Pioneer art means different things to different people. To some, it means any art that depicts the pioneers who settled the West. To Utahns, it generally means art that deals with Mormon pioneers. And to others, it means work by early Utah artists who lived the pioneer experience.
Keeping in mind the third and final definition, let's spotlight some of the artists who successfully captured the history, culture and landscape of early Utah.There are landscapes by early Utah painters John Tulledge, John Hafen, Alfred Lambourne, H.L.A. Culmer, J.B. Fairbanks and others.
But more importantly, there are genre paintings by Dan Weggeland, C.C.A. Christensen, George M. Ottinger, Minerva Teichert and others. These works are especially prized because they record the experiences, customs and dress of the early pioneers.
These artists had first-hand knowledge of the great Mormon saga. Christensen immigrated to America in 1857; he then walked 1,300 miles from Iowa City to Utah and pulled his possessions in a two-wheeled handcart. Ottinger crossed the plains with his mother in 1861. Weggeland came with a company and 60 teams, arriving in the valley in 1862.
And although Teichert painted the pioneers many years after they had crossed the plains, she was no stranger to pioneer life. She spent 10 years helping in the hayfield and 15 years working in the milk house.
A visit to some of the museums or galleries around Utah reveals some significant works by these and other pioneer artists.
* Dave Ericson, owner of Gallery 56, is a collector and dealer of pioneer art. Dotting the walls of his gallery are works by John Hafen, Samuel Jepperson, G. Wesley Browning, Mabel Frazer and others.
An unfinished painting by Dan Weggeland leans against a sculpture stand. This work, titled "Mormon Emigrants Crossing the Plains," is of particular importance because it is not filled with the microscopic detail so characteristic of most of Weggeland's work.
Ericson proudly showed me photographs of two important paintings he had recently acquired and sold. One was Weggeland's "Rosebank Cottage, 1878." It reflects a firm grasp of subject matter the artist saw and was familiar with. Unfortunately, Ericson didn't know it was by Weggeland until after the painting had been sold and cleaned.
The other work, "Sugar Factory Burning in Sugar House," was painted by George M. Ottinger around 1870. Here, the artist paints from his own experience; he served as the first fire chief in the valley.
Ericson pointed out that, over the years, a number of paintings by early Utah artists have been lost or destroyed.
"Some went from grandma's living room to the children's basements and later were thrown out," he said. But occasionally one of the old paintings surfaces. When it does, it is hidden under layers of dirt and discolored varnish. When properly cleaned and restored, it is transformed into a striking work of art _ as in the case of the two paintings by Weggeland and Ottinger.
* One of Ottinger's finest paintings, "Self Portrait as Fire Chief," is now part of the permanent collection at the Springville Museum of Art. Museum director Vern Swanson was highly enthusiastic when the museum purchased it from a private collector last year.
He said, "To me, the painting is particularly good because it crosses several points of interest. It's a self-portrait filled with genre elements."
Another significant painting in the Springville Museum collection is "The Bishop Sam Bennion Farm," painted by Dan Weggeland in 1880. Swanson says it depicts from a aerial view not just the farmhouse, but the fields, orchards, barn and corral in a Currier and Ives fashion.
"It is extremely rare because it encapsulates Utah's history and pioneer rural living," Swanson said.
He pointed out that most of the early painters didn't paint in the contemporary genre. Rather, they copied works of the Old Masters. That seemed to be the kind of art many of the early settlers wanted. In fact, there were no handcart paintings done by Utah artists during the handcart trek. Swanson said artists tended to wait until events were over before painting them.
C.C.A. Christensen completed a painting of the handcart pioneers in 1890, many years after the actual handcart trek. Titled "The Saints Arriving in Salt Lake Valley," it shows the pioneers coming up over the brow of the hill. But Christensen had first-hand knowledge about handcart treks. This impressive painting is also part of Springville Museum's permanent collection.
The museum recently acquired a"Pioneer Wagon Train at the City of the Rocks." Painted in 1870 by George M. Ottinger, it is unusual in that it has two Indians on horseback looking from a distance at the pioneer settlers. Swanson says it is extremely rare to see a 19th century pioneer painting showing Indians.
* Important works by early Utah artists are also found in the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum at 300 North Main.
Some that particularly impressed me were Dan Weggeland's "Crossing the Platte River" and "Eagle Gate Looking South from City Creek"; and C.C.A. Christensen's "Emigration of the Saints."
A number of works painted by artists who lived much later fill the walls of one of the rooms. Some have successfully captured the Utah story, others have not. Impressive are Florence Ware's "Desert Manna," Henrie Moser's "Pioneers Entering Valley," and Lynn Fausett's "Sod House at Winter Quarters."
One of the most colorful works in the museum is the large stained glass window titled "They Came in 1847-1869." Adapted from a design by Avard Fairbanks, it was made in 1950 by Church Art Glass Studio in San Francisco. Donors were Isabelle Morris, Viola M. Knudson and Thomas B. Child.
* The Museum of Church History and Art boasts an extensive collection of early Utah art. However, many of these works are currently being stored.
On display is the permanent Masterworks Collection that contains some excellent genre paintings including William Warner Major's 1851 portrait "Brigham Young and His Family," Dan Weggeland's "Brigham Young's Backyard, 1915" C.C.A. Christensen's "Handcart Pioneers, 1900," George M. Ottinger's "The Water Witch, c 1870," and Minerva Teichert's "Pioneers Entering the Valley, 1938."
A special treat for museum visitors is the extensive exhibit of Teichert's paintings of scripture stories, the American Indians, farm life, and of course, the famous cross-country trek of the Mormon pioneers.
Teichert's objective was to "paint the great Mormon story of our pioneers . . . . This story thrills me, fills me, drives me on."
Although her days were filled with teaching art, raising five children and doing chores on her ranch, she made time to paint _ usually late at night. During her lifetime, she managed to produce over 500 paintings.
Many works by Teichert centering around Utah pioneers can be found in the east gallery. They focus in handcart companies, covered wagon pioneers, Indian skirmishes, Brigham Young and party, the first plowing and planting, the miracle of the gulls, etc.
Teichert painted quickly and with broad strokes. "When the story is told, the picture is finished," she once explained.
The Teichert show continues through Oct. 16 at the Museum of Church History and Art (45 N. West Temple). Hours are 9-9 Monday through Friday, and 10-7 on Saturday, Sunday and holidays.
Hours at the museums/galleries are:
Gallery 56 (56 W. Fourth South) _ 10-5 Monday through Friday.
Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum (300 North Main) _ 9-5 Monday through Saturday, and 1-5 Sunday. Closed holidays.
Springville Museum of Art (126 E. Fourth South, Springville) _ 10-5 Tuesday through Saturday, (10-9 Wednesday), and 2-5 Sunday.