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Artwork of the Week

Artwork of the Week: Joseph Smith Triptych

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Eric Bransby (1916-2020), 'Joseph Smith Triptych,' 1958, oil on wood, 116 1/4 x 70 1/2 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Intercollegiate Knights, 1958.

On December 3, 1958, the Gold Y Chapter of the Intercollegiate Knights, a National Honorary Service Fraternity at BYU, presented this triptych to the University. It proudly hung in the lobby of the old Joseph Smith Building for over 30 years until the building’s demolition in the early 1990s. Today, many students and faculty have all but forgotten the role this beautiful triptych played in BYU’s history.

In the 1950s, the old Joseph Smith Building served as a student center where students could have dinner, attend dances, watch movies, buy books, and spend time with their peers. The Gold Y Chapter, seeking to elevate the space and give back to the University, secured the necessary permissions to commission a mural of the Prophet Joseph Smith for the lobby area. By May 1957, a large empty wall was chosen, and Eric Bransby was selected to complete the mural.

Bransby’s artistic mentors included prominent figures from the American Mural Movement, including Thomas Hart Benton, Boardman Robinson, and Jean Charlot. He studied color, abstraction, and geometry under the modernist Josef Alberts which imbued his work with sophistication and intrigue. As an American Regionalist painter, Bransby enjoyed highlighting America’s rich heritage of peoples and cultures. This included important figures like Joseph Smith, whose life and work changed the trajectory of countless American lives and greatly impacted the settlement of the West.

Though not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bransby approached the portrait of Joseph Smith with respect. Seeking to do justice to the important American figure, he attempted the main portrait of Joseph Smith in the center panel twice. The first time, he found that he had over-idealized the portrait in his effort to highlight Joseph Smith’s personality and honorable qualities. For his final version, he consulted more documentary material about the prophet and was able to achieve a suitable balance between the prophet’s physical appearance and his emotional or spiritual dispositions.

Completed in the abstract style Bransby was known for, the Joseph Smith Triptych presents an interesting and unique view of the prophet, highlighting what Bransby saw as the three main aspects of Joseph Smith’s life: his visionary experiences, his ministry, and his role as a leader of men. Despite the removal of this tryptic from its place of honor in the demolished Joseph Smith Building, it remains an important University treasure and a significant artistic treatment of the prophet Joseph Smith.

Guest author: Curatorial fellow Ivy Griffiths

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Is this a painting, or is it a sculpture?
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