In the early twentieth century, European art swirled with possibilities. The art academies continued their reign over traditional art, emphasizing anatomical study and draughtsmanship for the purpose of producing representational masterpieces. Modernism, however, had gained ground with anti-academic experiments; it favored personal experience and expression over tradition. While Moser had come to Paris to study in the academic mode, he would also have been exposed to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists who reveled in experiential color and who rejected illusionistic form. He would have seen early Cubism, as practiced by his acquaintance Pablo Picasso, with its fractured view of subject and space. At the same time, Expressionists in Germany wielded color and distorted figures to communicate emotional, rather than visual reality.
In France, Matisse and Derain, part of a group of artists called the Fauves (meaning “wild beasts”) freed color from the necessity of representation and explored potent new color combinations. It was perhaps this last group which had the greatest impact on Moser as upon his return he began to see unexpected colors in the Utah landscape. For Moser, however, these bold colors were not the end goal of his painting, but rather a tool for expressing his enthusiasm for life and love of God and the natural world.
John Henri Moser (1876-1951), French Landscape Near Paris, 1909, oil on canvas. Brigham Young University Museum of Art.
Painted while Moser was studying art in Paris, this painting lacks the bold color and loose brushwork that came to dominate the artist’s style when he returned to Utah. In Paris, he was surrounded not only by academic tradition, but by modern art’s many new aesthetic possibilities. Judging from his mature style, he was observing much during this time, even though his own output remained relatively conservative. This painting, and others of the time, show the influence of the Barbizon School of landscape painting, an influential nineteenth-century movement that emphasized painting outdoors.
John Henri Moser (1876-1951), Countryside, Paris, 1910, oil on canvas on board. Sharron Brim Collection.
In Paris, Moser attended one Academy during the day, and another one at night. Daily academy routine consisted of drawing models for eight hours, but Moser often had to get out due to overcrowding and the sheer stench. He would also copy at the Louvre, paint at home, en plein air, or simply enjoy walks in the outskirts of Paris. He wrote to his wife of his solitary walks, which resulted in painting such as this.
“I and nature have formed a partnership. She loves me because I am beginning to know her. She speaks to me each day I meet her and she sings her little songs to me as I wander through the woods or in the fields. She is my only company.”
John Henri Moser (1876-1951), Untitled, 1908, oil on board. Gift of Lyman Jensen. Collection of the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University.
John Henri Moser (1876-1951), After the Storm, 1913, oil on canvas. Utah Division of Arts and Museums Fine Arts Collection.
Painted only a few years after Moser had returned from Paris, this painting captures the artist at a moment of transition. He is no longer relying on the French landscape tradition of the Barbizon school, whose influence is evident in French Landscape Near Paris. However, he has not yet developed the loose character and emboldened colorism of his mature works, although the beautifully combined purple, blue, and pink hues in the mountains and sky at the horizon hint at his trajectory. After this work’s successful exhibition at the State Fair Art Competition, the State awarded Moser a $300 Utah Art Prize—worth close to $8,000 today. Part of the State Collection since that time, After the Storm has long hung in the Governor’s mansion in Salt Lake City.
John Henri Moser (1876-1951), Through the Trees, no date, oil on canvas. Utah Division of Arts and Museums Fine Arts Collection.
John Henri Moser (1876-1951), Peaceful Evening, 1915, oil on board. Courtesy of the Susan and Mark Callister Collection.
John Henri Moser (1876-1951), Pioneer Wagon Train, 1917, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Church History Museum.
Moser was most often inspired by the land itself, rather than by historical narratives. On occasion he did, however, depict events from the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. These include several gorgeous canvases depicted pioneer wagon trains during the great trek West. Moser seemed to feel an affinity with the pioneers who sacrificed so much for their faith. When we returned home from his studies in France, for example, he arranged his itinerary so as to arrive in Utah on July 24, the same day that pioneers first glimpsed the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
John Henri Moser (1876-1951), Pioneers Entering the Salt Lake Valley, 1935, oil on masonite. Brigham Young University Museum of Art.
Moser had always felt a kinship with the early pioneers. His family had immigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1888 and made their way to Utah. In contrast to the oxen and wagons depicted here, however, Moser—as well as his family in the 1880s—was able to use the transcontinental railroad that had been completed in 1869, reducing the trip across the plains from three months to just a couple of days.
How has Moser captured the difficulties of the pioneers’ journey in these paintings?
Have you ever moved or been away from home for a long time? What sacrifices have you had to make as you relocated? How might the pioneers and the Moser family felt?