I feel the idea or concept in any work is crucial—it's what makes or breaks the painting. Greater Love Hath No Man began with the idea to paint an historical event that I have known about my entire life: The murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Joseph Smith was the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Days Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church. Joseph and his brother Hyrum were shot and killed by an angry mob on June 27, 1844 while they were in prison at Carthage Jail in Carthage, IL. My inspiration was to paint the scene just before Hyrum Smith was shot through the jailor's bedroom door. As a child, I learned the story and saw pictures of the door that still has the bullet hole in it. I wanted to create a painting that reflected my childhood reaction while remaining historically rich. And I felt a powerful way to do this was through a diptych, a two-panel painting, showing the struggle of the men on both sides of the wall just moments before the shot through the door.
Early in the process, I decided I wanted to portray this moment truthfully. I needed to see for myself the place where it all happened, so I spent 3 days photographing and documenting the room in Carthage. The event took place at approximately 5 p.m., so we made sure that we were in the room at that same time on each day. This allowed me to accurately portray how the room looked on the day the event took place because the light in the room would be almost the same.
Upon returning from Illinois, I researched and read everything I could find about the events of that day in June of 1844 and the days and weeks leading up to it. In particular, I paid attention to eyewitness accounts. Those accounts would prove most beneficial in telling the story as truthfully as possible. I studied the eyewitness accounts of the two men who were there in the room that day with Joseph and Hyrum Smith. These accounts were from John Taylor and Willard Richards and were the most important in my research. For obvious reasons, it was more difficult to find eyewitness documentation of the event from those in the mob, but I was able to find a few accounts from townspeople who observed what happened that day. When I began my research, I thought as a Latter-Day Saint I knew the whole story. After studying multiple accounts, I quickly realized there was much I did not know. I tried to stay as close to these accounts as I could, though they did not provide me all the details I needed. I consulted Dr. Joseph L. Lyon who has done extensive research on the scene at Carthage Jail to help me fill in the gaps. He and David W. Lyon wrote an informative article, Physical Evidence at Carthage Jail and What It Reveals about the Assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. In this article they explore in great detail the crime scene at Carthage Jail, analyzing everything from the type of musket balls the mob members were using, to the angle that the ball was traveling that killed Hyrum. I also consulted Sam Weston who has spent countless hours researching every detail of the physical evidence at Carthage. He helped me immensely with this project. The research and discussions I had with these men was invaluable and helped me determine how to accurately compose the figures in this painting.
My next step was to line out a solid concept. I did some quick sketches to decide on a composition for the painting, enlisting the help of a neighbor, as well as my brother. These initial sketches were very important in helping me determine a rough idea of how much reference material (clothing, props, etc.) I would need for the final composition, as well as how to set up a photo shoot.
I needed to stage a photo shoot for reference for this painting, but first I would need to line out a solid concept. I did some quick sketches to decide on a composition for the painting, enlisting the help of a neighbor, as well as my brother. These initial sketches were very important in helping me determine a rough idea of how much reference material (clothing, props, etc.) I would need for the final composition, as well as how to set up the photo shoot.
Getting Proper Reference for Painting
The next step was to get accurate clothing made for proper reference for the painting as well as to research the props needed. Knowing nothing about clothing of that era, I did more research and learned everything I could, enlisting the help of 19th-century clothing historian Carma deJong Anderson as well as my mentor, William Whitaker, who has extensively researched clothing from that era. Carma made replicas of Hyrum’s clothing, creating a pattern from the actual clothes owned by Eldred G. Smith. I also had help from Shari Ohman at the LDS motion pictures studio where we pulled from their expansive collection of period clothing to correctly clothe the men in the hallway side of the painting. I also researched the members of the mob to help me correctly clothe my models according to the type of clothing worn by those of their respective professions. One eyewitness account from outside the jail said some of the men had on blue hunting jackets with fringe, and I dressed one of the shooters with the same jacket in reference to that account. I used primarily friends and family as my models for the men in the painting. I carefully chose models that had similar features to the men they were portraying, such as Joseph Smith and John Taylor.
Hats and guns were particularly important to get accurate. I studied genre paintings from the mid 1800s, in particular those by William Sydney Mount. This gave me a much clearer idea about the style of hats worn during this period as well as the tattered and torn look of their clothing.
I consulted more experts about guns of that day and photographed a number of muskets and pistols to be certain the guns I painted were accurate and correct, such as the 1819 Hall Breech Loading Musket. The hole in the door matches exactly the size of a ball used by a Hall musket (.52”), the only gun of that time with that caliber, making it certain that a Hall musket was used to shoot Hyrum Smith through the door. I found images of the pistols Joseph and Hyrum were carrying as well as the canes Willard Richards and John Taylor used to knock down the muskets pushed through the doorway.
To properly stage this scene and accurately pose my models, I built a set for both panels of the diptych. With the help of my friend, Jared Bringhurst, we built a simple two-wall set in my studio that contained a door replicating the one in Carthage Jail. We drilled a hole at the exact spot of the bullet hole in Carthage to line up the angle of the gun at the door.
With the aid of the photos we took at Carthage, I created the same lighting on our set as that we experienced at Carthage. For the scene in the hallway outside the door, we built a more complicated set in a local warehouse to recreate the look of a large group of men packed into the small space at the top of the stairs. The hallway set had stairs, railing, and doors that were accurate, even to the distance between the railing posts. We were able to build this one-of-a-kind, historically accurate set with the help of Sam Weston’s measurements taken at Carthage.
Once the clothing and set were built, I was ready for the photo shoot. The photo shoots for each panel took place on different dates; each one taking weeks, even months, of preparation. I began the shoot by referencing my initial sketches for the placement of each model. I planned placement beforehand, but I used the concept sketches as a jumping off point where we could explore other ideas during the shoot, trying many different angles and poses, erring on the side of too much instead of too little. I even had the men in the hallway act out the scene
by running up the stairs just so I could see what that would actually look like. Each photo shoot took 3-4 hours from start to finish. After each shoot I composed the final composition using Photoshop, pulling pieces from the hundreds of photos we took—using a hand gesture from one or a facial expression from another.
Creating the Work
I began with some drawing and painting studies to determine the expressions of Joseph Smith and John Taylor, considering how important these expressions would be to the story and composition. I also did some charcoal studies for the panel outside the room to determine the proper composition.
I stretched and gessoed two canvases of the same size, 60 x 48”, for the final piece. I enlarged and transferred my drawings to the final canvas, sealing the transfer with spray fixative. I did a simple under painting to both canvases before laying down opaque paint. The painting was completed in December of 2014, spanning a total of 5 years from start to finish. Greater Love Hath No Man will be on permanent display at the LDS Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah beginning fall of 2015.
Since the idea for this painting began with the door, it was only fitting to frame the painting with the same door molding. I sent the framer images we took in Carthage to exactly replicate the style and profile of door casing for the frame.