No. 13 Lane K. Newberry
In the general aimlessness of art which accounts so eloquently for so much of its fatuity and futility, it is inspiriing to note a painter with a purpose — a program approaching the grandly epic. Four years ago, Lane K. Newberry, a young man of Nauvoo Mormon descent, whose youth was steeped in truculent pioneer tradition, conceived the idea of painting the historic spots of Illinois as they exist today and before time and decay can reduce them to further oblivion.
Newberry’s canvases number now, such has been his industry, about 100. Fortunately, his circumstances are such that he can keep the series intact. None of his pictures are for sale. He has a fairly complete record, from his own brushes, of Nauvoo, the Illinois Zion of Joseph Smith and the early Mormons — the capital where Smith was assassinated and whence Brigham Young led the “chosen people” into the wilderness and the deserts of the west, eventually establishing them in Salt Lake City.
He has a record, too, of Abraham Lincoln as he lived his life in this state of Black Hawk, the Indian warrior; of the Rogers-Clark trailblazing; of the early traders along the Mississippi—Phelps, Davenport, Dubuque.
He is working now on the Portrait of Gen. Grant— much work to be done this summer. He has started a pictorial record of the Mississippi bubble as it affected Illinois. He has traced the growth of the state through its three capital cities and its four capitals, the first at Kaskaskia, the second at Vandalia, the third and fourth at Springfield.
When he started four years ago, Newberry figured it would take him about five years to complete his work. Now, he thinks it’s a lifetime’s job.
For, besides the “series,” he has found already many spots of historic and romantic interest, isolated. There is, for example, the tavern at Hinsdale where Lois Fuller was born Jan. 24, 1860. The crossroads was called Fullersburg then, from the keepers of Crystal Inn, Lois’s parents. The bitter cold January night when Mrs. Fuller felt the onrush of labor pains, she was moved into the barroom where, in 1860, was the only warm stove in town. It was in the barroom that Lois Fuller made her debut—the dancer who was destined to become the friend of Toulouse;Lautrec and Anatel France—the dancer of the wide-spreading gauze wings, whose “lighting effects,” which La Lole invented, wrought the revolution in stage lighting that inaugurated the modern epoch in the theater.
“What is there about Hinsdale that can account for Lois Fuller?” muses Lane K. Newberry.
He is keeping copious notes. One of these days there is to be a big book about Illinois, written by Newberry and illustrated with reproductions of his paintings. The state—will it eventually acquire and care for the Newberry originals?
Newberry was born and grew up in the Nauvoo neighborhood, amid the relics of Mormonism. His grandmother on the Newberry side was a cousin of Joseph Smith, Elizabeth Duty, who came with the prophet from the Elmira, NY neighborhood. She met and married Abraham Newberry, an Englishman from Pennsylvania, who had settled in Lee County, Iowa, just across the river from Nauvoo and near the site of the camp where Marquette, years before, had met and treatied with the Illinois Indians.
On his mother’s side, Newberry is of equally distinguished Mormon descent. This grandfather of his was John Wilson, writer of the greater number of the Mormon hymns still used in the churches of Utah and all over Mormondom. He was from England. He and the girl he later married in Salt Lake City came to this country as “recruits” in the golden age of Mormon evangelism in England and the Scandinavian countries.
The Newberrys didn’t go on the exodus into the west—as did neither the widow of the murdered Joseph Smith. A son of Abraham Newberry of Iowa met a daughter of John Wilson of Salt Lake City when both were students at Riverside College, a Mormon institution. It was from their marriage that Lane K. Newberry was born.
The artist made his debut at Argyle, Iowa, the Newberry estate, and his boyhood and youth were passed amid the scenes of the Mormon traditions of the Nauvoo neighborhood. His swimming hole was the point in Sugar Creek, nine miles from Nauvoo, where Brigham Young and his followers camped the first night on their journey west after the outbreak of mob violence that resulted so fatally for Joseph Smith.
He played around the home of Elder Wilford Woodruff at Nauvoo, where Abraham Newberry and Elizabeth Duty had been married in pioneer days, by none other than the elder himself. It was Woodruff who drove the wagon that hauled Prophet Brigham Young to Sale Lake City and who, as a later president of the church, issued in 1890 the manifesto abolishing plural marriage. In the collection of the mature Lane Newberry are two paintings he made of the house of Elder Woodruff, still standing at Nauvoo.
The boy Lane Newberry said his playmates regarded with fearful awe the old Expositor office at Nauvoo, also now embalmed in paint. It was there that the anti-Mormon paper, the Expositor, was published for a single issue. Joseph Smith had the type and the press seized and thrown into the river. This order was the start of the riots that led to Smith’s assassination.
Joseph Smith to the boy Newberry was, naturally, a saint and a martyr, somebody holy, like the Hebrew prophets. It was not until after Lane Newberry came to Chicago in 1921 and began to hear all sides of the Mormon controversy that he acquired the perspective to paint six pictures and to start his researches.
The history of his grandmother’s cousin, he believes, has yet to be written. Smith, the way he now looks at it, after considering the “gentle” slant and after frequent visits down home to his relatives and old-time friends, was neither saint nor devil, but a very human man and able politician.
He was two inches over six feet tall, powerful, shrewd and magnetic, a keen judge of men, surrounding himself with able counselors, like the builder Young and the scholar Rigdon. He was a power in Illinois politics, getting for the then important city of Nauvoo about everything he wanted by the time-honored method of delivering votes sagaciously.
Among friends who knew an liked Joseph Smith was Abraham Lincoln—it was along the Smith-Lincoln trail that Newberry journeyed first in following up the Lincoln legend for pictorial purposes.
Smith, having made himself politically strong in Illinois, developed a well-defined plan for seeking the presidency of the United States. Brigham Young was away from Nauvoo furthering his principal’s ambitions when the fatal riots broke out. Young hurried home and maneuvered himself into the leadership of Smith’s church.
Even a scant century away, the Nauvoo traditions are becoming confused, Newberry finds. For example, some of the old settlers express to him doubt that Brigham Young ever lived in “Brigham Young’s home” at Nauvoo, one of Newberry’s pictorial subjects.
“The older people have been so secretive about their private and family affairs, because of not only the enmity of their neighbors to Mormonism but of the factional differences that split the Church of the Latter Day Saints, that they have confused both the younger generation, in which I belong, and even themselves,” Newberry told me. “They have told so many policy stories that they have come honestly to believe them themselves.”
Every time he goes back to Nauvoo and to Argyle for a visit, Newberry labors faithfully to get his records straight.
One of his paintings is of the home of Jonathan Browning, father of the inventor of the machine gun. This elder Browning was the gunsmith of the Smith-Young organization, so that the inventor, who was born in Ogden after the migration, inherited he genius. Jonathan Browning not only made and repaired guns, but he built wagons and fabricated harness. He provided most of the equipment for the great exodus. Newberry is on his trail and on the trail of John Wilson, hymn writer.
Lane Newberry, born a farmer boy, didn’t take enthusiastically to the soil. When old enough, he got a job on the Santa Fe railroad.
Saving up $250, he came to Chicago, gave $200 of it in tuition to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and here he is.
His principal teachers have been Weisenborn and Geisbert. His wife is Helen Haden, a former Kansas girl. He lives in Downers Grove. His father, active at near fourscore, is not only full of early Mormon lore (sometimes “twisted,” Painter Newberry insists, and the argument with the old man is on), but also tells proudly of the days when he was Captain Newberry of the steamer Hope in the lighter service over the rapids in the Des Moines river.
Newberry has been exhibiting paintings annually in Chicago and other cities of Illinois, and he has acquired a faithful following among the history-minded, who are legion. There are fully a million Lincoln enthusiasts, alone, in the state.