Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Joseph Paul Vorst: Regionalist Artist

Joseph Paul Vorst: Regionalist Artist

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 24, 2013

This is a post I’m ill-equipped to write, and I welcome correction and addition by anyone with a better understanding of 20th century American painting.

There is a style of American art that I strongly associate with the Depression. You see this style in murals that decorate so many 1930s-era post offices and other government buildings. The subject matter is almost always rural life – agriculture, small-scale industry, landscapes that are either rolling farmlands or river bottoms. The style is certainly not abstract: people and their homes and activities are easily recognized and are often sharply drawn; but neither is it quite realistic: perspective is often distorted, details that in a photograph would show as straight lines – the corner of a cabin, for instance – are painted with slight curves, and people and animals often look more like cartoons than figures you would see in life.

These two murals, the first by Thomas Hart Benton, the second by Joseph Paul Vorst, will remind you of the style of painting I’m describing:



The style, known as Regionalism, apparently grew out of an early 20th century debate among American artists as to what American art was or should be. The movement’s best known artists favored American scenes and American subjects and downplayed their European origins or inspirations. This style flourished in the 1930s and mostly died out by World War II. That timing, together with the strong social conscience that led its proponents to paint scenes of Americans suffering from flood, the erosions of the Dust Bowl years, and poverty, is what ties it to the Depression, at least in my mind.

The Regionalist movement was centered in Missouri. From 1932 to 1941, the small town of Ste. Genevieve – the first permanent European town (it was French) west of the Mississippi, evidently – was home to an art colony where artists-in-residence taught summer classes and worked on their own paintings. Thomas Hart Benton worked there for only one year, but because of his prominence in the art world in general is the one most often associated with the colony there. Lesser known names, but recognized by museums, are Sister Cassiana Marie, Joseph Paul Vorst Bernard Peters, Martyl Schweig, Aime Goldstone Schweig, Mathew E. Ziegler, and a handful of others.

The one who interests us is Joseph Paul Vorst. Born in Essen, Germany, in 1897, he served during World War I and emerged permanently lame in one leg. He studied art in the National Academy of Berlin. In1930 he emigrated to the U.S., to, in his words, “obtain reserved liberty” for himself and his talents. He settled in Missouri because he had cousins in Ste. Genevieve. He split his time between Ste,. Genevieve and St. Louis, where he taught college-level art classes and developed his own painting style. He was associated with the art colony and summer school at Ste. Genevieve throughout its 1932-1941 run, and he won numerous competitions to paint murals in public buildings. In 1936, he joined the American Artists’ Congress in protest to Europe’s growing fascism. His works were exhibited in the great art competitions of the day – exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, at the New York World’s Fair, and at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. He had one-man art exhibitions in New York, Washington, and St. Louis. For someone you’ve probably never heard of, he was extraordinarily well known and respected in the 1930s.

This much you can find out by Googling. What nobody in the art world seems to know, though, is this: As devoted as he was to his art, as successful as he was in his professional life, there was another side to Joseph Paul Vorst.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, Joseph Paul Vorst was a Latter-day Saint. He was baptized in 1924, in Germany, and in the spring of 1931, he traveled from St. Louis to Salt Lake City to go through the temple there. He was a longtime member of the St. Louis Branch, active in the M.I.A. and always willing to serve the members with art tours or lectures. He was “a constant missionary.” A sister missionary, Virginia Freebairn, serving in Missouri in 1940 wrote, “Not enough could be said of Brother Vorst’s loyalty, his enthusiasm, his desire to help the St. Louis Branch, his genuine sincerity … He treats the missionaries royally … He leads the singing at Sacrament meeting and also does missionary work among his business associates. I love to hear him tell why he came to St. Louis to take up his work – about this being the chosen spot of the world. … This summer he is coming to Utah. One of the main reasons is to find some of the missionaries he met in the old country, particularly the one who baptized him.”

Joseph Paul Vorst died relatively young, in 1947, in St. Louis.

I’ve gathered an album of Joseph Paul Vorst’s work, posting it separately here so that you won’t be bothered by slow loading if you want to follow whatever conversation might develop in the comments here.



  1. The Saint and Old Man River are quite good. The Saint has a touch of El Greco in it. Lincoln-Douglas is good. Washington Crossing the Delaware is beyond regionalist, I’d say. It reminds me of some of Picasso’s stuff, some of those experiments with form.

    Comment by Adam G. — June 24, 2013 @ 9:38 am

  2. Thanks for checking them out, Adam. A lot of them are very, very American, a little surprising (to me) for someone so newly come from Germany. Nothing seems to echo Mormon themes or images, particularly, though, does it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 24, 2013 @ 10:27 am

  3. Very interesting. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 24, 2013 @ 10:36 am

  4. Interesting. I would suggest adding an “s” to Douglas–that was Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, not Lincoln and Stephen A.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 24, 2013 @ 10:41 am

  5. Another LDS artist “found” — thanks! I enjoyed looking through the album. A lot of variety to the quality of the pieces.

    That last line of the post was intriguing: “This summer he is coming to Utah . . . to find some of the missionaries he met in the old country, particularly the one who baptized him.” I wonder if he was successful?

    Comment by David Y. — June 24, 2013 @ 11:08 am

  6. Very nice. I like a lot of those, but my favorites are Byrd at the North Pole, Old Man River, Sharecroppers’ Revolt, and Washington Crossing the Delaware. I don’t know that I’d care to have them hanging on the wall, but a book of prints would be great.

    Comment by Amy T — June 24, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

  7. What an impressive body of work! He seems to have had a career independent of Utah and the west.

    “Washington Crossing the Delaware” caught my eye as well, because it looked much darker and completely polarized politically from the familiar, heroic depictions of General Washington that we are used to. (If you have the opportunity to visit the National Portrait Gallery in DC, (a truly unsung gem of a museum in a city of fabulous museums) there is a bust of Washington that likens him to Caesar that is almost comical in its position. Like McNaughton, except very well executed.)

    My favorite out of this Keepa Gallery, however, upon my first cursory look, is the witty “Spare Rib.”

    Comment by MDearest — June 24, 2013 @ 9:41 pm

  8. I am surprised that I had never heard of him. Thanks for finding him and showing us his work. I am very interested in more of his story.

    Comment by Jeffery Johnson — June 24, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

  9. Good art!

    I checked my DC HQ building on the web, now the Stewart Lee Udall Department of the Interior Building (Bro. Udall was a Mormon, of course) to see if Bro. Horst had done any of the wonderful WPA murals there. No such luck. But I knew we did have Maynard Dixon who even if not a Mormon had a solid connection with Utah in his art. So there is that.

    Comment by Grant — June 24, 2013 @ 11:29 pm

  10. Bro. Vorst was not from Hesse–he was from Essen, in what is now the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen. But maybe he remembered that it was the Hessians who got the worst of the fight in Trenton right after Washington and his army crossed the Delaware, and his brotherly German feelings–Hesse borders Nordrhein-Westfalen, after all–got the best of him.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 25, 2013 @ 7:34 am

  11. It took me a while to pinpoint just whose artwork Brother Horst’s reminds me of…

    Virginia Lee Burton (You may remember this Caldecott winner from the Little House or Mike Mulligan & the Steam Shovel, or Katy and the Big Snow).

    Nice research.

    Comment by Coffinberry — June 25, 2013 @ 11:22 am

  12. Ardis, Thanks for this cool overview. I own some works by Vorst. I’d love to know more biographical information. Can you point me to sources? Much appreciated.

    Comment by Glen Nelson — December 4, 2013 @ 10:29 am

  13. I’m really glad to know that you enjoyed it, Glen.

    Biographical information was hard to come by, even to write this brief post. One helpful source, though, was a website of a Vorst family member: . She has a number of photos and family stories to supplement the bare dates and places.

    If in your searching you find another good source of information, or learn of a published article or other printed source, I would very much appreciate your coming back here to leave another comment pointing me toward it. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 4, 2013 @ 11:01 am

  14. I have some artworks by Vorst, so I was happy to see that other people on your post think he is interesting, too. A book that I liked is, An American Art Colony: The Art and Artists of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, 1930-1940. I know the gallery that represents the Vorst estate in St. Louis. It is baffling to them that the Church seems unaware of Vorst. I might do a project with Mormon Artists Group to showcase him. Do you think that would be a good idea?

    Comment by Glen Nelson — December 7, 2013 @ 7:19 am

  15. I can’t speak for Ardis or anybody else on this blog, Glen, but I think it would be a terrific idea.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 7, 2013 @ 7:51 am

  16. Yes! Oh, that would be WONDERFUL!! When (not if) you do, please let me blog about it, or at least help publicize what you’ve done. If there’s any other way I can cooperate, please let me.

    I think the reason Vorst is unknown is a combination of his geographical distance from Salt Lake and a lack of explicitly Mormon subject matter. That’s unfortunate, to say the least, and should be changed.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 7, 2013 @ 10:19 am

  17. The motion has been made and seconded, and it looks like the voting is unanimous in the affirmative. : )

    Here’s a link to the Mormon Artists Group for anyone who may be following this discussion.

    Comment by Amy T — December 7, 2013 @ 10:42 am

  18. Ardis, when you get a spare minute, drop me a note. I’d like to ask a couple of questions.


    Comment by Glen Nelson — December 7, 2013 @ 9:17 pm