Samuel Jepperson, Provo Primitive

by Glen Nelson

February 2013

"I no longer set the price [for my paintings]. I am always happy to sell one, for that means I can make another. When I do not sell and find myself short, I scrape off an old one or paint it over, for I must paint." 1

- Samuel Jepperson

The parents of Samuel Jepperson landed in Provo, Utah in 1858, shortly after their conversion to Mormonism in Denmark and their immigration to the United States. Samuel was born in Copenhagen in 1854. From an early age, he showed interest in the arts, but his father would have none of it. The young boy drew in the margins of his school books and on any available scrap of paper. Without money to purchase supplies, Jepperson made himself a paintbrush by tying chicken feathers to a stick. And he mixed paintings using berries, roots, leaves, and mustard.2  He was equally drawn to music, and using a cigar box, he created a rustic violin and learned to play it (again, without his parent’s encouragement) by going to the barn where no one could hear him practice

At age 17, he went to work for an Oxford-schooled painter named Henry J. Maiben, who gave the boy lessons in drawing after he finished his labors of painting houses. A year later, he moved to St. George, Utah to paint decorations inside the new temple. Ultimately, he was not given the opportunity, but in his mind it cemented his identity as a man of the arts. His reputation spread, upon returning to Provo. He formed the Provo City Silver Band3  and led the band for 35 years. As the Provo Opera House neared completion in 1885, Jepperson worked painting scenery for German fine artist, John Selck. On opening night, he painted the curtain and also played in the orchestra.

Jepperson changed careers in 1886. He suffered from lead poisoning from painting houses, and his doctor urged him to work out of doors.4 He delivered ice. He sold fish and wild game, and to the surprise of locals who called his lowland property “Jepperson’s Folly,” he developed a productive orchard of prize-winning apples. He raised a family, too—eventually they all became artists and musicians—and all the while, he painted and made music.

He sold paintings by displaying them in shop windows, and occasionally he was commissioned to create murals, including the Knight Brothers Saloon in Provo, for which the artist painted nudes over the bar, of Adam and Eve.

In 1892, Jepperson painted a series of Utah scenes that were exhibited in New York, and the same year he was commissioned to paint historic scenes of Provo. History paintings and local landscapes comprise the majority of the 1,000 paintings Jepperson created in his lifetime. When depicting buildings that had already disappeared by the time Jepperson arrived in Utah, he sought out elderly residents who could verify his artistic choices. He yearned to be authentic.

Although he received some painting instruction from employers during brief periods, Jepperson was almost entirely self-taught. He was greatly influenced by early Mormon painters and made works that echoes theirs in subject matter and style, but there was no formal training.

Gradually, he farmed less and painted more. During the Great Depression, he struggled to find painting supplies. As any money came his way, he purchased paints.

The story of Jepperson differs from other early Mormon painters quite dramatically. The latter, mostly residents of Salt Lake City, found a community of art teachers and peers. Their interest in the arts led them away from home to study in academic settings, in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Paris. Jepperson never had those advantages and influences. Provo was not the cosmopolitan-fixated place that Salt Lake City was at the turn of the 20th century. For decades, Brigham Young had preached to the pioneers the civilizing virtues of refinement, and for a city of its size, Salt Lake City maintained a broadly artistic scene. In 1868, Young sent Abraham O. Smoot to Provo to tame some of “the wild” there. Smoot was mostly unsuccessful, but Jepperson, with popular music and unassuming paintings, elevated the community.

By the time of Jepperson’s death, he was a local hero.  In 1931, he died from an accident in his orchard. Even now, one of his paintings hangs in the Provo mayor’s office. Thirteen of his paintings are displayed at the Utah Daughters of Pioneers Museum in Provo, and more Jepperson works are in the collections of the Springville Museum of Art, Museum of Art (BYU), Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and, somehow, in the Witt Library in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Samuel Jepperson

Untitled, 1875

19" x 25.5" oil on panel

The Glen & Marcia Nelson Collection of Mormon Art

Notes - 

1 “Samuel Jepperson, Early Pioneer Artist,” by D. Tobert Carter, Beehive History 24: Creators, Utah State Historical Society, 1998

2 D. Tobert Carter

3 The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University holds a collection of musical scores collected by Jepperson as leader of the Provo Band.

4 100 Years of Utah Painting, James L. Haseltine, Exhibition at the Salt Lake Art Center, 1965