Mormon Images: Office Decor and the Place of Mormonism in American History

A few weels ago I finished my stint at the public trough and left the service of the federal courts. I know work for the law firm of Sidley, Austin, Brown & Wood in Washington, DC. The identity of the firm is significant only because this is the firm (and office) where Rex E. Lee practiced law for many years. There is actually a three-foot tall bronze statute of Lee outside the office’s moot court room (named in Lee’s honor). As you might expect, the firm’s DC office hosts a sizable continent of LDS attorneys and their office decor reflects the the trajectory of Mormonism within American society.

For some reason, it seems that a lot of LDS attorneys have a copy of this picture on the walls of their offices

The original painting is by Arnold Frieberg (the guy who braught you the WWF version of Nephi et al) and is entitled “Prayer at Valley Forge.” It is a nice visual depiction of one set of Mormon doctrines and Mormon self-classification. First there is the idea of righteous political leadership inspired by God during the American Founding. For a Mormon lawyer this means first, and foremost, the idea that the U.S. Constitution was inspired. I would suggest, however, that there is more going on here. Once the esoteric meaning of the picture (Washington isn’t simply praying, he is being inspired as part of the prologue to the Restoration), the paining also places Mormonism on the inside of the American story.

I don’t have a copy of this picture. Rather, in my office I have a framed reprint of this photograph:

The man in the center of the photograph is George Q. Cannon, First Counselor in the First Presidency at the time. He and his associates are in the Utah Territorial Prison for unlawful cohabitation. I have to confess that I like this photo much more than the Frieberg painting. It is not that I have any sort of nostalgia for polygamy. For me the picture is all about the law. It casts Mormons emphatically as outsiders, alien actors in the American story. Furthermore, it makes our relationship to the law and the constitution a bit more ambigious than Frieberg’s painting does. I like this. It gives us just a little more of an edge.

34 comments for “Mormon Images: Office Decor and the Place of Mormonism in American History

  1. Congratulations, Nate, on joining the Washington office of Sidley. Just out of curiousity, do you have it in the back of your mind to become a law prof in a few years? I think you would be a natural.

    Your pictures remind me of my first office when I started practicing law in Chicago in 1985. I had an array of pictures and prints relating to both American and Mormon history. Among the ones I remember were pictures of the joining of the railroads, Abraham Lincoln, a map of Nauvoo, a circular of the Nauvoo High Council (since my GGGGrandfather was one of the members) that my wife antiqued for me, and several others. The senior partner loved it, since he was a history buff and not so fond of the abstract art that one of the partner’s wives and selected for the firm in general.

    After several moves, now I don’t have any art at all on my walls. I just haven’t gotten around to putting anything up.

  2. It’s an optical illusion–those broad horizontal stripes would make Kate Moss look fat. If the prison garb had narrow vertical stripes, they’d all look svelte–just like all members of the church today.

  3. Jeremy,

    Horizontal stripes.

    Nate et al,

    Your offices are sure more decorated than mine. I’ve got pictures of the kids, and a few news clippings. A few copies of relevant comic strips. And stacks and stacks of papers. It’s the latest in lawyer interior decoration, “Cravath modern” style, which means boxes of documents, covered by lots of individual documents, everywhere the eye can see.

  4. Love the choice of photos! I don’t have such a piece of art on my walls. But I do keep a copy of “Mormon Redress Petitions” at hand.

  5. I really like the effect the mass of striped convicts’ uniforms creates. It gives the impression that Pres. Cannon is really behind bars.

    Does anyone know why he gets to wear civvies? It invites all kinds of interpretations. For example, he stands out as the subject. I can imagine a similar image of him surrounded by his wives. Here, he has traded one for the other.

    As for George Washington, what does he have to do with the US Constitution?

  6. Looking again, I see that I have probably erred in thinking that the man in the solid color suit is George Cannon. Is this right?

    Also, what is the seal in the middle of the image?

  7. Nate,
    I have a Sigmund Freud action figure and a postcard picture of George Eliot (one of my all time heros) in my office. What do we make of that?

  8. Where does that photo come from… and can you provide a row-by-row on the names of the gentlemen pictured? I’m a descendant of Lot Smith, and wonder if I might have a progenitor in there.

  9. I have a copy of “Prayer at Valley Forge” hanging in my office. My parents gave it to me. The only other decoration I have up is an old, abstract painting done by a BYU friend, Clayton Merrell, my Ph.D diploma, and photos of Melissa and the girls. So I keep “Valley Forge” around, primarily to bring at least a little color to my (windowless) office. But I suppose I also like it the same way some people really like old Soviet propaganda artworks. It’s such a concentrated, pedagogical painting, simply bursting with fervor for its message (George Washington, pious leader, republican icon, warrior and statesman, humble–unknowing?–servant of God). I like the strength of it, it’s confidence. Also, I like Washington; he’s my favorite American hero. So why not a painting of Washington? Certainly it’s better than that horrible Gilbert Stuart portrait.

  10. NAte – if one hits the (more) link, seems there is a problem – the page displays, but the column of links on the right side of the page covers up about 1/4th of the text of the main post.

  11. sounds like a half-ful, half-empty. the fulls prefer the optimistic view of being ‘insiders’. the empty prefers the ironic tragedy of being excluded, thus highlighting how they have overcome so much & are still were they are today.

    at least…that’s what my freud action figure said. or was it the happy pills that we all take? hm…

  12. Bryce,

    You asked, what does George Washington have to do with the Constitution.

    Well . . . he was the presiding officer in the convention, having been elected unanimously by the delegates as president as soon as a quorum had gathered. Although it’s true that he was silent throughout the convention, not participating in the debates until the convention’s final day, he was the most commanding presence there, and it can fairly be asked whether the convention would have held together, or been taken seriously by Americans, had he not been there. He voted with the Virginians; before the convention he had made it clear that he supported a stronger national government. Of him and Franklin, Jefferson wrote (obviously not of the convention itself, since TJ wasn’t there) that he “never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point which was to decide the question. They laid their shoulders to the main points, knowing that the little ones would follow of themselves.” Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia, at 28-29.

    Just as important, he was the first president elected under the constitution, and was instrumental in converting the words on the pages of the constitution into the practial workings of government. The patterns he established, from things as simple as the simplicity of his dress to his decision that he should be called simply “Mr. President” were critical to the establishment of our constitutional republic.

  13. I have a similar photograph on the wall of my law office, but rather than the George Q. Cannon set, it is of a different group of jailbirds, including my GGgrandfather.

    I keep it on the wall for the some of the same reasons. First, it is a spectacular image. Next, it reminds me that the law gets straightforward answers wrong quite frequently — it’s all part of a human-oriented justice system. Then I remember that these people did time as prisoners of conscience — they just weren’t willing to abandon their second and third families. And finally, I think every lawyer needs a visible reminder of a criminal in her or his background.

  14. Bob, you wrote:

    “Nate..This photo is on my wall too. My GG/Father stands to the right of Cannon.”

    Who is your GG/Father? I’ve heard an identification of the man on the right, but I don’t know if it is correct.

  15. Justin..My GGG/Father was Thomas Harper (1829-1899), of Harper Ward (Call’s Fort), Utah. I have two photos of that day, it appears some men are different. Thomas Harper and some of the other men in the photos were from Brigham City (6mi S. of Harper Ward.

  16. Marc B.–

    Thanks for the well-written and well-thought out reply to my off-the-cuff question (which was nonetheless sincere).

  17. Frieberg was the BEST when it came to manly nipples. Does someone have an old paperback copy of the BoM lying around, and would they be willing to do a quick nipple count for us? I can think of no better way to honor Joseph Smith’s magnificent translation than to decorate it with (e.g.) a picture of Ammon, tanned and oiled, tensed erotically against a rock, his Robin Hood cap rakishly angled and his Lancelot sword at the ready, as hordes of Neanderthals menace him with clubs. It adds a kind of comic book dignity to the Restoration that apostate forms of Christianity, with their boring, adult, non-illustrated Bibles, obviously lack.

  18. Speaking of Frieberg and latent (or not-so-latent) eroticism, did you know he was one of Cecil B. DeMille’s main concept artists and designers? Since Cecil B. was famous for combining eroticism and the Bible, I thought that was interesting. Sorry to drift off-topic, Nate

  19. Kingsley, please. A little warning next time. The “manly nipples” post made me snort my soda all over my keyboard!

  20. Kingsley is a guaranteed keyboard destroyer. Just check to see who authored the comment before you read it, then put down your uncaffeinated beverages.

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