In 2005, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints commemorated the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith's birth. The youth were encouraged to celebrate through the arts, and I set out to make a sculptural bust of Joseph. In pursuit of this effort, I read "Joseph Smith Portraits: A Search for the Prophet's Likeness," by Ephraim Hatch, and I have been fascinated with the pursuit of accurate depictions of Joseph ever since.
There are currently no verified photographs of Joseph Smith Jr. This may come as a surprise to you if you've seen certain daguerreotypes described as such. I will discuss a few of these images below and explain why they are not credible photos of Joseph. I will then explain why my images are accurate, and why I feel it is important to have an accurate representation of Joseph.
The photograph on the right is not a photograph of Joseph. It is a photograph of a painting of Joseph made by an unknown artist on an unknown date. The Community of Christ attributes the painting to David White Rogers in 1842, but that is unlikely. Rogers did paint Joseph, as recorded in History of the Church, but his painting is shown further down. The painting styles are very different. Other possible artists include William W. Major or Selah Van Sickle, both of whom would have painted the image after Joseph's death. Regardless of the origin, it is not a photograph of Joseph, nor is it a very accurate depiction. You can see the comparison with Joseph's death mask below.
This animation shows the variance between features of the death mask, and the RLDS painting. Note the position of the nose, the size of the mouth, and the distance between the eyes. All features shift drastically.
Here are two paintings of Brigham Young by artists who may have produced the RLDS painting. Selah Van Sickle's painting is on the left. William Warner Major's is on the right.
Other supposed photos have been shared around, though much less is known about their provenance. The only evidence for their authenticity is that they bear resemblance to whatever conception a person has of what Joseph looked like, they come from roughly the right time or place, or they seem to align with the death mask. Without a known origin, it is impossible to know who these men are.
Scannell Daguerreotype donated to the RLDS church.
Photocopy of unidentified man from the book “Retratos Quase Inocentes”
Positively identified as Alexander Hugh Holmes Stuart. Not Joseph.
Unidentified man, unknown source, original URL is dead.
If there are no known photographs, how can anyone know what Joseph actually looked like?
One of the best pieces of evidence that has been referenced by nearly every LDS artist is the death mask. Within 24 hours of the Carthage murders, George Q. Cannon made plaster molds of the brother's faces. Some have suggested that Joseph's fall from the second story window at Carthage may have affected his appearance. However, paintings done during Joseph’s life suggest that his injuries had little effect on his distinct profile, if any, and the mask is therefore incredibly useful in answering the question of his appearance.
Both of these paintings were made while Joseph was alive and posing for them. David White Rogers made the painting on the left, as well as a profile portrait of Hiram. Sutcliffe Maudsley produced the painting on the right for a map of Nauvoo. Both profiles match the death mask incredibly well, confirming that Joseph's injuries did not affect his profile as recorded by the death mask.
Joseph had four sons who survived into adulthood. These brothers have features that give hints about Joseph's appearance that the death mask can't provide, such as the shape of their open eyes or eyebrow thickness.
Joseph's brother William, and Joseph's uncle John, who had a very similar profile.
Several cuttings of Joseph's hair were preserved, and they reveal that he was blonde, just as his family and friends described. You can view this sample at the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum in Salt Lake City.
Why are my images more accurate than other images of Joseph, and why does it matter?
I set out to use the most reliable sources to reconstruct Joseph's likeness, making every effort to avoid personal interpretation. Rather than fill in everything omitted by the death mask using only my imagination, I used Smith "DNA" by borrowing the body of his son, David Hyrum Smith. I posed and lit the mask to match his photo, and placed it over David's face. I then borrowed David's eyes, and conformed them with Joseph's closed eyelids. I relied on the death mask to precisely position features of the face and to provide accurate shading. I refered to paintings done during his life to reconstruct his hair and clothing. His vest is patterned after Hyrum Smith's vest which is on display in the Church History Museum. I also gave him a regency tailcoat with "M" notched lapels that matches the paintings. It was made by creating a hybrid coat from several daguerreotypes.
Finally, I colorized the image. I used his actual hair for reference. I used the faces of five men who were posed and lit in a similar way to create an average fair complexion that was conformed to the mask. This average face was used only to supply color information, so they did not influence the structure of the face. Witnesses described blue or hazel eyes, so I went with a light grey/blue that would reflect different colors in different light. There was little information on the color of his suit, so I went with the color scheme that has become most popular in recent depictions. The resulting image is somewhere between a photo and a painting, is true to the death mask, is true to paintings made during his life, and uses only familial traits to fill in the gaps.
I believe that an accurate depiction of Joseph Smith is important for several reasons. First, as an influential historical figure who has inspired dozens of religious movements with millions of followers, it is important that a true likeness be attached to his legacy. Many historical figures tend to become deified and glamorized to the point that they would be unrecognizable to those who knew them. Their faces can also become distorted as artists refer to prior artists rather than primary information. Going back to the best sources ensures that little is left to interpretation, and that the final image reflects Joseph as his friends knew him.
Second, if any new daguerreotype surfaces, it can be compared with a more forensically accurate image than the RLDS painting erroneously believed to be a photograph, or the death mask alone. Everything in this image is directly informed by Joseph, or in some instances his sons. If a new daguerreotype surfaces that doesn't look like this, it probably isn't Joseph.
Finally, LDS church history is seeing something of a renaissance lately, and many are becoming interested in accurate information and primary sources to inform their perspective. I believe that this image reflects that renewed drive for accuracy, and hope that it will find its place among these efforts to show things as they really were and paint a better picture of the early church.