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J. Leo Fairbanks: Book of Mormon Pictures that My Teacher Showed to Me

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 02, 2010

“Book of Mormon illustrations.”

Despite having already seen this post’s title, you almost certainly flashed on one of Arnold Friberg’s paintings illustrating the Book of Mormon, no? Or maybe if you’re one of Keepa’s 18 Sunday readers of Phil Dalby’s comic strip adaptation of the Book of Mormon, you thought of that. We’ve talked of other illustrators – like C.C.A. Christensen’s 1890 illustrations for the Juvenile Instructor. Minerva Teichert’s series is also well known and deservedly well loved.

Here’s another illustrator to be familiar with. Your grandparents may have known his paintings, because in the few years between 1937 when most of them were painted, and 1953 when Friberg’s paintings began appearing in the Children’s Friend, these were the pictures used in lesson manuals and on the covers of church magazines specifically to assist teachers in telling the stories of the Book of Mormon to young children.

J[onathan]. Leo Fairbanks (1878-1946) was one of that great Fairbanks dynasty of artists who have done so much for the Church art (and for American history, as well). He was a son of painter John B. Fairbanks and a brother of sculptor Avard Fairbanks. He studied first under his father, then in Paris. He continued producing art even while his career focused on art education, first in the public schools of Salt Lake City, and later at Oregon State University. His most well-known work in a Church setting was as the sculptor of the frieze decorating the temple at Laie, Hawaii.

Beginning in 1937 he painted a series of illustrations of the Book of Mormon. I do not yet know what the impetus for that was, nor how many paintings eventually comprised the series. From the number of paintings devoted to the book of I Nephi alone, we might guess that he intended to do many dozens of paintings fully illustrating the entire Book. So far as I have been able to find, these paintings have never been compiled and published in a single work, and I have been gathering them a few at a time from where they appear in old LDS publications. There are undoubtedly more than the 15 presented here as a sampling; I continue to search for more.

What intrigues me more than the pictures themselves is the choice of scenes he chose to depict, where that choice differed from the other series we’ve looked at, and how very different his conceptions were. Compare his “Vision of Nephi” with that from the 1890 series, for instance, or Fairbank’s very simple “Liahona” with the related Friberg painting, or his Nephi working quietly at the forge  in the background of his “Building of the Ship,” again contrasted with Friberg.

What do you think?

(Note: These images are scanned from the publications of the 1930s and 1940s when mass color printing techniques were still being developed. Sometimes the layers of color didn’t always match up, which is particularly noticeable in the striped clothing in these scenes. Consider the muddy color less a defect than as a feature helping you to experience these pictures the way your great-grandparents may have seen them!)

Nephi and Zoram with the Brass Plates
1 Nephi 4

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Journey in the Wilderness
1 Nephi 6:9-13

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Ishmael and His Family Join Lehi
1 Nephi 7

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The Vision of Nephi
1 Nephi 11

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The Liahona
1 Nephi 16

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Nephi Breaks His Bow
1 Nephi 6:14-29

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Building of the Ship
1 Nephi 17, 18:1-8

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On the Ocean
1 Nephi 18:9-23

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Lehi and His Family Reach the Promised Land
1 Nephi 18:23-25, 19:1-6

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Nephites in the Wilderness
2 Nephi 5

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Ammon Before King Lamoni
Alma 17-26

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Nephi’s Prayer before Christ’s Crucifixion

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Christ Teaching the Nephites

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Moroni Hides the Records in the Hill Cumorah
Moroni 12:4

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Moroni and Joseph Smith



9 Comments »

  1. A bearded Nephi, huh?

    These seem to have a 2-dimensional feel to them. Maybe the lack of perspective reflects the artist’s weakness? Check out Nephi’s feet in the vision of the iron rod, for instance.

    In any case, these were fun to look at.

    Comment by Clark — December 2, 2010 @ 10:55 am

  2. Kind of like a mural, maybe? At least quicker and rougher, I agree, than Friberg or Teichert. Maybe the greater realism than had previously been seen in BoM artwork like this is another reason Friberg’s paintings were so instantly popular.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 2, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  3. By the way, beard growth is one of the tricks Dalby used in his cartoons to show the passage of time. Nephi is first shown as beardless, then for a time had a stubbly shadow, and then his beard grew fuller and more patriarchal as the story progressed.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 2, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  4. Nephi’s beard growth? I wonder if that was showing the lack of shaving technology once they left Jerusalem, or extra water in the desert, or whether it was showing his movement out of adolescence.

    Comment by Researcher — December 2, 2010 @ 11:20 am

  5. I meant lack of extra water [for shaving]…

    Comment by Researcher — December 2, 2010 @ 11:21 am

  6. FWIW, an online source claims that he painted 33 such illustrations. It would be nice to find a catalog of his work.

    Comment by Justin — December 2, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  7. Researcher, whether it was shaving technology (I like that term!) or a device to show aging, I like seeing details where an artist has thought through an issue and come up with a device to reflect change. (Just how long is Bart Simpson going to be ten years old? I know, that’s part of the schtick of that series, but I also like it when artists go the other way and show change.)

    Cool, Justin. That will give me a known target to shoot for. He did other LDS magazine illustrations, too, that I like, including a cover piece showing an emigrant ship leaving Liverpool. If you do run across a catalog of that kind of work, I’d very much appreciate hearing about it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 2, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

  8. I found a listing for an undated publication entitled Catalog of paintings by J. Leo Fairbanks at the Oregon State libraries, but that’s it thus far.

    Comment by Justin — December 2, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  9. The paintings of J. Leo Fairbanks included in this article are weak. Some might even term them “high amateur” due to the anatomical inaccuracies of proportion, foreshortening, and understanding of the underlying musculature of the human body. He also has problems with drapery, i.e. the way the robes would hang and ‘flow’ while on a human being as well as landscape. That being said, the male artists of the Fairbanks family have had much far more success with sculpture, culminating in the works of Avard Fairbanks. Even though Avard’s work would not glean the full praise that it deserved during his lifetime, it is still very respectible.
    Avard’s work had a subtle, masculine strength to it which gave his sculpture a heroic quality. On occasion,he would introduce a sense of dynamism (action) in some of his scupltures by the way he shows the subject with their shoulders twisted at an angle to their waist. This is especially true of his portrayal of horsemen and farmers at the plow.
    Today, the direct successor to Avard Fairbanks work is Ed Fraughton, whose style is reminiscent of Fairbanks. (See; http://fairbanksart.com/ vs.
    http://www.edfraughton.com/sculpture/html/bwcowboy.html)
    J. Leo’s frieze on the the Laie Temple shows a far greater depth of understanding of anatomy and proportion than his paintings reveal, and the work could have been even far more noteworthy had he not had the constraints and expectations of ecclesiastical sculpture of that era. (Static, i.e. stiff, formal poses were thought to convey dignity and grandeur.) Fortunately, Mormon art remains alive and well and the Church is encouraging it’s continued production by holding a juried exhibition every 3(?) years and purchasing what they feel are the best from each exhibition.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — December 6, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

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