The most famous painting of the Prophet Joseph Smith shows him seated, looking straight ahead, dressed in a dark suit with a white shirt and cravat. His hair is dark—too dark as it turns out—since locks of his hair still exist and show that he had light brown, almost blond, hair. This painting may be the image we are most familiar with, but it is not entirely accurate.
The Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum were martyred in June 1844. At that time, photography was just beginning to be used but was not widespread. The most common form was daguerreotype, a type of photography done with light-sensitive chemicals on glass that reverses the original image. Daguerreotypes of the Prophet Joseph from that time most often have been taken of this famous painting, not of the real person. However, there may yet be a daguerreotype, taken of the Prophet, come to light that is authentic.
We do, however, know quite a bit about what he looked like because people who knew him wrote down descriptions of Joseph. Of course, these descriptions varied depending on how the writers felt about him personally.
A neighbor to the Smith family knew Joseph when he was a teenager. The neighbor wrote, “He was a big-bodied, flaxen-haired youth, with small hands for his size, large feet, … a heavy growth of very light hair, and striking blue eyes, half hidden by long light lashes. Even then he was considered handsome. To everybody he was known as ‘Young Joe Smith,’ to distinguish him from his father, who was ‘Old Joe Smith.’”1
A reporter from a St. Louis newspaper interviewed Joseph Smith and wrote a detailed description of his appearance. He said Joseph was a large man with a broad, muscular chest. The reporter also mentioned that the Prophet had small hands and big feet. He wrote, “The shape of his head is a very oblong oval. … His forehead is white, without a furrow, and notwithstanding the small facial angle, somewhat symmetrical. His hair is quite light and fine—complexion pale—cheeks full—temperament evidently sanguine—lips thin rather than thick. …
“But the Prophet’s most remarkable feature is his eye. … The hue is light hazel, and is shaded, and, at times, almost veiled, by the longest, thickest light lashes you ever saw belonging to a man. …
“His voice is low and soft, and his smile, which is frequent, is agreeable.”2
None of the descriptions gives a complete picture. His wife, Emma, wrote: “No painting of him could catch his expression, for his countenance was always changing to match his thoughts and feelings.”3
However, if we pick individual phrases from a lot of different descriptions, we can make a list. Joseph was:
a little over six feet tall;
considered good looking and dignified;
athletic and strong with long legs and large feet.
an oval-shaped face;
a prominent nose, long and straight;
a rather long upper lip;
a light complexion;
deep-set hazel or blue eyes;
fine, straight, light brown or dark blond hair.
But there are a few things that we often forget about Joseph. First, he limped slightly. Remember, a piece of infected bone was surgically removed from his leg when he was seven. Although it didn’t seem to cause much problem as he grew—one leg was slightly shorter than the other—he had a slight limp as an adult. Also, after he was tarred and feathered by a mob in Ohio, one of his front teeth was chipped, which made him whistle slightly at times when he spoke.
After the martyrdom, death masks were made quickly of Joseph and Hyrum. Death masks were made of plaster of paris, and in this age before photography was common, a death mask was one way to preserve what a person looked like. The death masks accurately preserve the facial bone structure of these two important men. If precise measurements are made of the death masks and similar measurements are made of paintings, drawings, and sculptures done since that time, it is possible to tell how accurate the artwork is as far as the placement of features.
Ephraim Hatch, an author and professor at Brigham Young University, wrote a book called Joseph Smith Portraits: A Search for the Prophet’s Likeness for the Religious Studies Center at BYU. In it he compares many paintings and drawings of the Prophet Joseph to measurements from the death mask. Others have used computer generated studies to gain additional insight into what the Prophet Joseph Smith looked like.
We know at least one artist had the Prophet himself pose for paintings and drawings. That artist, Sutcliffe Maudsley, produced art that was not particularly realistic in style, but his profile drawings fit very well with the measurements from the Prophet’s death mask. Maudsley’s drawings of the Prophet have since been copied and used as inspiration for other artists.
Over the years, members of the Church have wanted paintings or sculptures that capture an accurate image of the Prophet. But no matter how many times his image is painted or sculpted, the emotional power of the foremost leader of this dispensation is elusive. We know that he was kind and enjoyed being around children. We know he was inspired and inspiring, and he had a deep intellect. And we know he was cheerful and loved people and cared about their well-being. The part he played in the Restoration of the gospel was of such significance that John Tayler wrote, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3).
If we had known him, we would be tempted to say as Brigham Young did, “I feel like shouting Hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet whom the Lord raised up and ordained, and to whom He gave keys and power to build up the Kingdom of God on earth and sustain it.”4