Walk the Mormon Trail without ever leaving the living room.
The Church History Museum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently opened a new exhibition, “Saints at Devil’s Gate: Landscapes along the Mormon Trail.” The exhibit, along with a companion book of the same name, features 52 plein air landscapes by various Latter-day Saint artists capturing scenes from along the Mormon Trail. The paintings are also available in an online exhibit, along with a map of the trail that pinpoints the specific location of each painting.
“It’s a shame these landscapes are now fly-over country, that so many travelers today race past them without a thoughtful pause,” said Bryon C. Andreasen, the historian who researched historical accounts for the companion book. “If these paintings kindle in some a desire to slow down and take in the landscape, to exercise historical imagination while infusing the views with fresh, personal meaning, the exhibition will have been a success.”
The exhibit, which can be found online at history.lds.org/maps/museum/saints-at-devils-gate-online-exhibit (click on the “View Online Exhibit” button), divides the paintings and the trail into four smaller maps. A smaller inset shows the entire trail, with the locations of each of the paintings highlighted on each of the four close-up maps. All of the paintings were painted in the open air, on the site listed in the description.
The trail starts with Bryan Mark Taylor’s “Looking Back,” a spot set just on the other side of the border between Iowa and Illinois. The scene, which looks back from a spot on Iowa across the river to Illinois, is coupled with a quote from a May 1846 entry from Wilford Woodruff’s trail journal.
The next painting feels like it should be slightly before, focusing on the actual river that the pioneers crossed as they left Nauvoo. The painting, John Burton’s “Exodus,” is a painting of the river fragmented by broken chunks of snow and ice. Attached to it is a memory from another pioneer, Harriet Amelia Decker Little (Hanks). When possible, pictures of the pioneers whose words are attached to each painting are included as well, giving you a sense of the people who walked the trail as well as the places along it.
“[We] crossed the River on the Ice. . . . The last Wagon crossing the river broke through. . . . My husband in helping to get the wagon from the river got very wet and took a violent cold that settled in his lungs from which he never recovered,” her quote reads. “He died six weeks later and was buried by the roadside between two large trees to mark his resting place.”
The trail, and the plein air paintings, continue throughout the entire trail. At Platte River, Nebraska, Bryan Mark Taylor shows us a painting of the river as Sarah Maria Mousley (Cannon) describes the scene in an 1857 entry from her trail journal.
“Encamped near the Platte River having passed the beautifulest scenery my eyes ever rested upon. . . . The wild flowers beautiful to behold, the air redolent with [their] odor, the calm still waters of beautiful lakes all . . . serving alike to awake an adoration to that God at whose word we have left the happy scenes of childhood years to repair to the mountains with the Saints of light,” she wrote. “Oh how I wish mine were a painter’s pencil or a poet’s pen. I would portray, if possible, the beauty of the scenes through which we have been called to pass.”