1 of 10
Morgan Jones
Brooke Facer explores the Harry Anderson exhibit at the Church History Museum.

The Church History Museum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened an exhibit last September dedicated to Harry Anderson, a famous painter of biblical subjects whose works have become especially popular in Mormon circles.

More than 25 of Anderson's paint studies — or early drafts made in preparation for creating a slew of paintings from the 1960s to the 1970s — are tucked inside the newly-renovated museum, where tourists, passersby and locals can all gaze upon some of the church's most recognizable artwork.

But Anderson wasn’t Mormon.

So who was he? More than just a popular painter with a massive Mormon following, the Chicago-born, would-be mathematician was a Seventh-day Adventist who serendipitously became an artist who sought the help of God and heaven's healing for health problems that plagued his adult life and career. And despite some differences with Mormon doctrine, Anderson illustrated hundreds of paintings for the LDS Church. His work is now known around the world.

Anderson had an impact on the LDS Church

As a freelance illustrator, Anderson, who died in 1996, designed hundreds of paintings for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In 1962, he was commissioned by the LDS Church to create illustrations for the Mormon Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and to paint more biblical scenes, most of which were hung, and can still be seen in the North Visitors Center at Temple Square. They’ve been included in LDS publications for more than 50 years, and are shared in meetinghouses and temple visitors centers all across the nation.

The Harry Anderson exhibit is currently open in the Church History Museum and will remain open through April. (Credit: Morgan Jones)

The preparatory work Anderson did before painting his illustrations is on display at the Church History Museum through April 2017.

“I was just blown away by these 22 preparatory paint studies,” Laura Allred Hurtado, global acquisitions curator for art at the LDS Church History Museum, told the Adventist Review, a publication dedicated to Seventh-day Adventist and religious news. “It gives us the ability to see famous images with new eyes, and gives new life to Harry Anderson, his work and those stories that are so beloved to Christians all over the world.”

Anderson’s paintings show an attention to detail and a love for sharing family moments with the rest of the world.

Anderson once said that the beauty of art is in the details, according to The American Art Archives.

"Conception, composition, value, draughtsmanship and painting dexterity must all work together,” he said. “And they are important in just that order. But the parts all become automatic in time."

Some of Anderson's most famous works focus on the family. He painted "Daughter of Kings" for Ladies Home Journal. He illustrated a wife hugging a child on a wedding day for Good Housekeeping. For Massachusetts Mutual, he created "One of the Great Moments of Your Life...Your Marriage.”

The manuals on display all contain the artwork of Harry Anderson. (Credit: Morgan Jones)

Anderson’s first love was math, but it made him an artist.

Anderson, who was born on Aug. 11, 1906, in Chicago, grew up with a brother and sister. All three Anderson children excelled in school, with Anderson putting his focus in the area of mathematics, according to the American Art Archives.

When he attended the University of Illinois, all he pictured was a future painted with fractions and the pythagorean theorem but things changed as the result of fate.

Anderson's school required that he select an elective class for his sophomore year. His desire for an easy filler subject led him to choose still life painting.

“This elective would forever change his life,” the Archives explains.

Anderson wasn’t a good painter initially. Still, he enjoyed illustrating, so he went to work. Countless hours. By the end of his sophomore year, his skills had improved and his art teacher asked him a simple question: "Have you ever considered art as a profession?"

Jesus welcomed the little children into His arms and blessed them. Artist, Harry Anderson. Pictures of life of Christ for special issue. Monday, Dec.28, 2009. (Credit: Copyright IRI, LDS Church)

Sitting on a mountainside, Jesus gave what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. (Credit: Copyright IRI, LDS Church)

Anderson’s first painting of Jesus has a miraculous story.

Anderson became a member of the Seventh-day Adventist faith in 1944 with his wife, Ruth.

Ruth and Harry were married in 1940. The couple worked in the same building, according to a biography on JVJ Publishing.

The two were living “the American Dream,” according to a BYU Studies project on art in the LDS Church.

Stomach cramps, though, weighed Anderson down, keeping him from finishing his illustrations. Still, his drive to be competitive in the art field pushed him to look to heaven for answers.

And so he found the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“This resolve was difficult, especially since he was a habitual smoker and a social drinker, and the Adventists shunned smoking and drinking. And then there were his lucrative beer illustrations,” according to BYU Studies. “To Ruth, it was one thing to change personal habits and quite another to threaten their livelihood.”

In 1945, Anderson released his first painting of Jesus, and he called it: “What Happened to Your Hand?” He said the painting, published in a children's magazine, took him seven times to get it “just right,” as he hoped his final product would show Jesus in the modern day. The painting depicts Jesus sitting with a trio of modern day youngsters. A young girl sits on his lap while a boy tugs at his feet. Another young girl approaches from his side.

Parents didn’t take kindly to it.

“The adults in charge of the publishing program were less enthusiastic; some even considering it near-blasphemous to show Christ in the present day,” according to JVJ.

But Anderson and his art director, T.K. Martin, won out. The painter earned freedom to paint Jesus “as a tangible presence in modern times,” according to JVJ.

“The inner peace that allowed Anderson to make his choice to contribute his time and effort at virtually minimum wage was evident in his paintings and in his depiction of Jesus."

Jesus called Peter and Andrew to follow Him and become fishers of men. He also called James and John. They all left their boats and nets and followed Jesus. Artist, Harry Anderson. Pictures of life of Christ for special issue. (Credit: Copyright IRI, LDS Church)

Anderson painted for the Mormons, despite differences.

Anderson stuck to oil paints for much of his career, mostly because he had an allergy to turpentine. Watercolor emerged in the mid-'60s, giving Anderson a chance to paint even more. All signs pointed toward more brush strokes.

In 1962, the LDS Church commissioned Anderson's work for the world's fair to be held two years later. The problem? The church asked him to use oil paint. Stomach cramps continued to trouble Anderson, but he carried on anyway, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to paint, according to BYU Studies.

Church leaders adored his work.

“Latter-day Saint leaders liked the artistic style, and they liked the artist,” BYU Studies explained. “Anderson saw in Latter-day Saint tenets similarities with his own Seventh-day Adventist creed — a belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ, the importance of good family living, and an abhorrence for alcohol and tobacco. Thus he was not opposed to accepting additional Latter-day Saint commissions.”

And so began his career painting "dozens" of illustrations for the LDS Church, as the JVJ bio explained.

In total, Anderson painted 14 scenes from the life of Jesus and six from the Old Testament. The LDS Church also bought the rights to 19 more paintings that Anderson created for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, according to BYU Studies.

But Anderson also debated with church leaders — like future LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley — about how Jesus should be interpreted. Artist Bill Whittaker told BYU Studies that Anderson would often disagree with the church over doctrine.

"For example, when Anderson was counseled to paint angels with no wings, he complied but never missed an occasion to attempt to convert church leaders to the correctness of his personal biblical interpretation," BYU Studies explained.

Sometimes Anderson chose not to paint for the church. In those instances, he recommended his neighbor Tom Lovell to take up the job.

"He was a very committed, true, and honorable Seventh-day Adventist," Jay Todd, former managing editor of the Ensign, said, according to BYU Studies. "He had his own sense of commitment and declined to paint Book of Mormon and Restoration scenes. As long as the church commissioned biblical work, something that he deeply believed in, he accepted the commissions and was willing to acquiesce to church leaders on visual interpretation."

It wasn’t until 1975 that Anderson visited Salt Lake City to see his paintings. President Spencer W. Kimball greeted him and offered kind words, but Anderson didn’t enjoy Salt Lake all that much.

16 comments on this story

He eventually learned his paintings were being used in churches, temples and meeting places, something he was grateful for. Still, the artist was not overly impressed, according to BYU Studies.

The Harry Anderson exhibit is currently open in the Church History Museum and will remain open through April. (Credit: Morgan Jones)

See, for Anderson, his paintings were worth more than a paycheck.

They were everything.

"Anderson was not just doing work as a job,” artist Walter Rane said, according to BYU Studies. “He had to believe in it."