The Martyrdom As Seen by a Young Mormon Artist

    “The Martyrdom As Seen by a Young Mormon Artist,” New Era, Dec. 1973, 20

    The Martyrdom As Seen by a Young Mormon Artist

    Since Gary Smith joined the Church in 1966, the life and particularly the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith have consumed much of his creative energy.

    “I became really converted to the gospel through studying the Prophet and what he accomplished. Somehow I wanted to record my feelings about the events in his life,” Gary said.

    Because he was trying to emphasize the spiritual and emotional qualities of the Prophet’s experiences, he chose not to paint them in a realistic fashion. The paintings are historically accurate only in a basic sense: the situations depict events that really happened. Gary believes that if the figures had been photographically rendered, the emphasis would have been wrongfully taken away from the spiritual qualities of the Prophet’s life. He also felt that having recognizable individuals would have detracted from the power of the total event.

    “I did not want to be illustrative. I simply wanted to project my feelings about the event. That is the reason for this stylized technique that is reminiscent of art done in the 1840s. For instance, I’ve never visited Nauvoo, and I didn’t want to even see the Carthage Jail, because I didn’t want to be influenced by the realism of the situations. The emotional feelings I have toward this event had to be my main influence.”

    The death of the Prophet was both tragic and significant. It offered strong pictorial possibilities. Throughout the ages martyrs have been important subjects for artists. The primitive style of these paintings was carefully perfected by Gary as he researched and sketched events in the life of the Prophet. The emotional content of the paintings is heightened with the use of vivid colors, usually reds and oranges. Strongly symbolic figures representing good and evil, light and darkness, play their parts against the colors of the emotionally charged backgrounds. Joseph Smith is always depicted in white, in contrast to the dark forces of evil surrounding him. Light is usually on him or radiating from him. This makes the conflict between good and evil not only visual but easier to understand and feel. Other elements of technique in these paintings include the use of symmetry and principles of the divine section. Both of these elements were discovered and first used in Egyptian art. Such Egyptian art portrayed the religious thoughts of the people to a degree that has been seldom if ever equaled. Gary Smith’s martyrdom series is for the people—for the Mormon people who have the heart and testimony to remember the life and death of their first latter-day prophet.

    Gary Smith self portrait

    An Act of Defense—Joseph Smith, John Taylor, Willard Richards, and Hyrum Smith are confined in the Carthage Jail. They hear the mob coming up the stairs. Several shots are fired through the door. Joseph has his hand to the door trying to hold it shut, but when the shooting starts he jumps aside. Hyrum is shot in the face at this time; he is the first to be shot and falls to the floor on his left side.

    Panic in the Room—John Taylor is the second person in the room to be shot. He is about to crawl under the bed while Willard Richards is trying to knock the rifle barrels to the floor with his cane as they are pointed through the door. Joseph is about three-fourths of the way across the room to the window as he tries to draw the fire away from the others. A particularly intimate feeling is conveyed in this painting because you are brought into the room as you view the painting. The fourth wall of the room was intentionally removed for this purpose.

    Forces of Evil—Now Joseph is lying on the ground, and the light of the gospel is radiating from him, exposing some of the people in the mob who are surrounded in darkness. His white clothes and the light around him are symbolic of the power he has. Willard Richards is looking out of the window at the scene below. When Joseph falls out of the window and lands on his left side, he is stunned but is not yet dead; he is trying to crawl away.

    Spiritual Witnesses—Even though Joseph has now given his life, the symbolic presence of the spirits shows the dimension and contrast between the spiritual world and the fierceness of the mob in the earthly world.

    Forces of Opposition—As Joseph is trying to crawl away he is dragged into a sitting position against the well, and then four of the mob execute him. The forces of good and evil are represented by the light and the dark figures. Here the opposing forces are more strongly in conflict than in any of the other paintings.

    The Martyred—After the martyrdom the bodies of the Prophet and Hyrum are removed. However, because a $1,000 reward is offered for the heads of Joseph and Hyrum, people are about trying to find the bodies so they can sever the heads and claim the reward. The bodies are hidden in basements, and then a secret burial is held and the bodies are interred in the basement of the Nauvoo House. The mourning people pictured were not actually there; these figures are symbolic of the feelings the Saints were later to have about the death of the Prophet. The jail in the background remains a death symbol reminiscent of this horrible event. (Courtesy of Brigham Young University.)

    Transferring Bodies—The last painting in the series is probably the most abstract in its rendering. The strong reds and greens and other colors intensify the feeling of loneliness the Saints felt when their leader was killed. Here again the people in the picture are merely symbolic of the feeling of the Saints as the bodies of the Prophet and his brother are taken away in the wagon.