facing side of the hill at this particular spot. But if you were to go to that hill now where a lot of the trees are gone. And so, we are getting all these details not only through the images themselves, but also through the lecture that give you this sense of like, “yeah, this is real, this is like really what happened there. And I'm seeing it now with my eyes in this vicarious way.”

And it’s removed, it's been mediated through an artist, but Christensen hopes you forget that, right? That it's like he's hoping that you are just seeing this, and you are witnessing what happened. You know, obviously from, from his perspective. And so that whole aesthetic, it's not just the idea about images being truthful, but that really inspires that it, it promotes a particular aesthetic mode that became entirely entrenched in nineteenth-century Mormonism, and I think still actually reverberates through Mormon art into the present. 

Stephen Betts: I mean, you make me think about a number of things. You talk about the experientially real, and that reminds me of something that Kathleen Flake says in her really well-known article, “Translating Time,” talking about Joseph Smith's translation, and what does that mean, what does translation mean for him? And she has this really arresting line where she says that what he was trying to do, and I'm paraphrasing, was to make what he was conveying experientially real, the world he was conveying experientially real rather than philosophically true. [3] And you get the same sense from like the ways that the Book of Mormon, for instance, is narrated, where you have this really intense focus on the description of the production of the records that are being described.

And so very similar kind of immersive experience, an immersive sensory experience where what you're dealing with is not so much historicity, but facticity of like the realness as opposed to the historical. The historical part's important of course, but the realness is more important than the history.

I wanna touch on how this plays out in especially the politics of the nineteenth century, the colonial politics as well. So, for instance, we have Latter-day Saints using visual art, visual culture to combat what they see as inaccurate or even false representations of polygamy and the exploitation of women in Utah. Talk a little bit about that and then I hope we can also talk about how they're not just pushing back against these representations, but they're actively creating an experience of gender and sexuality through this sort of dialogue they're having.

Nathan Rees: Yeah, sure. So, I guess really kind of two different questions that are thinking about race and gender that actually do overlap in a whole lot of respects. One of the things that I think is really important to understand about Mormon art from this period that gets overlooked all the time is that it's kind of always about issues related to race in particular that, you know, we lose sight of this the further it gets along from 1847 that the places that pioneers, early Mormon settlers, however you wanna describe them. The places they were arriving were not uninhabited places. And you know, scholarship has just reinforced this over and over and over, that this is something that has been at times purposely forgotten because there's a lot of really awful things that happened in the process of colonization as Native people were removed and artworks were used to justify this removal really from the very beginning. So I talk about not only images that represent Native Americans, and of course in the context of Mormonism, this is such a fraught question. And then in the context of Utah settlement as well too, because there's a kind of ideal image of the “Lamanite.”

So, this idea that Native Americans are the descendant of the peoples that are described in the Book of Mormon, and that there's an anticipated return of Native people back into the Mormon church. Then at the same time, there's the reality of the people that Latter-day Saints as they immigrate into the Great Basin area, the people that they actually meet and encounter who don't see themselves in that worldview, and for the most part are really uninterested in adapting to that worldview despite the expectations of so many of those settlers. And this is traced through images in addition to being traced through texts.

So, I talk a lot about images that represent the kind of idealized Native Americans that Latter-day Saints are always kind of holding out hope. It gets, I think, gradually diminished as the territorial period progresses. But then there are also these images that represent much more stereotyped images of Native Americans as a way of, of denigrating people, as a way of justifying, bringing “civilization” to people who, from these images at least, are clearly in need of it. 

And then the third point about this, and this is I think the one that gets overlooked the most, and the one that I'm really most passionate about is a beloved body of artwork that is rightly celebrated by a bunch of amazing artists. And this is a little bit after Christensen's time when this really gets started up. But listeners might be familiar with the art missionaries.[4] So a group of artists that traveled to Paris in the 1890s at the expense of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the idea that they would get training at some of the best art academies in the world at that time, come back and be able to then do exceptional work for the Salt Lake Temple as it was being completed. Well, those artists are mostly not famous for their work in the temple, but instead for their landscape work. and Utah, of course, a place for landscape art. And continues to be amazing landscapes in Utah.

But these artists specialized in agricultural landscapes and there are just, there are dozens of these in every major collection in Utah and some of these in collections outside of Utah that represent these idyllic harvest scenes, planting scenes that have this like abundant agricultural fields in the center of desert landscape. They're striking images that show the success of these settlers in using irrigated agriculture to create this agricultural bounty. Of course, these people were using the biblical language of “making the desert blossom like the rose” throughout this whole period.[5] 

And yet what we overlook when we see these images is that they're also making a very particular claim about the rightness of settlement, that before this, you had desert waste and now we're here with God's divine assistance, is certainly a part of the context to this as well too, and have transformed this place into this agricultural paradise. And looking at these images, these artists at least are hoping that you think that it's just abundantly obvious that this is what should have happened. People should have come to these places and brought civilization, and brought irrigation and brought agriculture. And what's missing, of course, from all of those images are the people who lived there a generation before. And that to me has been fascinating to learn about, to think, “These images, they seem so harmless.”

They're not images that show Native people, but that's precisely the point. They're images that don't show Native people in the places where those people had lived for uncountable generations up until immediately before these images are being painted. So that question of race and in the context of religion and in the context of colonization is one of the real central points that I addressed throughout the book.

Stephen Betts: Well and of course the colonial politics, I mean the kinds of work that they're doing to, I mean, to create reality effects, right? The representational displacement of Native peoples is also a real displacement of Native peoples, right? And that same move, that same visual cultural move that they're doing in that art is also what they're doing when they create art about marital relationships in the church. Polygamy is going on at the same time, right. This the crisis over polygamy. So, talk about that a little bit and how that's being negotiated through visual culture.

Nathan Rees: That is fascinating too. I really think about gender also through kind of two parallel trajectories and one of those is how are these marital relationships being represented? And it's kind of fascinating. People are talking about polygamy constantly. You don't have to look very hard to find people talking extensively and explicitly about their ideas about the rightness of polygamy and justifying it from, you know, a thousand different angles and being very open about that.

It's not like they were continuing to try to hide this practice. They were just very publicly promoting it as a beneficial kind of practice and, if you look for visual records of this, there are really very few. I think there's probably more than we realize. And this is something too that you know, a number of people have discovered that some images are kind of just hiding in plain sight that, you know, show families that were in fact polygamous families.

You just kind of have to know that in order to recognize it in the image. And some scholars have talked about this too, I think, Mary Campbell may be most effectively has talked about how these images are problematic for a number of different reasons.[6] One being that they can literally be used as evidence, right? So, you don't want like photographs of you and your wives if you're potentially going to be arrested and then accused of cohabiting with multiple women. 

Then also too, that they take something that in a visual representation then can be skewed. Something that Mormons certainly would think of as very sacred. Something that they recognized was all the time being skewed by representations from outside. So, there are tons of images, of course, of polygamy, and they're almost all anti-polygamy images created in cartoons of popular press, et cetera, outside of the Mormon world. So, I think that kind of gave Mormon artists pause before they made such representations, although, you know, some do actually exist. What I think is also really interesting is how images then maybe that don't show polygamous families do actually either promote the rightness of polygamy and so one, you know, big way that I touched on earlier is the idea of anti-polygamy efforts being equated to persecution in the early Mormon church.

Certainly, that was C.C.A. Christensen's approach. Other ways include making images that represent the ideal, whether as a man or a woman within Mormon perspectives at that time. And of course, thinking within the context of the broader context of polygamy as well too. All that's possible. So, you can have images that talk about families even if they don't represent polygamous families that can portray values, idealized roles of various members of those families. And then to me, really the most interesting part of this though is instead of thinking about that trajectory of like representing polygamy or representing Mormon women is to think about Mormon women making visual representation.

And this is something that really, I think, has been overlooked as well too in the early twentieth century, there's a bunch of women, and I'm so happy for the, just the efflorescence of scholarship on this in the last little bit and much more also that's coming out. People who have been overlooked. Really, I mean, if you look at the art they were making, it's tragic that so little attention has been paid to so many of these women, mostly in the early twentieth century. So, I don't really get to to very much of this in my own study. But then also there are women who are working back really early. I mean, as early as almost any of the more famous male artists working in territorial Utah. There are also women working. There's a woman named Sarah Ann Burbidge Long who was winning all these awards at the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society. They would have prizes every year, kind of a territorial fair. She was winning these like first place awards for painting.

And I came across her this way before I knew about her in any other way. And I was like, well, who is this woman that's like apparently the best painter in Utah? And there are a couple of, just a handful of extent works by her, and you know, a couple of other artists from that time period as well too. There's a general understanding, I think, in American culture at that time that it was difficult for women to make careers as artists, and it was kind of doubly difficult for married women to make careers as artists. But one of the things that I discovered in this research is that polygamy actually offers kind of a surprising way for some of these women to find careers. You know, obviously despite all of the patriarchal and potentially oppressive aspects of this system that women found ways to leverage this system to do things that married women in most other parts of the country at the same time really could never have done.

So for instance, Sarah Ann Burbidge Long, she's the fourth wife. But she's also the oldest wife. And we don't have all the details, but I'm speculating that many of the aspects of operating a household, taking care of children, that other wives were doing those things and she was doing the thing that was maybe the most helpful and productive for her household, which was teaching art lessons, bringing in students, bringing in money into the household and, you know, that would make sense for her to be doing. We have other examples of women at the same time who were doing this, or women who could go and get training who could leave their households and go get professional art training which didn't happen as much.

And kind of  I think the legacies of polygamous families that opened up those possibilities is where I found more examples of that. So, women who weren't polygamous wives themselves, but had grown up in those contexts that then went on in that early twentieth-century context to go get art training in ways that we're relatively uncommon for women in the worlds that they lived in. So that was a fascinating thing to learn about these women who were in, in this world that seems, I think so frequently is represented as a kind of a one-dimensional space that it's so important to recognize the ways in which women still found ways, despite all of these obstacles and despite the hurdles that that polygamy presented, who found ways to actually advance career-wise within that context.

Stephen Betts: Nathan, before we go, what is it about Mormon visual culture that reveals something vital about the American West in the 19th century?

Nathan Rees: I have kind of two audiences I think that I'm, that I would have two slightly different answers for just because of who knows about this art. So just for a general audience of people who study art in the United States or nineteenth-century art. The thing I want them to know about Mormon art from this period is that it exists. But this is actually, I mean, it's, it's fascinating. So, you know, this whole, you know, new religious world that has to work out the use of images in religious and social practices. That's an amazing thing and it's been so under the radar. It's appreciated in obviously a very small segment of the populace. It's amazing how little awareness there are of some of these artists, or even just of this context of Mormon art being a thing in the nineteenth century. And so, I hope that readers who are not familiar with that will find it as exciting as I have to realize just how much did exist.

And for folks who are really familiar with a lot of these images who are maybe have seen C.C.A. Christensen and some of his contemporaries illustrating all kinds of, whether it's official Church publications or historical publications about Utah history, the thing that I hope that they take away is that these images are never just illustrations.

That they're not transparent unmediated representations of what happened in ‘X’ year that they purport to represent, but instead they're saturated with all these aspects of the cultural worlds of which they were a part, that they were not just representing viewpoints, but that they were also part of the rhetoric promoting these viewpoints as well too, and that these are not just, I understand that temptation to just like drag and drop this image in here. “Oh, that here's C.C.A. Christensen showing pioneers migrating across the plains. There they are.” But what is his argument about this process? How is this related to the various kinds of social contexts that he was a part of in the world that he lived in? How is this not just an image, but also rhetoric? And how does exploring it more deeply give us a richer understanding, not only of the works of art, but also of the culture that they support? 

Stephen Betts: That's Nathan Rees talking about his book, Mormon Visual Culture and the American West. Thanks for chatting today, Nathan.

Nathan Rees: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure. 


Stephen Betts: Thanks for listening to Scholars and Saints. This podcast is made possible by the Mormon Studies Program at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit

Music for this episode is used by permission of the artist Ben Howington. The track name is “Wayfaring Stranger.” To hear more, visit


[1] This quote is attributed originally to Tertullian, Apologeticus L.13.
[2] See, e.g., David Morgan, Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
[3] Kathleen Flake, “Translating Time: The Nature and Function of Joseph Smith’s Narrative Canon,” The Journal of Religion 87, no.4 (October 2007): 497–527. I’m referring to the following passage on 525: “Thus, by maintaining the narrative function of the Bible in his own writings, Smith made more than a claim to history. He gave his believing readers a sense of what was experientially real, not merely philosophically true.”
[4] See, e.g., Rachel Cope, “’With God’s Assistance I Will Someday Be An Artist’: John B. Fairbanks’s Account of the Paris Art Mission,” Brigham Young University Studies 50, no.3 (2011): 133–59.
[5] See Isaiah 35:1.
[6] See Mary Campbell, Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).