A couple of years ago, when I was a junior fledgling writer for 15 Bytes, I presented two conflicting stories in the June 2006 edition of 15 Bytes about Henri Moser (1876-1951) and his Logan Ninth Ward Mural. At the time I was a mortgage banker and frustrated thesis writer, and wondered if I’d ever be done with either. Now that both are finished (I’m so glad to be out of the mortgage business!), Shawn Rossiter suggested that my November column could be a brief summary about the subject of my thesis, Henri Moser. “That’s a no-brainer. I’ll just dial it in,” I replied. The challenge of course has been that word, “brief.”
During a Moser retrospective in August at Williams Fine Art, I fortunately left one of the twenty copies of my thesis at home. After the opening reception, I was wrapping up some details and sought some sticky notes that I had put in a copy of the thesis for reference during my lecture. The book was nowhere to be found. I noticed a pile of yellow stickies on my desk and when I asked my wife, she said that all of the theses had been sold—including my copy! Having the only surviving book at home saved me.
Henri Moser was more than a quality early Utah landscapist. In this election year, “maverick” and “pioneer” seem extremely trite phrases to apply to Moser, but he was both. As with many of the early Utah artists, Moser was the product of parents who converted to the LDS Church and immigrated to “Zion,” which in the 1800s meant Utah. Of Swiss extraction, Moser’s family left the old country, traveling to Utah in 1888 via various means, including covered wagon. Even though the Golden Spike had been driven some nineteen years before, there were still many emigrants who, primarily due to lack of finances, traveled by the more primitive methods.
At age 13, Moser lived with his grandparents in Payson before working in an Enterprise printing shop until he was 22. He then traveled to Montana where he worked in mining in order to earn money for college studies. He would later attend the Utah Agricultural College (UAC) in Logan (now USU) where he was encouraged to study art. In September of 1905 he married fellow Swedish immigrant, Aldine Wursten, and a year later enrolled at Logan’s Brigham Young College (no longer extant), where he studied art under A.B. Wright. Calvin Fletcher, who would later become the long-time art department chair, was one of his classmates. Two years later, Dr. John A. Widtsoe, president of UAC, recognizing that some of his departments lacked talent, approached his friend Henri Moser with a proposition. Widtsoe would sponsor Moser’s art study in Paris for two years if he agreed to return and teach at UAC. Moser seized the rare opportunity and in December, 1908, left his family for Paris.
Several significant events happened to Moser while studying at the Paris academies. First, he met and became good friends with Pablo Picasso. Second, he met Frank Zimbeaux, a fellow artist who became Moser’s trusted colleague. Zimbeaux and his wife would later travel to Utah where he and Moser painted together frequently. The Zimbeauxs chose to remain in Utah and continued to be lifelong friends with the Mosers. Zimbeaux was a friend of Matisse and although I never turned over any stones that proved Moser ever met Matisse, it is likely that they palled around together. Third, Moser created a legacy of beautifully-handwritten letters to his beloved wife, Aldine. Fortunately, she kept all 76 letters, which were made available to me in my research by the family. The letters, written with regular weekly frequency, provided a valuable chronology of an artist’s life of poverty, frustration, hope, and discovery during one of the most dramatic periods of artistic transition. Fourth, although Moser attended the rigid academies and learned strict principles and regimen of the day, after returning home he soon rejected much of the tight-fisted training in favor of Fauvism. It was Matisse who, in 1905 shocked the world at the Salon d’Automne by exhibiting his works of atmospheric as opposed to representational art. The bold use of secondary colors, usually applied directly from tube to canvas, earned Matisse and his colleagues the derogatory term, Fauves, French for “wild beasts.” Moser absorbed the explosion of colors used by the Fauves and later adopted them to create astonishing Utah landscapes and still lifes, not seen before in Utah. It would be years before any other Utah artist would experiment with the same painting style, Lee Greene Richards, and Louise Richards Farnsworth being two who embraced the bizarre style.
After Moser returned to Utah in July of 1910, he fulfilled his commitment to Widtsoe for the agreed-upon minimum of one year teaching, but was soon drawn away by the lure of full-time painting. Later, in 1915, the family relocated to Cedar City, where Moser taught at the Branch Agricultural College, predecessor of Southern Utah University. This stint lasted only two years, but Moser’s exposure to the natural wonders of southern Utah was inspirational, as evidenced by his painting, “Edwin Bridge.” The artwork won first place at the Utah State Fair and was purchased by the State of Utah, and still resides on the walls of the Capitol Building.
For the next eight years, Moser homesteaded in Idaho, near Malad, where he farmed, ranched, and painted. Zimbeaux, a Bohemian-like free thinker, was a frequent visitor; the two would dash off for the day or sometimes longer, sketching and painting the landscape. Sometimes they would include relatives and other locals as models, something that got Zimbeaux into a bit of hot, or rather cold, water (but that’s a story for a column on Zimbeaux).
Moser and Zimbeaux frequently set up their easels on several well-traveled corners in Salt Lake. They would paint small paintings of the Temple and Salt Lake Theatre, then sell them to the tourists for $15 or $20 each. These small gems surface from time to time and are sought after by collectors.
Besides being a maverick in his brush and composition styles, Moser was a wanderer, sometimes leaving his family to fend for themselves for months or a year at a time. In 1928, for example, he exhibited in a show at an Oakland, California gallery; this was immediately followed by a trip to San Antonio Texas, where Moser had heard about a wealthy Texan who had offered $1,000 to the artist who could paint the best picture of the state flower, the Blue Bonnet. Convinced that he could do it, and attracted by the prize money, Moser painted a glorious, neon painting of a field of the wildflower. He took an honorable mention for his painting, and then decided to remain in Texas for a time to learn how to paint longhorn cattle.
Returning to Logan in 1929, Moser painted and donated a mural for his local Mormon congregation, the Ninth Ward (see June 2006 edition), in which he included longhorn cattle. It was during that same year that Moser began a 29-year career as art supervisor for Cache School District. The late 1920s and 1930s would see some of Moser’s finest work. His 1929 painting of Zions Canyon is clearly a wild beast of a rendition and was particularly interesting because the roads into the park were very primitive (pre-CCC improvements). Most Americans did not have any practical way to see the park and this painting must have been evocative then as it is now.
Barbara Sessions, an artist and former elementary student in the Cache District remembers well the day that Mr. Moser came to her grade school class to talk to the students about art. He asked, “What should we create today?” As the students called out various subjects like flowers, animals, trees and so forth, Moser drew them on the board with colored chalk. At the completion of the class, the beautiful mural dazzled Barbara and her classmates. She reported that they valued the creation so much that the teacher allowed it to be undisturbed for the balance of the school year. The students even traded assignments of watching the mural and making sure that no one erased it.
On a similar occasion, Moser was traveling alone in his car to conduct another class when his car slid in some February ice and rolled down an embankment. The accident caused multiple injuries and put Moser in the hospital for eleven months. After a number of surgeries, Moser walked with one leg several inches shorter than the other for the rest of his life. While he was recuperating, Moser continued to draw, design, and create lovely little thank-you cards, crayon landscapes and colored pencil sketches.
When World War II came, Moser decided that he needed to contribute to the war effort, so in 1944, he lied about his age (maximum age was 59 and he was 68) and volunteered for military service. He was assigned to clean pipes in a factory in Portland. With his bum leg and advanced age, Moser hitchhiked to Portland, remaining there for about a year. He stayed with one of his daughters and painted some bold cobalt and pink paintings of Mt. Hood and the surrounding area. When he returned home, he continued to paint at a feverish pace, creating some of his better works.
One of the unique procedures that Moser followed was to number his paintings instead of just dating them. What’s the advantage? He was a prolific painter and the numbering helped identify where he was when he created certain paintings. In some years he painted over 100 works and by lining up the images by number, one can not only see the chronology of his work and where he traveled, but also his transition from one style to another or other special features. Unfortunately, he didn’t number all of his paintings (on the front or back), but I have identified a lot of them from his many journals.
One of the early challenges I faced in writing about Moser was that all of the immediately available information about him was the same. The quotes were the same. The museum, library, and historical files all had the same articles and quotes and they seemed to be copies of each other. Without the gracious help of two of Moser’s granddaughters (who lived with him for several years) I would never have been able to write 182 pages about this iconoclastic artist. Sharron Brim and Maurine Ozment were nothing short of perfect sources of primary documents and personal stories. Before I write 182 more pages here, I’ll finish the chronology by saying that in September, 1951, after a long, poverty-filled career, Moser developed pleurisy and pneumonia and passed away, leaving his beloved Aldine, two sons and six daughters.
All of the reference books that have sections about Moser said that he painted “1,197” artworks. I found number 1,198 in Aunt Allie’s home in St. George, and believe that Moser likely created more than 2,000 works during his career. One of the more recognizable Moser paintings was number 1098, which was painted in 1951, his last year. It was a “self-portrait” of Moser with a bright yellow hat, white beard, and huge silver dollar-like glasses.|4| The image was prominent in Bob Olpin’s “Artlife of Utah,” a TV series Olpin wrote and produced in conjunction with his Utah art class at the U.
Happening on to one of his shows one night is what started a long friendship with Olpin and caused me to spend $20,000 on a master’s program. Bob had an image of the self-portrait hanging in his office, and every time I entered, I’d say, “Bob, how do you know this is Moser’s self-portrait? It looks more like a portrait of you.” Bob would chuckle and dismiss my remark by saying that someone had identified it for him. Moser’s granddaughter, Sharron Brim identified the picture as being a portrait of Bernie Berntsen, a Logan luthier who traded violins to Moser for his daughters in exchange for paintings. There is still some doubt about who the sitter of the portrait is, but at the time, I was able to report to Bob that I had proven that it was not a self-portrait, to which he said, “Damn! I hate it when I get it wrong!” A couple of months later, Bob passed away. At the end of my research, the Moser family presented me with the “self-portrait” as a gift of thanks for helping to bring Henri Moser out of the closet of obscurity, and it now hangs proudly over my desk. The funny thing is that people who visit the gallery and see the painting say, “Wow, where have I seen that before?” I show them the cover of Artists of Utah and tell them the story of Moser, his family, and Olpin.
Tom Alder’s column for next month will feature Donald Beauregard. If you have works by this artist or information about him that you would like to share, please email us at email@example.com.
Tom Alder, a Salt Lake City native, left a 30-year mortgage banking career in 2009 to open Alderwood Fine Art, specializing in early Utah art. He held an MA in Art History, taught at the University of Utah, and served on various boards in the cultural community. He died in 2018.