All of Time in One Space: Minerva Teichert and the Western Vision

The American West provokes thoughts of time and of timelessness, and the art of the American West portrays these conflicting, yet interlocking concepts. Artists like Emanuel Gottlieb Luetze, Thomas Cole and John Gast connect a historical past and a historical future in their paintings even as their portrayal of the present creates an iconic symbol unconnected to time. "[W]estern Art," says J. Kinsey, "has the power to inspire passion in viewers and prompt them to contemplate ideas that transcend immediate circumstances." (244, my emphasis) while Cronon sees in 19th century Western landscape paintings three time-centered elements: "a particular instant . . . a chronicle of past use . . . a vision of future change" (43-44).

Cronon's three elements can be perceived in Minerva Teichert's painting Handcart Pioneers. She deals with an incident that took place in historical time even as she draws on ideas that transcend time.

Handcart Pioneers captures an "instant" of achievement: a family (husband, wife, young son) have reached the Utah Valley. As they trudge towards their goal, the wife turns to wave to pioneers behind her.

To understand the impact of this painting on a Mormon audience, it is necessary to understand the story that it chronicles: the past towards which the woman waves.

The first Mormon pioneers left Nauvoo, Illinois in the Winter of 1846. Their prophet, Joseph Smith, had been killed by a mob a year and a half earlier in June of 1844. Despite some factionalism, Brigham Young had assumed the role of prophet in August 1844. Hostilities continued, the state militia becoming more and more involved in order to maintain peace. The Mormons were requested to leave Illinois, the date of exodus being set for April 1846. Due to threats, this was shortened to February. Starting February 2, the majority of the Saints straggled across the Mississippi River to Iowa.

Mormons had been kicked out of other places before Nauvoo, including Jackson County and Clay County, Missouri. Mormons, moving across the Western frontier in search of a place to build Zion, constituted an economic and political threat to their neighbors. Governor Bogg of Missouri had issued an extermination order against Mormons in October 1838. That same month, a mob set upon Mormons at Haun's Mill in Caldwell County, slaughtering men, women and children.

Nauvoo, constructed in less than five years, seemed, at first, to be a refuge from such persecution. Mormons called it The City Beautiful. It contained not only brick homes but a printing press, a concert hall and the Nauvoo Temple. As mob violence increased, many Mormons wanted to stay in Nauvoo and fight. Some did stay after Young's departure, including Joseph Smith's widow, Emma. They did not fight. With the departure of the majority of Mormons, the mob violence decreased (although the Nauvoo Temple was later burned by arson).

For the Nauvoo Mormons, the pioneer movement was not, as it was for later Mormon emigrants, accompanied by a desire for a better economic situation. Rather, the decision to follow Brigham Young stemmed from religious conviction: firstly, in Young's prophetic calling and secondly, in the belief that Zion could be built in the Western territories. Congressman Stephen Douglas (renown for being Abraham Lincoln's opponent in the 1860 Presidential election), who supported the spread of American civilization across the West, encouraged the Mormon leaders in their efforts. But the Mormon impetus stemmed less from a political imperative and more from a religious need.

The backward glancing woman in Teichert's Handcart Pioneers calls to mind the events that started the Saints on their weary trek and the sacrifices that ensued. A few months into the exodus, Clerk of the Camp William Clayton composed a hymn "Come, Come Ye Saints" that would become both a comfort and a call for the pioneering Mormons. Clayton received news from his wife, still in Nauvoo, that she had safely given birth to a baby boy. The hymn captures Clayton's feelings of joy as well as his worries for the future. The hymn begins, "Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear/ But with joy wend your way/Though hard to you this journey may appear/Grace shall be as your day," and ends, "And should we die before our journey’s through/Happy day! All is well!/ We then are free from toil and sorrow, too/With the just we shall dwell!"

The gesture of Teichert's pioneer woman echoes the sentiment of the song: "Gird up your loins; fresh courage take/Our God will never us forsake." She waves on those behind, calling to them. Possibly, she reminds them of their goal: "We’ll find the place which God for us prepared/ Far away in the West/Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid/There the Saints will be blessed."

"[T]he place which God for us prepared" can be perceived in the far right corner of Teichert's painting. This sun-drenched land is the future towards which the pioneering family treads. In keeping with 19th century perceptions of civilization, it contains buildings (or tents) that will grow into a city: City Beautiful will be recreated in the desert. It is for the sake of this heavenly vision that the family has endured the trek.

For Teichert, the trek had personal and cultural importance. She was herself the product of pioneer ancestry. Her great-grandmother had crossed the plains in the dress depicted in Handcart Pioneers. Teichert was born to homesteaders in American Falls, Idaho in 1888. She showed artistic promise early. She attended the Chicago Art Institute where she studied under Robert Henri. Her art bears the influence of early 20-century Impressionism, but her vision harks back to an earlier era of art. Teichert wanted to paint murals: heroic paintings extolling the history of the Mormon people.

With this in mind, Teichert returned to her home in Pocatello. In 1917, she married her "cowboy sweetheart." She proceeded to work as a rancher's wife and to raise five sons, all while producing forty-five Book of Mormon-inspired murals; murals for the LDS Manti temple and hundreds of paintings of pioneer life, including many paintings of Native Americans.

"We must paint the great Mormon story of our pioneers," she stated. She believed that the purpose of art was to motivate and educate people and that her art, in particular, was to help build Zion. Despite her many duties as a rancher's wife, she felt compelled to paint: "the story of building a mountain empire, and the struggles of my people drive me on."

In many ways, her language echoes the concept of National Progress as promoted by Gast and Luetz. Yet, her paintings also transmit an intensely personal and Mormon vision of that progress, both distilled in the image of Handcart's gesturing woman.

Teichert believed profoundly in the impact of women in religion. In her painting Madonna of 1847, the Madonna is a pioneer woman. She sits on the seat of a carriage, the hoops of the carriage haloing her head. In her lap, she holds a baby. A child sits besides her. She is not idealized; she looks worn by her adventures. At the same time, like the more traditional Madonna, she is aloof. She holds within her the twin threads of independence and domesticity (a coupling found in Mormon women to this day and which is perceptively described in Julie Jeffrey's book Frontier Women).

The central female figure of Handcart Pioneers is, likewise, both a figure of independence and of domestic inspiration. Unlike Luetz's Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, where the gesturing figure is a man, Teichert's woman has already arrived where Luetz's hero points. At the moment of accomplishment, she turns and gives encouragement to those behind. She embodies courage and comfort, the spirit of the pioneering effort.

Also, unlike Luetz (and Gast), Teichert's intent is not national colonization but religious colonization. It is likely that Mormon pioneers believed in their right to colonize the West as firmly as gold miners and homesteaders. Yet Mormons retained an uneasy relationship with the National Government well into the 20th Century. When, in 1857, the Federal Government sent General Johnston out to Utah with the United States army, Mormons were haunted by memories of Haun's Mill and the forced abandonment of Nauvoo. Again, they considered whether they should fight or fly to yet another refuge. (The issue became moot since General Johnston was recalled almost as soon as he arrived, due to the out break of the Civil War). Federal agents continued to harass Mormon polygamists until 1890 when President Woodruff presented the Manifesto to the Church and polygamy was ended (officially; the issue still exasperates local and Federal authorities who engage periodically in the game of hot potato over polygamists in the borderlands of Arizona and Utah). In these events, one sees the seeds of Utah Republican libertarianism.

For the family in Handcart Pioneers, these governmental squabbles don't exist. In snapshot fashion, a woman looks back over the journey she has taken and encourages those who follow her. Beyond her, a vision of religious colonization—Zion—gives the motive for the journey. Past, present and future are encapsulated and collapsed into a single frame.

Like many pioneers, Mormons knew they were living a historical narrative. Brigham Young instructed Clayton to keep a diary of his life on the trail. The arrival of the first pioneers in the Utah Valley was commemorated within two years. (Pioneer Day is currently celebrated on July 24). The present moment contained both the historical past and the community's future goals.

Such hyperawareness of time is implicit in the 19th Century concept of the West. The West already had inhabitants and a history, but such is the nature of human parochialism, Eastern settlers perceived empty space and time for them to fill. Mormons saw the Utah Valley not so much as an empty space (their relations with the Ute Indians were comparatively better than that experienced by other pioneers) but as a space in which a community of Saints could flourish, out of the way of the World. The West became super-time, something apart.

This isolation didn't last long. Johnston's army brought worries but also much needed goods. Settlers on their way to California passed through Salt Lake City. The railroad arrived and with it the World entered Utah and time become linear and business-like, no longer the "glory of movement and change, of ordinary people making history by the mere act of living their ordinary lives" (Cronon, 79).

Yet, the image of the Mormon pioneer, like many Western icons, has remained and transcended its time-oriented context. The historical Mormon pioneer has developed into the symbolic pioneer. As the Mormon Church has grown internationally, the struggling, sacrificing pioneer has gained a timelessness removed from space. The pioneers of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies who, leaving Iowa too late, suffered cruel hardships in the snows of Wyoming have become the epitome of the Mormon pioneer experience (this despite the fact that the Mormon pioneering effort was more successful than not). The Martin Handcart pioneers, and those who rescued them at Brigham Young's direction, are those who will give up all for the kingdom of God. This icon speaks across cultures (tragedy is more easily translated than comedy). Mormons worldwide are invited to look to their communities, to commemorate the sacrifices made by pioneers in their nations and families.

This is in keeping with the artistic traditions of the West: an insistence on a specific place and time combined with images and concepts that transcend time. By depicting past, present and future in her paintings, Teichert shows herself a quintessential artist of the West. By depicting time transcended by a religious idea, she also echoes the myth of the West: here time begins, here time is conquered.


"Come Come Ye Saints." Hymns. SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1995?

Cronon, William. "Telling Tales on Canvas: Landscapes of Frontier Change." Discovered Lands,Invented Pasts : Transforming Visions of the American West. Jules David Brown, ed.New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Kinsey, Joni. "Viewing the West: the Popular Culture of Western Painting." Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture. Richard Aquila, ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Museum of Church History and Art. Images of Faith: Art of the Latter-Day Saints. SLC: Deseret Book Company, 1995.

Swanson, Vern and Robert Olpin and William Seifrit. Utah Art. Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1991.

Welch, John W. and Doris R. Dant. The Book of Mormon Paintings of Minerva Teichert. SLC: Bookcraft, 1997.

1 comment:

Steven Lee Adams said...

I stumbled onto your paper while researching handcart pioneers for a painting that I am doing for a PBS documentary on the Willie Martin handcart company. Thanks for your thoughts on Teichert and why she painted, it was helpful.

Steven Lee Adams