Desert, Brush, and Oil: A Portrait of LeConte Stewart

On a country road in a northern Utah farming and suburban community lies a Normandy-style cottage surrounded by trees and overgrown brush. Bordering the property are a fence and a rutted dirt lane. Within a few blocks of this cottage are forthright, solid brick homes built by Latter-day Saint pioneers and their descendants. To the west is a rich agricultural flatland reaching toward the Great Salt Lake. To the east are foothills dotted with an occasional stone or brick farmhouse. Forming a backdrop is the great snowcapped Wasatch mountain range.

This is the home of LeConte Stewart, ninety-three-year-old dean of Utah landscape painters. This is land he knows and loves. The scrub oak against hill and mountainside, the interplay of rural buildings and cultivated farmland, primitive roads which wind into pastoral views, scruffy, dry creek beds, weathered old barns which seem to sink into the earth—these are the elements which inspire his painting.

LeConte Stewart is known as one of the finest LDS artists of the twentieth century. He has been commissioned by the Church to work on the murals in three temples and is well known for his impressionistic paintings of the desert landscape and northern Utah farm scenery. Over two hundred of his pieces are now being featured in a large one-man exhibition at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City. The exhibit is called “LeConte Stewart: the Spirit of Landscape.”

Growing Up

LeConte Stewart was born in Glenwood, Utah, in 1891, and raised in nearby Richfield. His grandfather, who joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after meeting Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, followed the Saints west and settled in Draper, where he was a bishop for thirty-nine years. Four of his sons became attorneys, including LeConte’s father, Isaac John Stewart.

LeConte spent many hours hunting and fishing with his father, and they often traveled together while his father acted as county attorney. During these trips, the boy became closely acquainted with the stark desert country. Years later he recalled his love of the desert and how it affected his art. “I have always been fond of sagebrush,” he said. “I often slip a piece in my pocket and carry it with me. It is eau de cologne to me. It symbolizes the desert as I see and think and feel about it.”

His love of drawing is a natural extension of his love of the desert. Looking back on his life, he cannot remember a time when he wasn’t interested in drawing. To occupy himself during dull arithmetic or reading lessons, he drew pictures. The classroom made him restless; he longed to be out of doors. “After school,” he remembers, “I was out with my sketch book down by the creek.” One teacher from those early years, Sophia Gulbranson, recognized his talent and gave him some needed encouragement. He often sketched for her on the blackboard.

Later as a student at Ricks Academy (which became Ricks College), LeConte was the art editor for the school paper, Student Rays. One day he found an ad in an art magazine for the Art Students League in New York City and its summer school at Woodstock, New York. “I made up my mind there and then that I was going,” he says.

He began to save money, working summers in the Idaho fields and later lettering signs for local businesses; but he did not tell his family of his decision, for his dream seemed out of the question in a family of lawyers. During his senior year in high school, his father pulled him aside. “He asked me what I thought I was going to do with this painting business,” Brother Stewart recalls. “I gave him my answer, which visibly grieved him. ‘Well, you know you can’t make a living at it,’ he said. ‘But I can have fun doing it,’ I replied.” Looking back on his life, LeConte says, “That’s the only reason I’ve painted—it’s been fun.”

Around graduation time LeConte’s father died suddenly, and LeConte went to Salt Lake City where he lived with his uncle, William M. Stewart, dean of the education school at the University of Utah. Still trying to save money to go to New York, he got a job teaching sixth grade in Murray, Utah. During his evenings he would stop by the Salt Lake City Library and “rush through their files on art and miss my supper.”

Finally, in June 1913, after two years of teaching and with six hundred dollars in savings, he caught a train and enrolled in the Art Students League School in the Catskill Mountains to study landscape painting, and in the fall attended the league’s school in New York City.

This was a period of dedication and hard work. “I had to pay tuition, so I sacrificed everything else,” Brother Stewart says. “I rented a top room with no windows, and there were bedbugs. I became quite sick, but I was determined to become certified, so I stuck it out.” When school closed the next spring, LeConte returned to Utah on his last five dollars.

Because he could not support himself solely on his art, he accepted a position teaching seventh grade in Kaysville, Utah. This job gave him time to paint after school and during summer vacations. However, LeConte was dismayed that there was no art program in the Davis County schools. So, for no additional pay, he taught art through the noon hour and conducted monthly in-service classes for elementary school teachers. After class he walked home with one of the teachers, Zipporah Layton.

The two courted, and when LeConte was called on a mission to Hawaii in 1917, Zipporah was given special permission to go to Hawaii on a mission to teach in the elementary schools. When LeConte’s call was changed from a proselyting mission to a work mission—painting murals for the Hawaii temple—the two were married.

They built their home in Kaysville in the early 1920s and raised three sons and a daughter there. One son, Maynard Dixon Stewart, followed his father and is now a professor of art at San Jose State University and a successful landscape and portrait artist. True to the long-standing Stewart family tradition, two of the sons entered the legal profession. John has served as precinct judge, and Birge is a Salt Lake City attorney. LeConte and Zipporah’s daughter, Mary, sings in the Tabernacle Choir.

Devotion to his wife and children has always taken precedence in LeConte Stewart’s life. Sister Stewart recalled that many times she “kept the children in bed until after he had gone. He is very sensitive about the family, and if he knew they were sick, he wouldn’t go paint.”

Throughout their married life together, Sister Stewart handled the business side of her husband’s art. A huge number of his paintings were sold at the little gift shop she owned and managed in Kaysville, Utah. She died in the spring of 1984.

The Stewart home was a happy one. Sister Stewart told of their Christmas traditions. “For days before Christmas day, our house, ‘Noisemakers’ Inn’ as Dad always called it, was decorated with sentimental Christmas decorations brought down from the closet and attic. Dad’s Santa portrait was always hung over the fireplace in the living room. Dad was always the last to unwrap his gifts—he couldn’t bear to spoil the artistic paper and bows.”

To provide for his young family, Brother Stewart continued to teach. From 1923 to 1938 he served as head of Ogden High School’s art department. Hundreds of magnificent paintings date from these years. However, the price he could get for them barely paid for the materials and a good frame.

In 1938 LeConte Stewart was appointed Chairman of the Art Department at the University of Utah. As a teacher, he taught through example, working side by side with his students. A group of his former University of Utah students showed their gratitude by presenting him with a plaque inscribed with a message thanking him for his inspired teaching and “for the beauty that remained hidden until your brush revealed it to an amazed and grateful world.” Through all these years of teaching, his first love was always painting. After school he painted and sketched, and on Saturdays he traveled to the rural mountain valleys above his home to paint his best loved sites.

During World War II all three of his boys served in the armed forces. Although they returned safely, one was shot down in a B-17 bomber and the Stewarts had no news of him for several months. During this time of anxiety, Brother Stewart wrote to his sons of the following experience: “While [I was] shaving … , something came to me which caused me to look at the ceiling, and at the same time a voice, it seemed, spoke to me. … For a moment it seemed to be my own, or rather the words were put into my mouth … , but they flowed along as tho on a track, and I had no control. What they were about follows: Don’t worry, you and yours are going to come through this thing all right. … It was a joyous experience and I felt happier than I had in months. … I was not through shaving but pulled the cord out of the socket and, somewhat dazed, got on my knees and thanked the Lord. … Something impressed me to write you all to be of good cheer, trust in the Lord and all would be well.”

After his children left home, married, and raised families of their own, Brother Stewart delighted in explaining the wonders of nature to his grandchildren. When Karen, the first grandchild, came along, she became Brother Stewart’s joy. His family says that “he took her for walks out into our pasture, and they sat along the ditch bank against the old picket fence where the wild plum trees grow. Here they watched small birds and bugs and tiny insects. These nature excursions became loved experiences for all the grandchildren as they came along.”

Now, at ninety-three, Brother Stewart continues to create art like a youngster. His oil painting style still portrays seasonal moods and the effects of atmosphere. In recent pieces the forms are softened and reduced to bare essentials. An air of maturity and resignation prevails. And still there is beauty.

Autumn’s Gold, South Farmington

“Autumn’s Gold, South Farmington,” 1930, courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Ellison Green, Jane Watt Ellison collection. For over seventy-five years LeConte Stewart has interpreted the appearance and character of northern Utah during all of its seasons.

The Man and His Work

Throughout his career, LeConte Stewart has been primarily a landscape artist, depicting the desert, the rural countryside, and expressions of everyday city life in easel paintings, pastels, murals, drawings, and various printmaking media.

As a young artist recently returned from school in New York City, Brother Stewart worked as a freelance artist for the Improvement Era. Over a two-year period he designed mastheads and sketched numerous pen and ink illustrations.

Perhaps his best illustrative work is found in his drawings and lettering for “A Review,” a pioneer poem written by Luke Cosgrave. Full of energy, these scratchy little drawings depict scenes from pioneer life and the settling of the Salt Lake Valley.

With numerous small assignments as an illustrator behind him and the achievement of having won two coveted first prizes in major Utah fine arts exhibits, Brother Stewart was ready for the next artistic milestone. It was to come through his Church contact and in an unusual way.

In the mission home when he was first called as a missionary to Hawaii, he met Harold Burton and Hyrum Pope, architects of the Hawaii Temple. Brother Burton, a superior architect who was aware of LeConte’s abilities as an artist and designer, spent long nights with him discussing the interior design of the temple and the murals for the different ordinance rooms. Within a short time Elder Stewart was called to serve his mission working on the temple.

Assigned to provide art for the creation room, he and Brother Burton planned murals representing the days of creation. Each was to be a framed panel which caught the meaning of the creation while maintaining the architectural integrity of the walls. After receiving approval for his design from President Joseph F. Smith, and after hours of prayer and study, the artist began to work. The finished paintings capture the beauty and divine power which accompanied the organization of this world.

Soon after he finished the murals in the Hawaii Temple, the Church commissioned him to supervise the execution of the murals in the Alberta Temple. Some of the finest Latter-day Saint artists of the time participated in the project—A. B. Wright, Edwin Evans, and Lee Greene Richards. Brother Stewart again took the creation room himself.

As the work was completed, Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve took Brother Stewart’s hands in his and praised him with fervent sincerity and admiration. Historians of architecture consider this building to be one of the finest of the Church in the twentieth century—a masterpiece of LDS art and architecture.

Brother Stewart’s work in these two temples carried Latter-day Saint art into the mainstream of advanced art. For the first time murals were not used simply as illustrations to cover walls, but as works of art working with the architecture to create a unified whole. He considers the paintings at Cardston among his best efforts, and gives credit to the Church for helping him “to blossom out and to paint more freely.”

During the summer of 1925 Brother Stewart painted murals on the walls of the Arizona Temple, leaving his family in Kaysville. Zipporah recalled how she adjusted to his absence during the summer months: “We missed him so much. He was always around the house helping and always reading, showing pictures, and telling stories to the boys. For a few days we felt lost without him. Then the letters and the pictures and little trinkets and toys began to come, and things went along fine.”

In the mid-1930s LeConte began a five-year phase of painting themes of urban depression—scenes of the backyards and alleys and the abandoned storefronts of Ogden, Utah. Many found these works too stark a reminder of a sad time, but for LeConte this was another aspect of painting truth as he found it. All of life, even its trials, kindled his attention and creativity.

Private Car

“Private Car,” 1937, Church Museum of History and Art. “There is nothing more interesting than life,” LeConte Stewart said. During the Depression years, 1934–1938, his paintings focused on life in the poorer sections of cities such as Ogden.

Brother Stewart’s favorite themes are uninhabited landscapes and farm buildings in their rural settings. As with his city paintings, he finds beauty in scenes most landscape painters would never consider. He frequently turns away from the obviously idyllic to paint the out-of-the-way or the random-view landscape. “The spectacular is not for me,” he says. “I like the subtle and introspective—those things you peer into, and feel.” He believes that an artist does not need to paint “pretty” scenes to find beauty. A good example occurred more than fifty years ago.

LeConte Stewart and Gordon Cope, another well-known regional artist, went together on a painting trip into the Utah desert. After traveling for some time, LeConte said, “Let’s stop here.” Somewhat surprised, Gordon looked about and said, “Why, there’s nothing here to paint.” Brother Stewart, however, soon completed a painting portraying the hidden beauty of that forlorn place.

Brother Stewart is quite open in stating his observations and opinions. As in his art, his words cut through surface appearances. “To me, art is an expression of the sense of the thing rather than a reproduction of it,” he says. “When you know and love a tree, you can paint its spirit, the quality God gave it.”

LeConte prefers to paint the seasons of late autumn, winter, and early spring, when the colors are muted and quiet. He enjoys the beauty of summer for recreation—in that season he frequently took family vacations and late afternoon walks with his wife—but for art he finds the truths he wants to express present during other times of the year. His images of winter have been described by one art historian as “some of the most definitive snow scenes ever put on canvas.” (James L. Haseltine, LeConte Stewart Retrospective Exhibit. Exhibit Catalog, Salt Lake Art Center, 1962, p. ii.)

Brother Stewart finds a deep religious meaning in painting the inner quality of nature. He has great awe and respect for God’s creations. “God made all living things,” he says, “and that is marvelous beyond thinking.” He feels tremendously blessed as a painter. “In art, there is nothing one can do that is greater than to paint the things God created.” Before nature, Stewart has become a truly contrite man. “Many times,” he says, “I have come home bowed down with reverence.”

His deep religious conviction manifests itself in all aspects of his life. His testimony of the gospel has been firm throughout the years. “I believe my religion with all my heart,” he states simply.

Sundays are days of rest for Brother Stewart. “I decided early in my career that I would not work or paint on Sunday. Although I enjoy painting more than anything else, I still consider it my work and vocation. And the Lord has commanded us to keep the Sabbath day holy. I attempt to follow the commandments.” A high priest, Brother Stewart served for many years as the Gospel Doctrine teacher in his Kaysville ward.

Today Brother Stewart is still going strong, teaching outdoor classes in landscape sketching, and creating art in various media with increased vigor. He can frequently be seen on the back roads of Davis County where, with undeviating faith, he continues to fulfill his life’s calling as an artist, bringing happiness and joy through his art to thousands.

[illustration] “Autumn,” 1960, collection of Maynard Dixon Stewart, Santa Clara, California. LeConte Stewart called impressionism the “most important painting innovation of all time.” Pointillism, a technique using regular and methodical paint stokes, is used in this landscape.

[illustrations] (Top left) “Dry Creek Bed, October,” 1927, Mrs. Alean E. Layton collection. (Bottom) “Springtime in Peterson,” 1939, Museum of Church History of Art. This scene combines most of the elements that LeConte Stewart has been attracted to as an artist—an expanse of foreground, a block of brush or trees, a house with barns and outbuildings, and a background of mountains. He has painted this scene many times in every season for more than sixty years.

[illustrations] (Top) “The Smiths’, the Joneses’, and the Browns’,” 1936, LeConte Stewart Gallery of Art collection. (Middle) “Smith’s House (House by the Tracks),” 1937, Alan and Kay Blood collection.

[photo] Brother Stewart still teaches landscape sketching classes and creates art in various media.

Robert O. Davis, a curator of art at the Museum of Church History and Art, is the father of nine and serves as financial clerk in his Centerville, Utah, ward. He has assembled an exhibit of LeConte Stewart’s work being featured at the Church museum through 14 April 1985.