ABOUT THE PAINTING
This painting by Minerva Teichert of the explorer Captain Benjamin Bonneville, who paved the way for the Mormon pioneers, represents the fulfillment of a mission the artist undertook to paint the "story of her people." Made at the height of her artistic powers and with tremendous ambition, Teichert considered this work to be one of her most important. The painting represents the story of Captain Bonneville and his influence on the Mormon Pioneers and native peoples, as well as Minerva's ambition.
BONNEVILLE PAVES THE WAY FOR SETTLEMENT OF UTAH
Captain Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville is one of six prominent figures – including Brigham Young and Jim Bridger – memorialized on the This is the Place Monument in Salt Lake City. He is also the namesake of dozens of schools, civic buildings, and the pre- historic inland body of water, Lake Bonneville. Yet, today little is know of the western explorer, diplomat, and entrepreneur.
Bonneville was born in France, where his family hosted the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense. Paine developed a close bond to the family, becoming Bonneville's godfather and giving the Bonneville family land in New York, where they eventually settled. Bonneville went on to study at West Point, graduating at a time of little wartime activity, so he decided to dedicate himself to exploration.
Bonneville traveled west, a region known only to Native Americans and some Spanish explorers, whose maps were unreliable and based solely on a patchwork of descriptions by trappers. Sponsored by a conglomerate of wealthy fur traders, including John Jacob Astor, Bonneville set out from Arkansas with a group of mapmakers and trappers into what was largely considered hostile territory.
According to all accounts, Bonneville was a benevolent figure. After contact with him, Native American tribes considered the Franco-American explorer a friend. During his three-year travels west of the Mississippi, he wore his military uniform and acted as an unofficial representative of the United States government, becoming a highly sought- after arbiter who settled disputes between Native Americans and trappers, and between warring Native American nations.
After three years of travel from Arkansas to Oregon and back, Bonneville met with his patron, John Jacob Astor, in New York. Astor would go on to make a fortune in the fur trade, eventually cashing in the continent-long network of trappers Bonneville helped him establish for Manhattan real estate. Coincidentally, Washington Irving, author of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, was a guest of the Astors during Bonneville's visit. Irving was so captivated by the explorer, he purchased the publishing rights to the entire venture. Irving's The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837) was published in three
volumes that included journals, notes from months of personal interviews, and detailed maps of the expedition.
These maps from Irving's book were consulted by Joseph Smith, Jr, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and used by Brigham Young to plan the migration of Mormon Pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley.
TEICHERT PAINTS THE STORY OF HER PEOPLE
Born in Ogden to a father of German (or possibly Jewish) descent and the daughter of Mormon pioneers, Minerva Teichert (1888–1976) had an inauspicious beginning for someone who would become a monumental painter of religious scenes and Western history.
Her family was poor, scraping by through subsistence farming and animal husbandry. When Teichert was four, elderly neighbor gifted her a watercolor kit, which the young girl used until her teens, painting while tending animals. Teichert accompanied a local family to San Francisco, working as a nanny, where she visited the city's museums and opera house. She used her wages to study at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. From there, Teichert was accepted at the Art Students' League of New York, a school founded on principles of painting figurative works with an aesthetic that emphasized naturalism over idealism. Teichert's mastery of the figure and ambition quickly gained the admiration of Robert Henri, the school's founder and the country's foremost portraitist.
At a crossroads between establishing herself in the cosmopolitan East as a portraitist and an uncertain artistic future on the American frontier, Teichert recorded an influential conversation she had with her teacher. Robert Henri asked her, shortly before she left New York, whether any artist had ever told the “great Mormon story.”
“‘Not to suit me,’ I answered. ‘Good Heavens, girl, what a chance. You do it. You’re the one. Oh, to be a Mormon.’ I said to him, ‘You could be.’ He paused almost reverently for a moment, then answered, ‘That’s your birthright. You feel it. You’ll do it well.’ I felt that I had been commissioned.” (Unpublished ms., 1947.)
Teichert returned to the West, first to Idaho then to Cokeville, Wyoming, where together with her husband, she established a farm. For many years, Teichert did not have sufficient time to paint, unable to step away from the overwhelming responsibilities that came with farm work, hosting boarders, and raising a family. In the early 1930s, she took steps to paint the "story" of her people. Teichert began by visiting the only library in Cokeville – then with a population of around 450 – which was located in the town's elementary school. When asked for a book on local history, the school's principal suggested Teichert read The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. Teichert borrowed it so often that the principal eventually gave her the school's copy.
Using the book as her inspiration, Teichert planned two monumental paintings depicting Bonneville in the West, each about 6 x 10 feet.
The painting Captain Bonneville Explores the West (1933) does not depict any particular moment. Rather, it captures the character of Bonneville's expedition and team. Bonneville sits astride his horse in customary brass-buttoned military kit at the center, flanked by trappers, who prepare game in a copse of trees. It is spring, with new leaves on the Aspen trees and a still snow-topped mountain peak in the background. There are four horses in the painting, which would seem ordinary to our modern eyes; but, at the time, there was a significant distinction between the competency of ordinary trappers and those who on horseback.
The men themselves are diverse. Some are dressed in colorful machine-made clothing made in the East, while others are dressed in the customary deerskin of mountain men. Two of the men are Native Americans, one has the red hair of an Irishmen, another the fair skin and hair of a Scandinavian, and still another with the facial hair typical of Bavaria. Combined with Boneville's French origin, this multi-national group was typical of the early American frontier, where people had to speak multiple known languages and converse in what was then called “Indian Sign Language” to get directions, make trades, and negotiate through hostile territory.
Teichert painted this monumental work at the height of her powers, without a studio, in the depths of the Great Depression, and with no particular destination for the painting. The artist would pin canvases to the exterior of her home, working between jobs, while weather permitted; then untacked and rolled up the canvas. According to at least one family friend, Teichert kept stacks of canvas rolls throughout the house and barn, waiting to be stretched and framed. There were no art galleries in Wyoming, nor were there building projects that then planned to incorporate her works.
ALICE MERILL HORNE AND THE STORY OF IMMIGRANTS TO THE WEST
With the Depression affecting Teichert and her family, the artist reached out to Alice Merrill Horne. Like Teichert, Horne was educated, independent, and ambitious. She founded and directed the Utah Department of Arts & Museums, along with some 35 other institutions and art collections. In the absence of a commercial art market (i.e. galleries and established collectors), Horne held exhibitions, wrangled collectors together, and collaborated with public building programs to ensure new buildings contained work by regional artists. She was key in the careers of dozens of regional artists, including LeConte Stewart, Mabel Frazer, John Hafen, J.T. Harwood, and H.L.A. Culmer.
Horne arranged for Teichert's Bonneville paintings to be purchased for South High School in Salt Lake City:
The reason that Grandma decided to go to see Alice Merrill Horne about selling her art and about painting more murals was because in the 1930s they were in danger of losing the ranch during the Great Depression. So she went down and unrolled some of these large canvases on Alice Merrill Horne's floor. Alice Merrill Horne was the dealer of all important Utah artists at the time. And Horne immediately became her dealer and started marketing her works. So in the 1930's alone Alice Merrill Horne placed 60 of grandma's murals in public buildings in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho she painted. South High School in Salt Lake bought 12 of her murals and they were western themed and native peoples. (Source: https://www.thisisherplace.org/episodes/episode-03)
Seeing her works hanging in South High, Teichert called the building her “jewel box."
Horne's placement of the Bonneville paintings in South High was not coincidental. The painting shows Bonneville surrounded by a diverse group of trappers of Native American, French, Irish, English, and German origins. From its inception, South High was Salt Lake City's most diverse school. It then drew on working class families, mostly of Latin American descent, and would go on to see the State's largest population of German, Polynesian, and Vietnamese students – some 66,000 students overall. The school was also a training ground for civic and Church leaders. LDS Church presidents Harold B. Lee and Gordon B. Hinckley both taught Seminary at South High; and Barbara Smith, former LDS Relief Society general president, and Ted Wilson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, were graduates.
Captain Bonneville Explores the West (1933) captures the ambition of both early Western exploration and of Minerva Teichert, as she set out to depict the history of her heritage through a monumental painting that had no specific destination besides her own need to create it. Through the efforts of Alice Merrill Horne, the work illustrated the cooperation and diversity of American life to the State's most diverse study body at South High, and is an excellent example of the work of perhaps the region's greatest painter at the height of her abilities.