The outlines of his life are easily given—but it would take pages and years to adequately paint the hues, shadows, and highlights of the life of the great Latter-day Saint artist John Hafen:
—Born March 22, 1856, at Canton Thurgan, Switzerland, to parents who accepted the gospel message and then emigrated for Utah on his sixth birthday.
—Married at twenty-three, in 1879, to Thora Twede, “one of those rare unfaltering souls who never complain or express doubt no matter how hard life becomes. She believed in her husband’s dreams of success and in his ability to paint, and always supported his quest for fulfillment no matter how great the sacrifice. She loved John Hafen, bore him ten children, kept his home, and urged him on to success for the thirty-one years they spent as man and wife. Her letters are full of love and devotion that never cease in all their lonely pages. It would be difficult to conceive of John Hafen’s struggle had he not married Thora Twede.” (“A Study of the Life of John Hafen,” by William Lee Roy Conant, Jr., Brigham Young University thesis.)
—In 1890, he and three other artists were sent by the Church to Paris to study art, in exchange for which the artists later painted temple murals and paintings for the Church.
—In 1908, John Hafen went to Indiana, became a respected artist and instructor, and for a year “was given the opportunity of tasting the success he sought” before he died in Philadelphia (Conant).
He achieved acclaim as a landscape artist and portrait painter (he painted a number of the General Authorities of his time), and it is thought he painted for the Church over 200 paintings during several years that President Heber J. Grant employed him privately.
B. F. Larson, himself an artist, wrote of him: “John Hafen loved and understood nature. To him it was created by a personal God. He approached nature with a reverent attitude. In many of his comments about the out-of-doors his speech is characterized by words of praise and thanksgiving to God. … Hafen lived close to God. He had a prophetic, sensitive spirit. He knew that his ideas seemed childish to those who did not understand. …” (Improvement Era, January 1936.)
While in Paris, he wrote to his wife in a July 26, 1890, letter, “What I have seen is of inestimable benefit to me. It has humbled me as a child. I feel that I will have to commence at the bottom and submit myself to my Heavenly Father. In times past I have found ideas, how one should paint, and what kind of aim a painter should have. While those ideas were correct and I have no occasion to change my opinions, yet I could not see how or through what method they could be attained, neither how high a degree of perfection those ideas could be carried to. …
“Whether I will ever pass that point or even approach it, will depend wholly upon my faithfulness to the Gospel and the assistance of Almighty God.”
On August 8, 1890, he wrote to his wife, “I am booked for a year [here], but more than that, God’s servants have blessed me with power to accomplish my mission and get all the knowledge of art required and I know that God is able to help me to live so that I will realize these blessings. I have acted continually in harmony with the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and the result has been good every time.”