What did Joseph Smith look like?
I read a blog post about a possible photograph of Joseph Smith that surfaced, and the eye test just didn’t do it for me. But how would I even know? All we have are paintings of the prophet, and I believe most are based on the mask, one was supposedly painted when he was alive, and I think there is another that’s trying to pass as a photograph, but to me it looks more like a photo of a drawing.
Which is the real Joseph Smith?
The fact is, the best sure bet we have is his death mask. There may be some slight issues referencing it because it looks as though, from his skull and other accounts, that after he fell out of the window from being shot, he was struck in the face. This could have broken his jaw or disfigured him in other ways. However, I haven’t really heard any accounts from those who knew him suggest it looks nothing like him, so as far as what exactly Joseph looked like, the death mask is the best thing we have.
So, my thought was – why not do a painting based EXACLY on the death mask? Using the death mask as a base and “skinning” the mask to get every proportion and shadow just right.
Tackling the Painting
The idea was to go for a sense of realism. I wanted Joseph to look personable. I wanted to paint details that reflected all of the life he lived in his short time 38 years on earth (Coincidentally, he was the same age at his death as I was when I painted it. That’s a hard pill to swallow comparing what he accomplished in 38 years to what I accomplished in my life. It’s a bit humbling.)
One of the departures from traditional paintings of Joseph that I took was to give him a little stubble. It’s said that he didn’t grow a beard because he felt he couldn’t grow a decent one (I can relate to that.) Nevertheless, did people really find it vital to shave every day back then? Did Joseph make sure he took that time near the end of his life? Learning about his last several months, I get a sense that he was in a hurry, almost a panic, to get everything done he needed to as if he had a sense that his time was near. I imagine running into him on the street and be greeted by a man who may have let it grow out for a few days, as there were much more important things to take care of.
One of the common features that the paintings of Joseph have in common is the hair on the side of his face that was combed forward. Some say this was the style back then, but other accounts suggest that he wore it forward to hide some scarring. After he was tarred and feathered, they peeled the tar off of his skin, and the extremely sensitive part where the hair-line meets the skin would have been torn off, and likely wouldn’t heal well. Therefore, if you look closely, I put a subtle scar on his hairline.
Joseph was known to have dusty blond hair. This was emphasized from a viewing of an early draft by one of my good friends who owns the LDS bookstore in Nauvoo. I originally didn’t have him blond enough. So I made him a bit more blonde, and threw in a few grey for good measure. Side note: Interestingly enough, when people ask me what took the longest, the answer is his hair. I went through a few iterations.
With Joseph’s eyes closed in the death mask, this was the part that I had to improvise on the most. I couldn’t cut corners because the eyes are central to bringing a person to life on a canvas. I knew his eyes were blue, but that’s about it. I wanted to give him kind eyes, and eyes that that could reflect having seen the living Christ within them. Eyes that had seen the restoration of the fullness of the Gospel, who had seen and experienced deep suffering, yet the joy of revelations, angels, healings, and sainthood. I wanted to reflect in his eyes the ability to see the final vision of a complete temple, which he was never able to see finished in this life, and the calm disposition of a man who knew that he had done what he could for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom, just as he was about to seal his testimony with his own life.
Is this Joseph Smith?
There may come a day when I meet Joseph and I say, “Boy, I was off on this or that,” but I honestly feel this is close. I hope it resonates with all of those who hold a special place in their hearts for “Brother Joseph,” and that this painting honors him as he deserves.