The excerpt below is from an article I wrote called “The Role of Art in Teaching LDS Doctrine” for the academic journal The Religious Educator. I created this painting for the book From Darkness Unto Light, perhaps the first attempt by an LDS artist to portray the translation of the Book of Mormon consistent with the historical record:
I wanted the image to be edifying for a believer and sufficiently accurate for a scholar. In terms of historical accuracy, the image is set from actual interior photographs taken in the replica Whitmer home on location in Fayette, New York, where Joseph and Oliver finished the translation of the Book of Mormon. There is not a sheet between them, and the plates lie wrapped in a linen cloth, as Emma Smith explained they often lay. Both Joseph and Oliver were young at this time (twenty-three and twenty-two years old, respectively, in June of 1829), and I wanted their youth reflected accurately in the image. The clothing is time-period specific; however, I didn’t research it in too much detail. (I am sure there is a clothing expert somewhere saying, “They didn’t wear that type or color of two-toned vests!”) The chair Joseph is sitting on is out of my front room. I did look at photos of top hats from the time period, and I painted the top hat white to try to be accurate to Martin Harris’s description of the “old white hat”[i] Joseph used, but it may not be exactly right (perhaps the brim is too wide or the bottom too deep; I don’t know). The model for Oliver Cowdery was a BYU student who providentially passed by as I was shooting photographs and just “looked” to me like Oliver Cowdery (similar hairline and facial features to some of the historical Oliver Cowdery photos), but not exactly. I modeled Joseph’s body after my own (naturally, some inconsistencies there). Joseph’s face was an amalgamation of profiles from the death mask and some of the features off the actor of the movie Plates of Gold, who has a great, youthful “Joseph” look to him. But, really, what did Joseph look like when he was twenty-three? Aside from stylized Sutcliffe Maudsley drawings done later in Joseph’s life, his historical image is difficult to pin down.[ii]
Although my attempt tried to include basic historical accuracy, most notably Joseph’s face is not “buried” in the hat, as some translation sources claimed. Why? This is the question of my image I get most often from people who are familiar with the historical explanations of the translation. There are three reasons I chose not to bury his face in the hat: (1) Simply put, it didn’t work visually for this composition. I wanted an unfamiliar viewer to immediately recognize it was Joseph Smith, and having his face in the hat was difficult for many of the people whom I ran preliminary sketches by. Without knowing the historical background, they didn’t know who or what this image depicted. (2) Returning to the language of art, I wanted to communicate the message of inspiration in this image. The human face carries a lot of subtle emotion, and by covering Joseph’s face in the hat, it was difficult to portray ideas such as prayer, pondering, focus, reverence, and revelation. A hat obscured all of those ideas visually. By showing his face I could more easily portray inspiration elements in Joseph—the studying it out in his mind and heart and the revelatory gift of a seer—yet still have the image be set in historical reality (as opposed to a figurative or abstracted composition). (3) Last, his face outside the hat still reflects historical reality. Logically, Joseph had to put his face into, and pull his face out of, the hat. I imagine the moment depicted in my painting as Joseph getting ready to go into the hat to see—starting the process of revelation. He almost looks like he is getting ready to tip forward, and the anticipation of that moment causes the viewer want to put Joseph’s face into the hat, visually measuring Joseph’s face and looking into the opening of the brim, fitting the two together. With this composition your mind can imagine what Joseph is about to do—the revelatory mode he is moving into—and the gift he is starting to exercise at this moment. Having the face out of the hat helped to provide a more interactive and purposeful viewing experience.
Speaking of viewing experience, any well-composed piece of art uses artistic devices to move the eye of the viewer in certain orders, directions, and places. I tried to do the same in this image. When you initially look at the image, odds are that you will look first at the hat. I placed it centrally in the painting for that reason, and used the brightest white to pull the eye there. I wanted the viewer to look at the hat first, to deal with it, think about it, examine it, and process it. Next, the eye moves up to Joseph’s face, seeing him move into a revelatory mode and connecting it with the opening in the hat. The viewer then might naturally move to the covered plates on the table, contrary to past visual representations of open plates and sheets. Next, the eye moves to Oliver Cowdery in the background as he sits and scribes “the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven” (Joseph Smith—History 1:71 footnote). Deliberately, the diagonal line of the floor and wall joint coming in from the bottom left of the image, and the vertical line made by where the walls meet, visually pass through Joseph and Oliver and lead the eye to the hat and the plates. Finally, after the viewer examines the hat, Joseph, the plates, and Oliver, I hope his or her eye expands outward into the simplicity of the space. Using artistic devices of light, I intentionally included the window with sun streaming through, illuminating the ground and room to suggest ideas such as light, truth, revelation, and inspiration upon Joseph.
While my painting is a faithful attempt to visually depict the translation of the Book of Mormon in a manner that is more consistent with the historical records than previous translation paintings, it contains some elements that are purely aesthetic and speak the language of art. Although I tried to accommodate both, the inherent tension between artistic merit and historical reality tugged at me during the creation of this painting. A commentary on one detail in the painting, the lit lantern, is a fitting item and topic upon which to illustrate this tension between the language of art and the language of history. After examining the central aspects of the painting such as the white hat, Joseph, the plates, and Oliver, ultimately I hope the viewer’s eye looks up and sees the black lantern above Joseph and Oliver. Michael MacKay, co-author of From Darkness to Light (for which this image was created), asked me, when he saw the painting in process, why the lantern was lit in the middle of the bright daylight sun in the room. Historical reality? No. Artistic device? Yes. And without explaining, you can already deduce what that illuminated lantern might suggest and symbolize. That’s the joy of the language of art, even when it isn’t entirely historically accurate.
[i] The “white hat” comes from Martin Harris’s telling of an interesting story where Joseph used his seer stone to find a lost pin he had dropped into some straw. He said Joseph took the seer stone “and placed it in his hat—the old white hat—and placed his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick, and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin” (Joel Tiffany, “Mormonism,” Tiffany’s Monthly, August 1859, 164).
[ii]See Ephraim Hatch, Joseph Smith Portraits: A Search for the Prophet’s Likeness (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1998), 31–45.