For a couple of years in the ’70s, I was known only as “Elder Alder.” I didn’t much like it, and, apparently, most of the residents of Montreal and Toronto didn’t either. But I can’t imagine being called “Mahonri.” Rather than having to spell that name for everyone, and spend an extra hour after school defending himself, Mahonri Mackintosh Young chose rather to call himself first, “M.M,” and later just “Hon.” Still later in life, a far more confident Young signed his art with his given name, and to those who questioned the origin of Mahonri, he simply replied, “Do you know Rembrandt’s last name?”
Young was the grandson of Brigham Young, the last grandson to be born just twenty days prior to the prophet’s death. Contrary to popular legend that Brother Brigham’s last words were, “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph” (referring to the founder of the Mormon church), Norma S. Davis, in her biography of Mahonri Young, A Song of Joys, has it that the words were, “How’s the new grandson?”
For such an accomplished artist, sculptor, illustrator, and sketcher, Young only lasted one day in high school, abruptly dropped out and chose rather to work in a furniture repair business. He clearly showed an early interest and proficiency in art. His first real art work was a commission for a sculpture of the Fox Creamery Butter Lady; however, as I recall from Bob Olpin’s Utah art class, someone forgot to close the door of the refrigerator and the beautiful statue melted as fast as the Wicked Witch of the West. As with many artists, then and now, Young worked at manual labor jobs in order to afford art lessons. Heck, I’d originate mortgages if I could take lessons from J.T. Harwood for $2.50 a week. It gets better. Hon Young lived in the western Avenues area of Salt Lake City, at 174 C Street, in a house no longer extant, in what was originally called the “20th Ward” (when neighborhoods were identified for religious and civil matters). The immediate neighborhood was home to what has become known as “The Block Artists,” since so many second- generation Utah artists lived in close proximity to each other. Among others, Hon attended church meetings with colleagues, Jack Sears, Lee Greene Richards, and future U of U art department chair, Alma B. Wright. I remember a lot of my pals in the old Cottonwood hood but we didn’t share a lot of common talents—certainly not like the Block Artists.
After saving some hard-to-come-by dollars, (Young worked at the Salt Lake Tribune as a staff artist along with Sears, Richards and Wright), Young traveled to New York in 1899 to study at the Art Students League with Kenyon Cox, Paris-trained muralist and academician. Young returned to Utah in 1901 after his finances were depleted. While in Utah, he worked as a photo engraver and saved enough money, along with a small inheritance from his grandfather Brigham’s estate, and a loan, to travel that same year again to Paris, the art center of the world.
Young studied at the Academie Julian, a school popular with his Utah contemporaries. Young became acquainted with and was befriended by the celebrated modern art proponents, Gertrude and Leo Stein, who later accompanied him to Italy for study and recreation. Although Young also was a good friend of such notable modernists as Alfred Maurer, he never forgot his old Utah pals, Richards, Wright and Sears. Can you imagine the times into which Young found himself? The early 20th century complete with the Post-Impressionists, the beginnings of Matisse’s Fauvism, and soon the Cubists. It was a revolutionary time for art, with various movements evolving quickly only to give way to other art styles.
Young, in company with buddy, J. Leo Fairbanks (son of John B.), once escorted the Grand Dame of Utah art, Alice Merrill Horne, through some of the major Parisian museums on her way back to Utah from the 1902 International Frauenkongress at Berlin. Young traveled back and forth to Paris for the next few years, became a member of the National Academy of Design, and taught at the American School of Sculpture in New York. More and more, Young shifted his focus to sculpting and bronzes over oils and watercolors, culminating in perhaps one of the most visible commissions in the U.S., the life-sized Hopi, Navajo and Apache Native American sculptures belonging to New York’s Natural History Museum. Young’s sketches and lithographs of Native Americans are frequently offered at auction while his oils of the same subjects are far more rare and expensive.
Young had, for many years while a Utah resident, lobbied the LDS Church to allow him to create a monument to the Seagull miracle of the Mormon Pioneers. Frustrated with not obtaining the commission and discouraged at not being able to make a reasonable living in Utah, Young, like so many of his fellow artists, moved his family to New York where demand for quality work was greater. Ironically, the commission was awarded to Young for the Seagull Monument after he settled in New York. The monument was created and dedicated in 1913 on Temple Square in Salt Lake City and remains a prominent subject on the daily tours.
Why am I so interested in Mahonri Young? Not only do I admire his wonderful body or work spanning many media, but my mom mentioned to me once that we were related to him and that he visited my parents a few times at their home in Cottonwood where I was raised. The blood relationship escaped me then but after a long genealogical peregrination I’ve come to the conclusion that Hon is a third cousin.
Mahonri Young’s illustrious career included extensive historical occurrences, too numerous to detail here. Here are just a few highlights associated with this great man and accomplished artist: 1) Created stunning pugilist bronzes in the tradition of George Bellows. 2) After his first wife passed away, Hon married Dorothy Weir, daughter of artist J. Alden Weir. 3) Worked for Fox Studios and created some art for actor, Paul Muni. 4) Was a good friend and confidant of Gertrude Stein until she spread before him some Picasso drawings and said with admiration that he, Picasso, had done them without a model. Young remarked, “Obviously,” and he was never invited back to her apartment. 5) Exhibited at the Armory Show of 1913. 6) His sculptures and bronzes grace numerous museums and other permanent locations, among them, The Whitney, The Brooklyn Museum, Madison Square Garden, The Metropolitan Museum, Newark Museum and hundreds of private collections.
One of the crowning gems of Mahonri’s career was the completion of the formidable “This is the Place Monument” (1947) located at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, site of the Pioneer entry point into the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847. The monument, created to acknowledge the centennial of the arrival of the Mormon Pioneers, contains 74 figures with 144 “living objects.” Within the next decade, Mahonri Young passed away at the age of 80 in Connecticut. Jack Sears, one of Hon’s closest friends from the old 20th Ward, suggested the following about his friend: “Mahonri Young is made of the stuff which distinguished Barye, Daumier, Millet . . Yet he is an individual, sincere, a man with a splendid, well-balanced mind…I have walked with him, worked with him, lived with him, and I know he could do more things better than any living man today…There is no more effective way of recognizing the distinction of Young’s genius than by imagining American art without his work.”
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.