This article is the first in our “Millions Shall Know Brother Joseph Again” series.
It is often much easier to connect with a person from the past when we know what they looked like. Photographs and painted portraits often give us important clues about people’s lives and make them feel more real to us.
One mystery that surrounds the Prophet Joseph’s life is what he really looked like.
We know from contemporary descriptions of the prophet that he was over six feet tall with a broad chest and shoulders and a strong athletic build. He had light wavy chestnut hair, a long nose, and a narrow mouth.
He had fair skin, a clear complexion, and very little facial hair. His eyes were a penetrating light blue, with long lashes and he almost always had a slight smile on his face. Many people commented on his gaze – when he looked at people, they felt that his eyes could gaze into their souls and “comprehend all worlds.”
Many people’s descriptions of the prophet are quite remarkable, so it is sad that out of the many images and portraits that we have of the Prophet Joseph Smith, there aren’t many portraits or images of Joseph that historians can prove were actually created at the time Joseph was on the earth alive.
Joseph Smith Images
There are only three images that most historians can agree on were created by people actually looking at Joseph Smith’s face.
One was an oil painting of Joseph Smith painted by an unknown artist. Another was a portrait of the prophet in a military uniform, by Sutcliffe Maudsley. The final image was the death mask of Joseph made less than 24 hours after his martyrdom, which was very accurate, but for some possible deformities caused by the prophet’s death.
Most of the likenesses that we have seen of Joseph Smith are based on one of those three images.
Joseph Smith Daguerreotypes
There are also several daguerreotypes that have surfaced over the years that are a possible match to Joseph Smith. A daguerreotype is a photograph taken by an early photographic process employing an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapor.
The first daguerreotype image was submitted to the Library of Congress by Joseph Smith’s son, Joseph Smith, III, in 1879. Joseph’s son was 12 years old when his father was martyred, so the fact that he stated that this was a photograph of his father and submitted it to the LOC as such, is significant. Despite knowing something of the provenance of this photograph, many believe it to be a photograph of the oil painting.
Another daguerreotype image is also likely a photograph of the oil painting of the prophet, which is owned by the RLDS church. This painting was his children’s favorite portrait of their father.
A third daguerreotype in possession of the RLDS church was donated to them from a relative of Joseph Smith in 1969. This image was possibly taken around 1839, just after Joseph Smith left Liberty Jail, after the prophet had lost a lot of weight. Historians disagree about whether this is Joseph Smith, and at first glance the photograph doesn’t look a lot like the images we have come to accept as being of Joseph Smith, but S. Michael Tracy wrote a book with compelling photographic analysis arguing that it is the prophet.
The Library of Congress has a fourth photograph which was donated to the Library in 1844, shortly after the prophet’s martyrdom. The photographer was traveling in Nauvoo in 1844, and several BYU professors were unable to rule out the image as being of Joseph Smith, Jr.
One final daguerreotype image was identified as Joseph Smith by an artificial intelligence program created in Great Britain. Known as the “Spiritus Photograph”, this image matches the facial features of Joseph Smith, Jr. well.
While we can’t definitively prove that any of these old daguerreotype photographs are of the prophet of the Restoration, it is interesting to look at the images and think about the impact that Joseph Smith has had on our lives.
We may have to wait until we pass through the veil before being able to look on the prophet’s face again, but until then, we can gaze at these photographs and wonder.