A pilgrim’s journey: Travels of religious artwork to the MOA

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“The Ideal Christ,” by Hiram Powers, is currently on display at the Museum of Art in the religious art gallery. A private owner loaned this piece to the MOA to use temporarily. (Museum of Art)

Three classic art pieces about the life of Christ grace the MOA’s religious collection, but the MOA did not purchase any of them in a regular art auction.

Hiram Powers’ “The Ideal Christ”

When Hiram Powers’ “The Ideal Christ” went to auction, its starting price exceeded the MOA’s top estimate.

The sculpture sold for $137,000, but the work’s current owner has generously loaned the sculpture to the MOA.

“The Ideal Christ” is the one remaining sculpture of three different versions by Hiram Powers and was completed in 1871, two years before Powers died.

The sculpture has passed through various families throughout the 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries and is listed under the auction website Bonhams, which provides details about its ownership history.

The sculpture first appeared on the market in Rome, Italy, and was owned by Lord Thomas Keay Tapling. It then passed through three separate owners before being purchased by its present owner, a private collector, from a Bonhams auction in Bond Street, London.

MOA Marketing and Public Relations Manager Hilarie Ashton described the MOA’s interest in the piece.

“We had worked to secure a donor that would provide the funding for the work up to the high estimate that was given for the work’s value,” Ashton said. “When bidding began, it started higher than the high estimate, so our representative wasn’t even able to bid.”

Powers is among the greatest neoclassical sculptors of the 19th century. His work incorporates unique techniques used to differentiate between skin, hair and fabric in his sculptures, giving them a realistic appearance.

Powers (1805–1873) was alive during the time of Joseph Smith and the Restoration of the gospel and had connections to both.

He was born in Woodstock, Vermont, five months before LDS Church founder Joseph Smith was born and just 15 miles away from the Smith family farm, according to the MOA’s press release article about “The Ideal Christ.”

His family then moved to Cincinnati, where Powers cultivated his sculpting skills. His work became popular, and he moved to Washington, D.C., and later to Florence, Italy, to continue studying.

Powers was never officially affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but in 1877, he was included in President Wilford Woodruff’s list of individuals whose vicarious ordinances were completed for them in the St. George temple.

Sir Edward John Poynter’s “The Prodigal’s Return”

This piece has a similar story to the Powers sculpture.

The MOA lost the bid on Sir Edward John Poynter’s painting, “The Prodigal’s Return,” when the auction first opened. The MOA worked gradually to build trust with the owner and eventually purchased the painting for the auction price.

“Prodigal’s Return,” by Sir Edward John Poynter, is a patron favorite, according to Museum of Art curator Hilarie Ashton. (Museum of Art)

Sir Edward John Poynter was an English painter who found inspiration for his works from artists such as Frederic Leighton and Michelangelo. “The Prodigal’s Return” was displayed to good critical rapport in 1869 at the Royal Academy, where Poynter was later president.

Circle of Rembrandt’s “Head of Christ”

The Circle of Rembrandt painting is not currently on display, but its emergence from obscurity took it directly from a woman’s bedroom to the MOA.

The MOA’s associate director, Ed Lind, received a phone call from California from a man named Burt McCulloch, who said there was a woman in his ward who had a Rembrandt painting she was looking to donate to a museum, Ashton said.

“Ed assumed the work was probably not what the man was claiming, but he was more than happy to meet with him and take a look at the painting,” Ashton said.

McCulloch put the painting in the back of his Ford Bronco and drove to Utah to show it to the MOA staff. When the painting was laid on the conference, everyone was amazed.

“It was the real deal,” Ashton said.

The Circle of Remembrandt’s “Head of Christ)”has been on several world tours, including the Louvre in France. (Museum of Art)

The painting attracts a lot of attention at the museum and has been on a few world tours with significant traveling exhibitions, including a stop at the Louvre.

The woman who donated the work, Vivian Vicondo, obtained the painting after helping a friend purchase it on a loan. The friend could not pay her back, so the painting remained in storage under Vicondo’s bed for years. She told her home teachers about it, and they, along with McCulloch, began searching for a new home for the work.

They called the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena first, but the offer was declined because they accidentally claimed the piece was a Renoir (who never would have painted a portrait of Christ). The curator at the Huntington Library never showed up for a meeting, but the MOA answered the third phone call.

Circle of Rembrandt is thought to be made up of a group of artists who worked closely with Rembrandt himself. “Head of Christ” was most likely painted by an associate artist who had learned some of the master’s techniques, i.e. the soft light in the background, which illuminates Christ’s face and provides viewers with an intimate, almost personal connection to the Savior.

Visitors can view both “The Prodigal’s Return” and “The Ideal Christ” in the MOA, where they are on display in the religious art gallery.

Read the press release about “The Ideal Christ,” or view the MOA online details about “The Prodigal’s Return” and “Head of Christ.”

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