True Western spirit alive in state Capitol

By Jimy Valenti

The series of Western paintings encircling the first floor rotunda of Colorado’s State Capitol are impossible to miss; yet the artist has been easily forgotten.

Allen True’s painting of the exploration of the North American West displayed inside Colorado’s state Capitol.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

Before Capitol visitor guide Edna Pelzmann left brochures enlightening visitors as to who painted these massive works, people rarely found the artist’s elusive signature: “Allen True 1940.”

“True has been lost in the dust pale of history,” said local True historian, Jim Barrett.

Denver citizens most likely have seen True’s work in other Denver landmarks as well, such as the Colorado National Bank, the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Building and Civic Center Park without ever knowing who painted them.

Born in Colorado Springs in 1881, Allen Tupper True was one of the most celebrated artists in the Rocky Mountain region. During the first half of the 20th century, True excelled as an illustrator, painter and finally as the West’s most prolific muralist.

“For the first half of the 20th century Allen True was the most famous artist in Colorado,” said Peter Hassrick, director emeritus of the Denver Art Museum’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art. “He was a hometown boy and became Denver’s fixture artist and a household name.”

The name Allen Tupper True may have been misplaced by history, but this Denver artist left his mark throughout the West. Murals depicting Western expansion grace Wyoming and Missouri’s state Capitol buildings. Even the bucking bronco emblazoned on Wyoming license plates was designed by True.

Denver’s native son fell out of favor with the art world, according to Barrett, because the 1940s gave way to abstract expressionism and New York flourished as the center of the art world. True’s pastoral Western scenes became passé.

One of True’s finest accomplishments, according to Barrett, is his work for the Colorado State Capitol. Design began in 1934 when True was commissioned by the Colorado Public Works Administration relief program. True wanted to create a public work signifying the West’s grand theme.

This project fell through, but after five years and with the help of Claude Boettcher — the son of Denver businessman Charles Boettcher — and Boettcher Foundation funding, True’s vision found new light in the State Capitol and was completed June 6, 1940.

True dreamed of doing a series of murals in Colorado’s Capitol for more than three decades. According to Hassrick, True wrote a letter to his father in 1904 stating this desire.

“Someday I want to paint paintings that are worthy of the legacy in which I inherited and I want those paintings to be at the Colorado State Capitol,” said Hassrick paraphrasing True’s 1904 letter to his father.

The murals were to be reflective of the American West. After much debate, True and his contemporaries decided water was the West’s unifying and restrictive thread.

“Here is a land where life is written in water,” reads the first line of Thomas Hornsby Ferril’s poetic introduction to the work. Together, Ferril, who later became Colorado’s poet laureate, and True created a poetic and visual history of water.

“The State Capitol series is a culmination of what he [True] was trying to do, it’s public art, it’s storytelling and it’s permanent,” Barrett said.

True was a naturalist and an outdoorsman. Although he recognized water’s central role in Western life, a commodity now the subject of state-to-state lawsuits and constant anxiety, True was still a product of a time with an incredible American optimism in industry.

Industrial expansion in the American West is depicted inside Colorado’s state Capitol by Colorado native Allen True.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

“These murals echo the idea that everything was hunky dory and that things will evolve and that everything will be good,” said Barrett. “He had a great faith in technology and mankind.”

True graduated from Manual Training High School (known today simply as Manual High School) in Northeast Denver. He studied briefly at the University of Denver before enrolling at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. True rapidly advanced as an illustrator and in 1902 was selected by Howard Pyle to join Pyle’s exclusive school of illustration in Wilmington, Del.

Pyle was a leading American illustrator in the early 1900s. His students were immediately tapped for illustrations in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Scribners.

Pyle’s greatest influence on True, according to Barrett, was that “he should paint what he loves and believe in what he painted.”

“[Under Pyle] True went through a sort of philosophical washing machine and out of it he figured out how much the West meant to him. He discovered just how much Native Americans and the Western landscape really meant to him, “ Barrett said.

At the time, illustrators were nearly rock stars, working with writers to develop art for magazines. True illustrated for nearly eight years, until he grew tired of producing art only for it to be thrown away with each turn of the page.

True wanted to shift from the ephemeral world of illustration to something with greater permanence. He made a mental shift, according to Barrett, and a career commitment to being a muralist.

True moved back to Colorado in 1909, where he practiced as an easel painter and drew positive critical reviews. In 1911 True finally received his first private mural commission and in 1912 his first public commission. True worked in illustration until 1915 and continued his easel paintings until about 1917. He spent the remainder of his life as a muralist until his death in 1955.

“True wanted to contribute to the permanent esthetic of a community, of a city,” said Barrett.

Ironically it’s True’s murals that have faced the greatest threat of extinction. Victoria Kirby, True’s granddaughter and co-author — with her mother, Jere True — of True’s biography, Allen Tupper True: An American Artist, ($25, Museum of the Rockies/University of Washington Press) has feared for years that True’s murals would be torn down.

“Anyone can go to the library and find True’s illustrations, and even his easel work has been well preserved, but it has been his murals our family has feared for most,” said Kirby.

True’s murals of Western settlers and gold miners inside the Capitol have remained untouched by time or renovations, unlike other True murals throughout Denver.
Photo by Brad Jones/The Colorado Statesman

Owners of three buildings in Denver have either painted over or destroyed several True murals while others have been lost in storage or sold to private collectors.

Jere True began the Allen True biography in hopes of gaining her father’s long overdue recognition, and hoping to preserve his work. Kirby finished her late mother’s project in time for “Allen True’s West”, a citywide exhibit currently at the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Public Library and the Denver History Museum. Each venue showcases different phases of his career and will run through March 28, 2010.

“When I saw my grandfather’s name in lights outside the Colorado History Museum I about came to tears,” said Kirby. “I wished my mother was alive to see it.”

Kirby said she now believes that with the exhibits, which will travel around the U.S. in a limited capacity — and the release of True’s biography — that people will finally recognize, appreciate and save True’s work for generations to come.

“How can a city, where he grew up, not recognize one of the leading public artists of the first half of the 20th century, who today still has an enormous impact?” asked Barrett. “His work is all here, yet nobody knows about him. Everybody goes to the State Capitol and sees the murals but nobody knows who did them.”

True’s Denver Murals

Denver City and County Building
1437 Bannock Street
Accessible any weekday

Voorhies Memorial, Civic Center Park
100 W. 14th Ave.
North side of park
Accessible any day

Greek Theater, Civic Center Park
100 W. 14th Ave.
South side of Park
Accessible any day

Colorado State Capitol
200 East Colfax, at Broadway
Accessible weekdays only

Brown Palace Hotel
321 17th Street
Accessible any day

Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Building
14th and Curtis streets
Two exterior lobbies accessible any day

Colorado National Bank
17th and Champa streets
Accessible by appointment