“Mahonri Young: Sculptor of His Heritage,” Ensign, Oct. 1985, 41
The challenge to every man’s conscience is to choose for his life’s work the thing he loves to do, and once he has decided upon a course, he must work conscientiously to learn all about it. There is in the heart of an ambitious, sincere man, to do well, that which in his honest opinion he knows to be right.1—Mahonri Young
Mahonri used to say that he could not remember when he did not want to be a sculptor.
Although he became a superb painter, printmaker, teacher, lecturer, and writer, he is best known for his sculptures, which reflect his deep pride in his pioneer heritage. His most familiar works include the Sea Gull Monument, the Joseph and Hyrum Smith statues on Temple Square, and the This Is the Place Monument in Salt Lake City.
But Mahonri Young’s reputation as a sculptor goes far beyond Utah. He is a major figure in the development of sculptural realism in twentieth-century American art. His most famous sculptures are small bronzes of laborers and prizefighters, and his work can be found in many major American museums. He received many professional honors and awards throughout his long, distinguished career.
Born in Salt Lake City 9 August 1877, Mahonri Mackintosh Young was the first of three children of Mahonri Moriancumer Young and Agnes Mackintosh. He was taken while he was still a baby to his grandfather, Brigham Young, to receive a blessing only days before his grandfather’s death. Of this experience, he later wrote:
“I like to think of myself dressed, as new ones were always dressed in those far-away days, in white dresses which not only came to their feet but to their mother’s feet when she stood up, and underneath, enwrapped with a bellyband, yards in length, of red flannel. I like to think I made an impression upon my grandfather, but that can hardly be expected, as he had so many grandchildren before my arrival. They were no novelty to him. But I think … that I was the last one to meet him personally and receive his blessing.”2
Mahonri’s first home was the Deseret Woolen Mills, located on the outskirts of Salt Lake City near the mouth of Parley’s Canyon. They called it “the Factory,” for the house was surrounded by a carpenter shop, a barn, and the building where wool was cleaned and processed. Mahonri loved the smell of the vats of strong soap, the moving belts and pulleys, and above all, the tools and the carpenter shop. It was here that his artistic sensitivity was awakened, and many of the themes in his art seem to have had their genesis in this early home. Later, he wrote of “the Factory”:
“It was a place to dream of and regret. There were farmers and a farm; there were workmen and working women at the mill; there were animals and birds in and around the barn; and, in all directions, glorious landscapes. … When I now get homesick it is always for this part of Salt Lake Valley, for the old adobe blockhouse, the cat birds, the sunflowers, and the blue mountains forming the rich background.”3
Mahonri was very close to his father. When the Young family drove into Salt Lake City, Mahonri would sit in the front of the buggy next to his father so they could share the sights and sounds of the trip. Mahonri felt that it was his father who first awakened his interest in art. During five-year-old Mahonri’s bout with appendicitis, his father amused him by carving guns and other wooden objects, and the boy soon showed an interest in carving. Recognizing his son’s artistic abilities but fearing the boy might cut himself with a sharp knife, the father gave his son some clay from a cut bank of a dugway, from which Mahonri modeled small birds and animals.
When Mahonri was six years old, his father died. The young boy and his family moved into a small cottage in Salt Lake City. For the first time, Mahonri attended school. But he found that it was not to his liking; he was two years behind most of the other children, and his grades were not particularly good. After the eighth grade, he quit school. But he loved to read and to study art, and he often borrowed books and magazines from his aunt and uncle’s large library.
During these years, he made friends with the boys in his neighborhood—many of whom were also aspiring artists. He often sketched them as they played along the banks of the canal near his home. He enjoyed football, baseball, camping, fishing, and hunting. He also loved whittling guns out of pieces of wood, and years later declared that “I used to think that my whittling these guns was because I wanted to have guns. I’m inclined to think differently now. I think now that … I was carrying out an instinct to carve and model forms.”4
When Mahonri was eleven, his mother bought him a wood-carving set with which he did his first serious wood carving. It was a four-inch bas relief of Julius Caesar cut from a piece of old fence post. A book salesman came to the house one day and saw the carving on the mantle; when told that it was done by an eleven-year-old boy, the salesman said that he must be a genius. For a time thereafter, the family referred to the boy as “the genius.”5
Mahonri began his formal art training under James T. Harwood, one of the first Utah artists to study in Paris, while working in a stationery store and curio shop for $2.50 a week to pay for his art lessons. With Harwood’s encouragement, Mahonri decided to go to New York and Paris for further training. To earn money for the trip, he worked as a portrait artist for the Salt Lake Herald and the Salt Lake Tribune. He was also an engraver for the Tribune, where he worked from seven o’clock in the evening until two or sometimes even four o’clock in the morning.
In the fall of 1899, he left for a year of study at the Art Students’ League in New York City. Here he worked hard, and was one of the top students in his class. As a result of the early morning hours he had worked for the Tribune, he suffered from insomnia. When he couldn’t sleep, he read Shakespeare and studied magazines to learn about art and illustration.
After eight months he returned to Salt Lake City and took a job as a photo engraver for the Salt Lake Herald. He also did some drawings for the Deseret News. A year later, he had saved enough money to go to Paris for four more years of study. On his way, he visited England, where he sketched the horse-drawn buses and taxis, the crowded streets, and the drivers of public conveyances. He also visited the British Museum, the National Gallery, and the Tate and Walker Galleries—ever trying to learn more about his art.
While in Paris, he began doing small sculptures of laborers. These brought him critical acclaim as a student, and later, in New York, his work on laborers brought him national recognition. It was a subject that he never tired of. For Mahonri, his laborers were real people doing real work. He had no desire toward idealization, which was the prevalent sculptural style of the period. “I love what workers do,” he wrote. “They are great people to me. I like their stance—their poise and balance and gestures. The worker is the essential man. I find him tremendously inspiring in my art.”6
While in Paris, he worked hard to learn everything he could about art. When he was not in class, he took his sketch pad and went out to observe and sketch people. Even on a vacation to Italy in 1902 with his classmates, he sketched constantly, feeling that he could not justify the expense of the trip unless he learned something new.
In 1905, Mahonri returned from Paris, ready to begin his career. His financial struggle while he was working to build a reputation was compounded by the money he owed from his studies in Paris. He also wanted to marry, and needed money to take on the responsibilities of a family.
He eagerly accepted his first commission—from the Frost Creamery for twenty-five dollars. Titled The Dairy Maid, it was a three-foot sculpture of a woman, made of butter, for the Utah State Fair. Three tubs of butter were stacked in a large refrigerator with a glass door. Mahonri would open the door until the butter was soft enough to work with; when it became too soft, he would shut the door to let it harden again.
He finished the sculpture, collected his fee, and began to look around at some of the other exhibits—only to have a young man run up to him a short time later, saying, “The girl is melting!” Mahonri ran back to the sculpture and discovered that someone had left the refrigerator door open—the woman’s head had sunk onto her breast. He resculpted the head, left strict instructions that the door should be kept closed, and once again left to look at the exhibits.7
From this first commission, Mahonri went on to do other, more serious sculptures. He completed a portrait bust of B. H. Roberts; the Joseph and Hyrum Smith statues (for which he was allowed to use the death masks, and which were originally located on either side of the main doors of the Salt Lake Temple); and a decorative frieze for the Deseret Gymnasium. During this time he also began to initiate plans for the sea gull monument—a commission he hoped to secure from the Church.
On 19 February 1907, he married Cecilia Sharp, whom he described as “a talented musician—pianist [who] possessed a type of grace, beauty, and spirituality which enhanced the circles of culture in which she associated.”8 In 1908, a daughter, Agnes Mackintosh, was born to the couple, and later, in 1911, they had a son, Mahonri Sharp (Bill).
Work for the young artist was often sporadic, and when he was out of work he kept sketching and painting. His favorite spot was in front of the drugstore on the corner of First South and Main Street, where he sketched people as they went about their daily activities. Several of the people he sketched there served as inspiration for later sculptures, including The Halt and the Blind and Reading the Headlines. Drawing and sketching was a habit he kept up all his life, and years later when he could afford tailor-made suits he insisted on extra large pockets that could hold a sketch book.
Church authorities as yet had made no firm plans for the sea gull monument, and in 1910 Mahonri moved his young family to New York City. It was an advantageous move. Within two years he had won a prestigious national prize for one of his sculptures of laborers and had received two major commissions—one from the American Museum of Natural History, the other from the Church for the sea gull monument.
Mahonri completed the monument in 1913 and considered it one of the best projects of his career. He did the work in New York, where he exhibited the plaster casts in the famous Armory Show of 1913.
Church authorities wanted to place the monument just south of the temple, on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Mahonri objected, contending that the building would dwarf the monument. He met with President Joseph F. Smith and several other General Authorities and they walked around Temple Square, viewing and discussing several sites. Finally, Mahonri selected a spot by the Assembly Hall near the south gate, where the gulls could be seen against a clear patch of sky. There he drove a stake marking the spot where the monument would be erected.9
After completing the Sea Gull Monument, Mahonri made several trips to the American Southwest, where he studied and sketched the people of the Hopi, Navajo, and Apache tribes for his sculptures for the American Museum of Natural History. These trips also became the inspiration for many beautiful paintings and prints of Indians from the Southwest.
These were days not only of triumph, but also of sadness. In 1917, his beloved wife, Cecilia, died of cancer. Mahonri was very lonely without her and threw himself into his work to help ease his sorrow.
In 1923 he traveled to Paris to sculpt a monument to the dead for the cloister of the American Pro-Cathedral. Two years later, accompanied by his children, he returned to Paris, where he lived for two and a half years, supporting himself from his art work. He did most of his sculptures of prizefighters during this time, and at the end of the decade he traveled to Hollywood, where he did a life-size sculpture of the famous boxer, Joe Ganz, for a major film studio. After the statue was cast in bronze, it was placed in the entranceway of the old Madison Square Garden in New York City.
One of the last of Mahonri’s prizefighters was a piece entitled Knockdown. In 1932, he sent both the Joe Ganz sculpture and Knockdown to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where Knockdown won a Gold Medal for sculpture. As a result, Mahonri’s name appeared on the sports page of several major newspapers across the nation. Reflecting his childhood love of sports, the artist admitted that he enjoyed seeing his name on the sports page more than in the arts section.10
It was during this time that he met Dorothy Weir, the daughter of American Impressionist artist J. Alden Weir, and an artist herself. They were married 17 February 1931 and spent their honeymoon in Europe, traveling and sketching. The marriage was a happy one. In a letter to his Latter-day Saint friend Jack Sears, dated 17 February 1937, Mahonri wrote: “Today is the sixth anniversary of our wedding. It seems but a month or so.”11
During the thirties and forties, Mahonri worked on several large western commissions, including the This Is the Place Monument. When he heard that he might be chosen to sculpt the monument commemorating the pioneers’ entry into the Salt Lake Valley—what he called “the big job”—he wrote: “All my life I have been interested in the western migration of our people. It always seemed to me to be one of the greatest ‘epics’ of the world. I have dreamed and hoped that some day Utah could find the will and means to let me make a monument to the pioneers, adequate to their great achievements. I would be willing to spend years of my life on it and make it my crowning masterpiece.”12
He started the project in 1939, but work progressed slowly because of World War II. It was an enormous undertaking, considering the sculptor was sixty-two years old. The monument measures sixty by eighty feet, and includes 144 animate objects (74 of which are human figures). The three central figures—Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff—are each eighteen feet tall.
Mahonri spent years researching and planning before he began the This Is the Place Monument. He wanted to make sure that each figure was historically accurate. A close friend and knowledgeable artist said, “You may be sure that the buttons on the coats, the guns in the hands and the wheels on the wagons are portrayed true to history’s facts. Hon Young became an authority on every subject he portrayed.”13
Although this was a productive time for Mahonri, it was also a sad time. Dorothy was suffering from cancer, which put a great strain on him. Her death on 23 June 1947 diminished the joy he felt in completing what he considered the most important commission of his career.
The monument was dedicated on 24 July 1947—exactly one hundred years after the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. At the dedication, the artist was asked to say a few words but was told that he must keep his remarks brief. Mahonri rose and said, “Next week come the ninth of August, I will be seventy years old. This is the greatest day of my life.” He then sat down.14
Mahonri’s age was beginning to affect him; although he still worked for several hours each day, he was very tired when he finished. But there was still one more commission he wanted—the statue of his grandfather, Brigham Young, for the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Many people—including some of his closest friends—thought that he would not receive the commission because of his advanced age. But, through his great desire to do the work, he convinced the selection committee to give him the job.
The decision of how Brigham Young would be portrayed was left to Mahonri and the rest of the Young family. The three of Brigham Young’s daughters who were still alive wanted their father represented as they remembered him—gentle and domestic, a father and a family man. Mahonri, on the other hand, wanted to depict his grandfather as a great leader and colonizer. The sculptor solved the problem by combining both moods in the sculpture; he gave one side of the face a pleasant expression, the other a sterner demeanor. The two expressions seem to blend in the middle when the statue is viewed straight on.15
Mahonri decided to complete the statue in Italy, where materials and tools were less expensive. Finding a piece of marble large enough for the sculpture was difficult because many of the marble quarries and much quarrying equipment in Europe had been damaged by bombs in the war. He finally found a piece of marble of the right size, only to discover a large flaw running through the middle of it. The search began again, until finally Mahonri found a suitable piece of marble for the statue.
The finished work was seven feet tall and stood on a thirty-four-inch pedestal. The last major accomplishment of Mahonri’s career, it was unveiled on Brigham Young’s birthday—1 June 1950. Mahonri was seventy-three years old. After finishing the statue, he began to take life easier, resting and relaxing more. He continued to work when he could, even though from 1951 on he was plagued by poor health.
He died at Norwalk, Connecticut, 2 November 1957, at the age of eighty. The next day the New York Times carried an article about the artist’s passing, with the headline “Mahonri Young, Sculptor, Dead. Grandson of Mormon Leader Was Noted for Bronzes—Taught Students Here.”16
Throughout his life and even in his passing, Mahonri Young was invariably connected with his LDS heritage. At the height of his career, Life magazine featured an article on the sculptor entitled “Mahonri Young’s Sculpture Preserves His Mormon Past.”17 In his own autobiographical notes, he relates that at the turn of the century when he was preparing to leave Salt Lake City to study in New York, an elderly woman who had crossed the plains to escape persecution in Nauvoo warned him not to let anyone know that he was from Utah, that his last name was Young, or that he was a Mormon. But Mahonri decided that he would never repudiate his birthplace, his ancestry, or his religious heritage, and whenever he was asked where he was from, he proudly replied, “Salt Lake City.”18
Mahonri Young, heir to the pioneer legacy and grandson of the colonizer of the Great Basin, left a sculptural testimonial to the heritage he honored throughout his life.
Note: There are two main studies on Mahonri Young: Wayne K. Hinton, “A Biographical History of Mahonri M. Young, A Western American Artist,” Ph.D. Diss., Brigham Young University, 1974; and Thomas E. Toone, “Mahonri Young: His Life and Sculpture,” Ph.D. Diss., Pennsylvania State University, 1982.