by Tom Alder
One of the truly unique early Utah artists was Henri Moser, a classically-trained artist who settled in Logan, Utah and was credited with painting 1,197 works in his lifetime. After his formal training in Utah schools and studies in Paris, Moser returned to Utah to paint and teach. Moser, who turned his back on his classical training and became a fauvist, was proficient in artworks of all sizes. A wild-colored greeting card, painted on panel board and currently at Williams Fine Art, captures the conjuring of his palette even though the work measures only 4″ X 6″.
Moser felt at home whether the work was small or large, as in the case of his mural, painted for his Logan Ninth Ward chapel that measured some five feet by fourteen feet. The Ninth Ward building was erected in 1914 and was later reconstructed and remodeled. Moser, who lived a short distance away from the chapel and who attended his Mormon services there, painted an original mural for the front of the chapel at the request of the bishop of that ward, Tom Perry, father of current Mormon apostle, Elder L. Tom Perry. Moser enthusiastically devoted himself to creating the mural and spent numerous weeks on scaffolding, producing the thematic and evocative panorama of a pioneer wagon train crossing the country in route to the Salt Lake Valley.
Moser produced this large artwork in time for the re-dedication of the Ninth Ward building in 1930. Positioned at the promontory and central to the theme of the painting, stood two pioneers and a Native American scout, looking toward their destination. Wagons, oxen, and other pioneers dotted the landscape with mountains framing the horizon. Within a decade, however, Moser replaced the mural with another. There are two stories as to why.
Some nine years after Moser completed the first mural, the bishop’s son, Tom Perry, Jr. came home from school one day, and showed his father a picture of what appeared to be the Ward’s mural in his U.S. history textbook. The depiction in the book was very similar to the mural, although Moser’s version included additional figures. Young Tom was thrilled to see a local artist’s artwork featured in a book (believed to be Charles Beard’s History of the United States of America). Bishop Perry showed the picture to Moser who agreed that it was very similar and either the bishop asked Moser to repaint a new, original mural, or he, Moser, suggested he produce another artwork. The mural was repainted and contained the date, “1930” and “No. 850” in the lower left-hand corner (interview L.Tom Perry).
The new mural portrayed an entirely different scene of three historic Mormon sites: the Sacred Grove, the Hill Cumorah, and the Susquehanna River, each holding significant importance to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Sacred Grove was the site of the First Vision where, according to Mormon belief, God the Father and Jesus Christ visited and conversed with Joseph Smith, founder and first prophet of the Mormon Church. In Mormon history, golden plates, from which Joseph Smith translated ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics into The Book of Mormon, were presented by an angel (Moroni) at a location upon a hill in upstate New York called Cumorah. The Susquehanna River, located in upstate Pennsylvania served as the site where divine authorities (priesthoods) were restored through Joseph Smith. In the mural, all three sites were composed to appear as if they were located in the same place. According to Ted Perry, another son of Bishop Perry, the bishop suggested the new theme (interview conducted in September, 2005). No figures were present in the later mural, and it is not evident that the newer mural covered the original, although Mr. Perry, who remembered Moser painting the murals from scaffolding, suggested that he did cover the original canvas that remains attached to the front wall of the Ninth Ward chapel.
The Moser family offers a different version of the origin of the second mural. They have suggested that Moser painted the new mural because some members of that congregation were not comfortable with a pioneer scene that included a Native American dressed in only a loincloth, and therefore requested that Moser paint some kind of clothing over the Indian’s torso. Evidence in Moser’s own hand supports this second story. On the back of a photo of the original mural, Moser wrote these comments: “I studied hard for six months in Texas and Mexico to draw these long horn oxens. Saw three bull fights in old Mexico and made some sketches of their bulls. This fourteen feet mural was painted by me for the Ninth Ward chapel as a donation. It hung there for five years. Then, several criticisms arose and it was removed, and duplicated by another I made which consisted of the Sacred Grove, the Hill Cumorah, and the Suskana [sic] which was a desire of Bishop Tom Parry [sic] then in as father of the ward. The old Indian scout with only a britchcloth [sic] about his loins became very obnoctious [sic] for the mellow minded.”
Although the two versions of the mural story seem to conflict with each other, it is possible that both are accurate. Ted and Tom Perry, both recalling accounts as young men, may have remembered the “official” version as given by their father, Bishop Perry. Moser then, perhaps, had his own thoughts and memory about the nature of the request, and thus mentioned his account on the reverse of the photograph of the mural.
In an interview conducted earlier this year, Elder L. Tom Perry also gave an explanation as to why murals are typically no longer provided in LDS Chapels. “Now, the reason we don’t have pictures or murals in our chapels any longer is that the chapels were made to be places of worship. When we have an art exhibit in front, then everyone is becoming an expert on art and has their own opinions. But the main reason is that we wanted them to be houses of worship and not have the decorative pictures in front. That has been a standing policy of the Church for a number of years now.” (interview 3/20/06).
Whatever the exact truth, both murals were well composed and captured the full “wild beast” palette that was a trademark of Moser, and the latter mural is still the crowning artwork of the Ninth Ward. Something any Mormon congregation would be happy to have.
This article originally appeared in the June 2006 edition of 15 Bytes.
UTAH’S ART MAGAZINE SINCE 2001, 15 Bytes is published by Artists of Utah, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.