IN 1890, three young Utah artists, convinced that their talents could not be adequately developed locally, petitioned the leaders of the Mormon Church to send them to Paris to study art. John Hafen, John Fairbanks, and Lorus Pratt had chosen a good time to ask. After 40 years of construction, the Salt Lake Temple was nearing completion, and the church fathers feared that no local artists were up to the task of painting its murals. Subsidizing an intensive two-year study period for three talented youngsters in the art capital of the world seemed a small price to pay for their services later on. And so their proposal was accepted. The three young men set sail on June 23 of that year.
They were soon followed by two other ``art missionaries,'' Edwin Evans and Herman Haag, who arrived in Paris in December and the summer of 1891, respectively.
With their arrival, the Mormon art contingent in Paris stood at eight. James Harwood had left Utah in 1888 to study art at the prestigious Julian Academy, and he was joined shortly afterward by John Clawson and by Harriett Richards, who became Harwood's wife in 1891.
All had come to Paris to study, and study they did. Their schedule was grueling: up by 5:30 every morning to study French or anatomy; then life-drawing at the Julian from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and finally, night classes after dinner until 10 p.m. Spare time was spent traveling around France sketching and painting and visiting museums and galleries. It was probably at one of the latter that they first saw examples of Impressionist art. It's obvious they were very taken with it, for it didn't take them long to adopt many of its tenets and techniques and to rid themselves of all but the most significant aspects of their academic training.
They returned to Utah toward the end of 1892 more as fledgling Impressionists than as the academic masters they had hoped to become, but still with precisely the kind of skills needed to produce the temple murals. Once that task was behind them, they proceeded with their individual careers and with the establishment of the first regional school of Impressionist art in the Western United States.
Their story is beautifully told in an outstanding exhibition at the Museum of Church History and Art here. ``Harvesting the Light: The Paris Art Mission and Beginnings of Utah Impressionism'' consists of 150 paintings and roughly four dozen photographs and documents spanning the entire careers of these eight painters. It begins with work produced before their trips to Paris, continues with pictures executed in France, and concludes with an in-depth study of their individual and collective contributions to American Impressionism.
Of particular interest are several preparatory studies for the temple murals, and one full-size reproduction - in the form of a back-lit translight - of what is probably the only remaining section of the original murals. Judged on the basis of this one panel (the others were overpainted) and the studies, the artists acquitted themselves remarkably well.
There is a freshness and an innocence - to say nothing of a profoundly romantic aura - to these works that sets them apart from any other American paintings of the period, and that places them closer in spirit to the art of Henri Rousseau and Odilon Redon than to that of either the Impressionist Claude Monet or the academic master Adolphe Bouguereau. Their color may have derived from Impressionist theory, and their compositions may have leaned heavily on classical models, but their conception and spirit were original, and in some ways, in advance of their time.
The major focus of this exhibition, however, is on the work these Utah artists produced during their maturity. All but Haag - who died in 1895 at the age of 24 - lived well into the 20th century and painted a significant number of pictures that were largely Impressonist in nature. Only Harriett Harwood remained aloof from such ``modern'' practices, working in a more conventional vein.
The exhibition is well named. Light, painted to illuminate both exterior and interior subjects, dominates. It plays over the wide-open spaces, the grain fields, haystacks, forest glades, harvesting farmers, flower gardens, and pastoral scenes one finds in most Impressionist art. And it does so by means of the broken-color effects, the rough brushwork, and compositional informality that typify that movement.
Surprisingly, considering how much these young artists had to learn in so short a time, much of what they produced is remarkably effective. We may not always be certain if the view confronting us was executed in rural France or in America and may wonder why the rugged landscapes of Utah usually ended up looking so cozy and civilized, but we are neverthelesss engagd by the richness of the subjects and by the sensitivity and skill - occasionally even the brilliance - with which they were painted. Among the outstanding pieces are James Harwood's ``The Gleaners''; Evans's ``The Calf''; Hafen's ``Forest SolitudeBrighton,'' ``Girl Among the Hollyhocks,'' and the studies for the mural ``Garden of Eden''; and Harriett Harwood's ``Still Life with Pumpkin, Cauliflower, and Potatoes.''
This excellent show (curated by Linda Jones Gibbs) will be on view at the useum of Church History and Art, 45 North West Temple Street, through Oct. 12.