Mormon Leader Joseph Smith’s 34 Wives Inspire Utah Artist

The New York Times/August 17, 2015

By Jennifer Dobneraug

Salt Lake City -- In Leslie O. Peterson’s mind, Fanny Alger’s almond-shaped face, with its soulful green eyes and rosebud mouth, is framed by close-cropped brown hair and perched atop a long, slender neck.

That is the way Mrs. Peterson, a Utah artist, painted the 16-year-old Ms. Alger, who in the early 1830s is believed to have slipped away to a barn from her job as a serving girl to the Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma, and quietly become his first plural wife.

The details of the union remain a bit fuzzy, even among historians. But that this marriage and Smith’s many others may have happened at all was a revelation to Mrs. Peterson, 60, who until last fall believed Smith had married just one woman.

“Then the essay comes out from the church and says, ‘Nope, it’s not just Joseph and Emma,’ ” said Mrs. Peterson, a fifth-generation member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It’s Joseph and Emma and 33 other women.”

The essay on polygamy, posted in November on, the church’s website, was one in a series on church history and theology, in which Mormon leaders acknowledged that Smith secretly took dozens of wives, including some already married to other churchmen and at least one who was only 14.

“At first, I was angry,” said Mrs. Peterson, a hairdresser and watercolorist who lives in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. “Why the heck have I not known this? These women have become like ghosts in our history, and we don’t teach or talk about their lives.”

Hoping to change that, she picked up her paintbrush. The result, created over three months last winter, is a series of watercolor portraits titled “The Forgotten Wives.”

“I just felt the need to get these women out of the closet and let people learn about them and celebrate them,” Mrs. Peterson said.

The pictures were on display this summer at a gallery in Provo and at the Sunstone Symposium, an annual conference of Mormon scholars, theorists and culture experts at the University of Utah here in Salt Lake City. Ms. Peterson is also scheduled to show them in October at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah.

“It’s a lot of wives,” Jessica Kimball, 20, said as she surveyed the collection. In terms of polygamy, she added, “it definitely puts it more into perspective of number versus faces. This is a ton.”

Ms. Kimball found the likeness of one of her ancestors, Helen Mar Kimball, among the portraits. That ancestor was 14 when she married Smith in 1843 after being convinced that doing so would guarantee her family’s eternal salvation, according to several historians. In Mrs. Peterson’s rendering, Helen Mar Kimball appears as a girl in braids and a blue pinafore, with tears streaming down her face.

“The tears stand out,” said Paul Barker, 40, a father of four from Provo, Utah, who runs a blog called Rational Faiths with his two brothers. The blog, which carries the slogan “Keeping Mormonism Weird,” was established as a forum on the religion’s idiosyncrasies. Mr. Barker said of the watercolors of the wives: “I think this is brilliant, and I love it because it makes them not invisible anymore. They need to be out there and seen.”

The portraits have created considerable buzz in Mormon circles, even though Mrs. Peterson, who took her first art class just three years ago, is not a renowned artist. She has a blog, shares photographs of her work on Facebook and sells her art on Etsy, where a print of a poster of all the “Forgotten Wives” costs $20. So far, she has earned a few small commissions.

The “Forgotten Wives” project, she said, grew out of hours of reading books about Smith’s polygamy, which the church essay says was a commandment of God that Smith reluctantly embraced.

After listening to the “Year of Polygamy” podcast through the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog, Mrs. Peterson knew she had to paint the Smith wives.

Mrs. Peterson donned headphones and listened to the podcast as she painted, beginning with Ms. Alger. Each of the 6-inch-by-8-inch portraits was done in a single sitting lasting three to four hours, she said. When historical pictures were available, she kept them close so that her colorful representations would have an echo from each woman’s life — Presendia Buell’s lacy bonnet, perhaps, or the oval wire spectacles perched on Rhoda Richards’s nose.

The portraits — 34 in all, including a likeness of Emma Smith — came out in a flood, said Mrs. Peterson, who at one point locked herself away in a hotel for three days so she could finish. She first displayed the portraits in her basement beauty shop, sharing their stories with her clients — mostly women from her church. The display raised eyebrows among traditionalists, she said.

“It’s just amazing to me how many people don’t know this part of our history and assume you’re going down an anti-Mormon path,” Mrs. Peterson said. “In reality, it’s just part of our history, odd and kooky as it is.”

The goal, Mrs. Peterson said, was not to depict the women as they appear in the formal black-and-white photographs of the 19th century, but rather to tap into the vibrant personalities she sensed as she soaked up their stories. Apart from their secretive marriages to a church prophet, she said, the women were accomplished in their own right.

Historical records show that among them were midwives and teachers, dressmakers and musicians, suffragists and writers. One ran a hotel, another started a school for the poor, and a third founded a hospital.

The youngest was 14, the eldest 56, the church essay said. The group included two sets of sisters, and a mother and daughter who married Smith within a month of each other in 1842. If the women had children with Smith, most never told. But on her deathbed, his seventh wife, Sylvia Sessions, is said to have disclosed the true paternity of her daughter Josephine.

“I think all of these women married because they felt they were doing the Lord’s will,” Mrs. Peterson said. Nancy Ross, who teaches art history at Dixie State University and identifies herself as a Mormon feminist, said the portraits added a vital important dimension to church history and to the body of Mormon art. The latter, she noted, generally focuses on three subjects: Jesus Christ, Mormon leaders and church temples.

“In all paintings and illustrations, all Mormon pioneer women are nameless and faceless,” Ms. Ross said. “You might see a man and his family, but there’s no individualization. It doesn’t matter who the women are.”

Ms. Ross, 34, who also learned about Smith’s polygamy in recent years, said she found significance in Mrs. Peterson’s decision not to include a portrait of Smith himself in the collection.

“This is not the story of his relationship to them,” Ms. Ross said. “This is them being represented on their own as individuals. It is celebrating their lives and who they are, and it’s not trying to be reductive.”

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