Study for the Salt Lake Temple Garden of Eden Room by John Hafen

Posted by Eric Biggart on

What are we going to do, Brother Cannon, when one beautiful temple in Salt Lake City is ready to receive inside decorations? Who is there amongst all our people capable to do . . . justice to artwork that should be executed therein. I must confess that it is impossible for me to see any other . . . course to pursue… than to give two or three young men who possess talent in this direction, a chance to develop the same . . . If it should ever fall to my lot to receive assistance in this way . . . I would esteem it the highest honor and the crowning point in my ambition.1

When John Hafen wrote George Q. Cannon this letter in 1890, the Salt Lake Temple had been under construction for 37 years. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was reeling from a crushing court ruling that allowed the US Government to confiscate both property and tithing funds, leaving Wilford Woodruff to wonder whether or not the Church would ever be able to pay its debts.2 In this environment, with the Salt Lake Temple drastically over schedule and budget, Hafen’s unsolicited suggestion that the interior of the Temple be painted and that the artists be sent abroad to sharpen the skills for the project, would have been easily dismissed. But, despite these very practical concerns, George Q. Cannon agreed to send John Hafen, along with three other artists, from the Utah Territory to Paris as “art missionaries.” Three years later, after studying at the prestigious Academie Julien, he returned to Salt Lake to paint the Temple’s Garden Room. One of Hafen’s rare studies for his “crowing point” of ambition is now here at Anthony’s Fine Art & Antiques.

JOHN HAFEN & UTAH ART

There has been always an incentive to art in Utah. Not in the existence of schools or academies or the presence of great masterpieces of art in our midst . . . the Local incentive has been purely natural . . . the overwhelming influence of nature’s masterpieces arrays in perpetual exhibition at our doors.

Despite few opportunities for arts education or outlets for showing works, there were artistic talents in the Utah Territory. Hafen was one of several promising artists who had come to Utah as a young child. Together with Edwin Evans, JB Fairbanks, and Lorus Pratt, Hafen copied works from print journals and travelled throughout Utah to paint en plein air.

Despite their enthusiasm and access to natural wonders, the artists keenly felt the limits of their own abilities in France, the then universally acknowledged center of art and art education.

TRAINING IN PARIS

When, in 1890, John Hafen approached leaders of the Church for funds to study abroad, it was an acknowledgement of ambition and lack of training. In Paris, Hafen and his fellow art missionaries followed the example of another Utah painter, James Harwood, to study at the prestigious Académie Julian. The school had been founded in 1868 as a preparatory program for those applying for the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris, which had attracted and nurtured the talents of some of the greatest artists of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. However, by the 1890s, the Académie Julian had become prestigious in its own right.

There, Hafen studied the fundamental rules of the classical tradition: composition, tone, light, and mastery of the human form. These studies were done almost entirely in black and white — without the use of oil paints — and provided the kind of structure for making pictures that was lacking in Hafen’s provincial educational.

To augment these studies, Hafen, Evans, and Fairbanks took private lessons from the French landscape artist Albert Rigolot. In contrast to the crowded Parisian classrooms of the Académie, Rigolot took artists to the fields surrounding Paris. He encouraged the use of vivid colors and quick, loose brush strokes.

For two years, the combination of this impressionistic technique with academic rigor transformed Hafen, as is clearly evidenced in his first major work: the Salt Lake Temple Garden Room.

THE SALT LAKE TEMPLE MURALS

A photograph of the Salt Lake Temple taken in 1893. Source: Archive of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

A photograph of the Salt Lake Temple taken in 1893. Source: Archive of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

When Hafen returned to Utah in 1893, there were only five months before the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple. The First Presidency of the Church tasked the returning artists with monumental murals for the Creation and Garden Rooms. From the beginning, the work was collaborative, with each artist playing to his particular strengths. Fairbanks had a gift for animals, and Evans was partial to dynamic atmospheric effects. Hafen was especially gifted with creating landscape, and was given leadership over the Garden Room.3

Before working directly on the walls of the Temple, Hafen created a series of oil studies to explore the composition and coloring of the overall work. These studies were shown to First Presidency of the Church — used as a collaborative tool for the leaders and Hafen to develop the room together. A handful of these studies have survived. Some are in the collection of the Church Museum of History & Art (Salt Lake City) and most of these do not include signatures, perhaps because they were the collaborative work with more than one artist. The oil painting currently at Anthony’s Fine Art & Antiques is one of the finest examples of Hafen’s work. Clearly signed “John Hafen” in the lower-right corner, it is a bold and complete picture of the artist’s approach.

Study for the Salt Lake Temple Garden Room by John Hafen (American 1856 – 1910). Oil on Canvasboard. 12 x 9 in.

Study for the Salt Lake Temple Garden Room by John Hafen (American 1856 – 1910). Oil on Canvasboard. 12 x 9 in.

The Garden Room is an evocation of the Garden of Eden; the paradise where Adam and Eve lived before the world fell into sin. In his book describing the room itself and its purpose, James E. Talmage wrote:

There are sylvan grottoes and mossy dells, lakelets, and brooks, waterfalls and rivulets, trees, vines and flowers, insects, birds and beasts, in short, the earth beautiful — as it was before the Fall. It may be called the Garden of Eden Room, for in every part . . . it speaks of sweet content and blessed repose. There is no suggestion of disturbance, enmity or hostility . . .4
Study for the Salt Lake Temple Garden Room by John Hafen (American 1856 – 1910). Oil on Canvasboard. 12 x 9 in.

Study for the Salt Lake Temple Garden Room by John Hafen (American 1856 – 1910). Oil on Canvasboard. 12 x 9 in.

A detailed view of the work, shows that Hafen used a large variety of colors — with over 30 variations of green. His brushstrokes are visibly confident and diverse, broad in some instances and staccato in others. The result is a startling array of textures and a feeling of verisimilitude.

As is often true of final works, when the studies were developed into the final, full-scale murals, they became less impressionistic and lively. Yet, they gained a sense of grandeur. After touring the temple, the Salt Lake Herald reported:

In [The Garden of Eden] room the genius of the artist has transferred vividly realistic scenes to the walls and ceilings. Forest scenery, streams, mountains and wild beasts are depicted with such marvelous skill . . . that the spectator is almost convinced that he is standing in the midst of the creation wilds.5

The earliest photos of the interior of the Garden Room were taken by Charles E. Savage and published in James E. Talmage’s book The House of the Lord. These photos give the clearest idea of the original work done by Hafen, Evans, Fairbanks, and Pratt.

Damage and changes to the room over the years has led to several restoration projects and repainting, with little of Hafen’s original work remaining.

Damage and changes to the room over the years has led to several restoration projects and repainting, with little of Hafen’s original work remaining.

The Garden Room. Salt Lake City Temple, c. 1970.

The Garden Room. Salt Lake City Temple, c. 1970.

The Garden Room. Salt Lake City Temple, c. 1970.

The Garden Room. Salt Lake City Temple, c. 1970.

In her catalogue created for an exhibition on the the work of Hafen and the Church’s art missionaries, Linda Gibbs described the Garden and Creation rooms of the Salt Lake Temple as the “result of the temple experience” and the “beginnings of Utah impressionism.” 6

This small study for the Garden Room is a reminder of Hafen’s natural abilities combined with the skills he developed in the art capital of the world. Through this and subsequent works, he would inspire a new school of Utah art. The work is also powerful evidence of the Church’s dedication to beautify its sacred spaces, even at great sacrifice. As Hafen said himself:

The influence of art is so powerful in shaping our lives for a higher appreciation of the creations of our God that we cannot afford to neglect an acquaintance with it. We should be as eager for it’s companionship in our homes as we are eager for chairs to sit upon, or for food to sustain our lives; for it has as important a mission in sharing our character and conducing to our happiness as anything we term necessities. Life is incomplete without Art. A religious life is not an ideal religious life without it.7

ENDNOTES

  1. Letter from John Hafen to George Q. Cannon, 25 March 1890. Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Special Collections. 
  2. Samuel W. Taylor. Rocky Mountain Empire: The Latter-Day Saints Today. (New York, MacMillan Publishing, 1978), 65-69.
  3. Linda Jones Gibbs. Harvesting the Light: The Paris Art Mission and Beginnings of Utah Impressionism. (Salt Lake City: Museum of the Church History and Art, Exhibition Catalogue, 1987), 35-38.
  4. James E. Talmage. The House of the Lord (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1912), 186.
  5. Editorial commentary. “Dedicated to the Lord.” Salt Lake Herald (7 April 1893), 6.
  6. Linda Jones Gibbs. Harvesting the Light: The Paris Art Mission and Beginnings of Utah Impressionism. (Salt Lake City: Museum of the Church History and Art, Exhibition Catalogue, 1987), 35-38.
  7. John Hafen. “Artist Explanation,” O My Father: Illustrated Booklet. (Salt Lake City, Deseret Press, 1909)

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