Salt Lake’s Swan Lake
This detailed oil painting depicts a ballet performance of Swan Lake, in Utah’s very own Salt Lake Theater during the late 1800s. Utah artist, Edna Merrill Van Frank, painted the piece in 1947, displaying an example of the arts in Utah around the time that they gained statehood (1896).
Although plays were first performed in an 1849 building called the Old Bowery, performances were later moved to the Social Hall, which historians have said was the first theater that was west of the Missouri River.
Eventually, in 1861, Brigham Young, who directed the project, announced the idea for the Salt Lake Theater. Less than a year later, the theater opened. At the time it was the largest building in the territory, being completed even before the iconic Salt Lake Temple and becoming part of Utah’s identity before it was even a state.
Merrill Van Frank’s painting illustrates a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at the theater, with the audience attentively viewing and one woman in green turned towards the viewer. The woman is actually modeled after Merrill Van Frank’s best friend, Nancy Finch, who was involved in cultural organization boards in Salt Lake in the mid 1900s.
This mural of the theater is one of the more recent acquisitions of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, donated in 2018. It is one in a group of paintings that Merrill Van Frank painted for Auerbach’s department store in Salt Lake to celebrate the Utah Centennial in 1947.
The division acquired seven pieces of her’s, which include paintings social venues that were popular at the time, like Brigham Street (which is now South Temple Street), the Salt Palace, the Saltair, and Silver Lake in Brighton, though unfortunately many of her other pieces have been lost.
In addition to the Auerbach’s department store in Salt Lake, Merrill Van Frank worked at Bergdorf-Goodman in Manhattan, and the ZCMI department store in Salt Lake. Towards the end of her life she worked as a teacher at the Pioneer Craft House, a place where people can still take art classes today and where Utah’s love of the arts lives on.
Written by Michelle James