SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this summer, in what amounted to a 21st-century re-enactment of the Mormon pioneer trek, Salt Lake art collector Tony Christensen packed up his belongings in Chicago, Illinois, and headed due west, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley some 1,300 miles later.
The original pioneers, who required a year and a half to make a similar crossing from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, would have been awed by his time: a day and a half.
They also would have been awed by the painting he brought with him in the trunk of his car: a beautiful 22-by-5-foot mural depicting their own triumphant arrival on July 24, 1847.
There they stand, in vivid color, with their dogs, their wagons and their oxen, gazing onto an arid landscape they intend to transform into their city of vision, as depicted in the horizon beyond the mountains.
A nice moment, they’d no doubt say. A very nice moment.
The painting in question is the masthead for today’s Deseret News — commemorating the 167th anniversary of the pioneers' arrival.
Christensen offered to share the artwork with the newspaper after he unrolled the canvas he’d brought back from Chicago, mounted it on a sturdy aluminum frame, and stepped back to gaze on what he’d acquired.
“It’s magnificent,” is his appraisal. “Look at the quality, the richness of the colors, the extent of the detail. We just don’t often see murals that are this mature.”
You can see the live version at Anthony’s Fine Art & Antiques on the corner of 400 East and 200 South in Salt Lake City.
The painting was completed nearly 100 years ago, in 1917, by an Austrian immigrant living in Milwaukee named George Peter, who made at least two trips to the Salt Lake Valley for research before starting his mural.
Peter was one of a collection of celebrated German and European artists known as panorama painters who came to America in the late 1800s and produced dozens of massive oil murals that illustrated historical scenes in meticulous detail.
The most famous of these panoramas was one called the Battle of Atlanta, depicting Gen. William Sherman’s burning of the city during the Civil War. That mural measures 30 feet long and can be seen today at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum in downtown Atlanta, where it is proclaimed the “world’s largest oil painting.”
Most of the other panoramas produced in the late 19th century and early 20th century have since been rolled up, stored away, thrown away or, at best, ignored.
Until two months ago, that included George Peter’s pioneer panorama.
The painting was part of an anthropological display commissioned by the Milwaukee Museum that included a variety of scenes depicting the settlement of the American West.
Exactly how long the Mormon mural hung in the museum after 1917 is not known. What is known is that when the exhibit was removed to make way for another show, the mural wound up in the hands of a construction worker who took it home because the museum no longer had any room for it.
The painting was rolled up and left to languish for decades — until the family of that construction worker put it up for auction in Chicago earlier this summer.
Tony Christensen heard about the mural through a nephew in New Mexico who is also in the fine art business.
“He said, ‘Hey, Uncle Tony, have you seen this?’ ” Tony relates. “I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe it. I hopped in my car, drove to Chicago, and was there and back in three and a half days.
“What a fortuitous opportunity to acquire something like this and help preserve it for posterity.”
Tony’s not sure where the mural will wind up next. It could be with a private collector or it could be that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might be interested in acquiring it. Perhaps a private collector might be inclined to donate it to the LDS Church.
Whatever happens, happens. In the meantime, George Peter’s Mormon pioneer masterpiece is no longer rolled up and forgotten in someone’s garage. It is restored to its original glory, stretched out in its fullness, and has found its way to the Salt Lake Valley — just in time for another birthday.