Storytellers: Scandinavians' art told of Restoration
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Missionary work in Scandinavia began 150 years ago with the arrival of the first missionaries in Denmark on June 14, 1850. In keeping with the observance of the sesquicentennial of the Scandinavian Mission this year, the Church News presents this article about two prominent Latter-day Saint artists from earlier days in that part of the world.
Carl Christian Anton Christensen (1831-1912) from Denmark and Danquart Anton Weggeland (1827-1918) from Norway were, more than anything else, master storytellers.
They saw the sweep of Latter-day Saint history in epic terms, painting scenes that documented the historical events of the Church and its colonization of the West.
"History will preserve much," Christensen wrote, "but art alone can make the narration of the suffering of the Saints comprehensible for the following generation."
Christensen and Weggeland met on the southern coast of Norway in 1854. Christensen was serving a mission for the Church, and Weggeland was investigating the Church. Weggeland was baptized soon after this meeting, and the two artists became lifelong friends. Christensen immigrated to Utah in 1857, and Weggeland followed in 1862.
Although painting was uppermost in the thoughts and desires of these two friends, they found little time to do much of it as they worked at anything to provide the necessities of life in frontier Utah. Christensen laid brick, burned charcoal, worked as a hod carrier and farmed. One artist of the time recorded in his journal that people "as a general thing like pictures and admire them, but they have no money to spend for them." Weggeland wrote, "Occasionally I could dispose of a painting or give a lesson in return for a pair of hand-knitted socks or a basket of onions or other vegetables from the garden." Yet these tenacious artists persisted, getting art commissions when and where they could.
In the 1870s, Dimick Huntington, LDS Indian interpreter and missionary, commissioned Christensen and Weggeland to paint a series of paintings depicting the scenes from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The scenes began with the Garden of Eden and ended with Moroni delivering the gold plates to Joseph Smith. The paintings were sewn together in a scroll and unrolled on rollers. They functioned as a visual aid for Huntington to use while preaching to the Indians.
Christensen and Weggeland collaborated on many paintings and panoramas. The two friends were often commissioned to paint murals in Church buildings.
Inspired by his earlier narrative paintings, Christensen undertook a series of 61/2 by 10 foot paintings in the late 1870s. Each of the 23 scenes depicting early Church history were sewn onto a backing to be exhibited as a scroll on rollers. Christensen made a frame on which to hang the scroll of paintings and then took his show on the road, exhibiting his "Mormon Panorama" to large audiences in Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Wyoming. A deeply religious man, Christensen believed he could teach the masses about the Restoration through his art. Christensen often had the audience sing hymns to go with the art.
"One of my desires in painting the panorama," Christensen wrote, "was to preserve the legacy and heritage of the early LDS Church. Every evening as the panorama unfolded, the audience became almost spellbound. For many of those present, it was not just a story. It was an integral part of their lives."
Christensen and Weggeland were folk artists. Their work had a primitive quality and the figures were stiff, but their paintings had a marvelous directness that expressed their testimony and faith. As Richard G. Oman, a curator at the Museum of Church History and Art, said of Christensen's work, "There's a sense of honesty that comes from the very primitive nature of his paintings that would be lost with a more sophisticated painting."
Christensen and Weggeland were more interested in the story than in the artistic techniques. They avoided empty landscapes, painting instead common people caught up in the human drama of the Restoration. Their Scandinavian heritage gave them a profound respect for the nobility of the common man.
Ironically, Christensen and Weggeland did not experience most of the historical events they painted. They immigrated after the Saints were settled in Utah. They relied on first-hand accounts for their background. As he traveled with his "Mormon Panorama," Christensen found that older people could add to his knowledge with their comments. He would revise his paintings accordingly.
Christensen and Weggeland did, however, live the experiences of European Mormons who came to the United States on Church-sponsored ships and crossed the plains in immigrant companies. Their most famous paintings depict these immigrant experiences.
In his painting of "The Handcart Company," Christensen shows the immigrants fording a small stream on the prairie. A woman in the foreground gathers buffalo chips to start a fire. This is not only Christensen's most famous work connected with LDS history, but is perhaps the most famous work connected with LDS history. Christensen and his wife spent their honeymoon crossing the plains in a handcart company in 1857.
In his painting "Handcart Pioneers," Weggeland shows the immigrants descending a hill. The European composition of the immigrants is illustrated through their clothes. The pioneers are participating in a variety of activities drawn from different times of day, such as gathering wood, cooking and marching. The American flag carried in the distance illustrates their enthusiasm for their new homeland. Weggeland crossed the plains in such a company in 1862. In this sesquicentennial year of the Scandinavian Saints, members of the Church can appreciate the artistic and spiritual gifts of these two talented artists as part of the Church's Scandinavian heritage.
Cramer, Carl. "Here is My Home at Last!" American Heritage 14:2 (February 1963): 26-33.
Gibbs, Linda. Masterworks (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1984).
Images of Faith: Art of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1995).
Jensen, Richard L. C.C.A. Christensen, 1831-1912: Mormon Immigrant Artist: An Exhibition at the Museum of Church History and Art (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1984).
Marshall, Robert L. C.C.A. Christensen: Pioneer Folk Artist (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1983), videorecording.
Nelson, Virginia K. "Carl Christian Anton Christensen." Saga of the Sanpitch 30 (1998): 93-103.
Pioneers of Utah Art (Kaysville, Utah: Kaysville Art Club, 1968).
J. Michael Hunter is a reference librarian at the Church Historical Department. Photos courtesy Museum of Church History and Art