DU Alumni / Magazine Feature

1901 alum was a master of Western art

Jicarilla Spring, 1913, by Allen Tupper True. Oil on canvas. Photo: Denver Art Museum

The work of Western artist Allen Tupper True (attd. 1899–1900) ranged from the very small to the very large, and a new exhibit at three different Denver-area art institutions shows just how big his scope was.

“Allen True’s West” — running through March 28 at the Denver Art Museum (DAM), the Denver Public Library and the Colorado History Museum — features illustrations, paintings, murals and more by the Colorado native and DU alumnus who was once among the best-known Western artists in the country.

The exhibit divides the artist’s work into three categories at three locations: Illustrations are on display at the library; murals (and studies and photographs of murals) are at the history museum; and True’s fine art paintings are at the DAM.

The exhibit’s three curators are DU alumni as well: Peter Hassrick (MA ’69) at the DAM, Alisa Zahller (MA art history ’97) at the Colorado History Museum and Julie Anderies (MA art history ’06) at the library.

Born in Colorado Springs and raised in various parts of the West — including Denver and southern Texas — True began his career shortly after leaving DU in 1900. Impressed with his artistic aptitude, his family sent him to the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. After a year there, True applied and was accepted to Howard Pyle’s school of illustration in Delaware, where he began creating Western-themed illustrations for books and publications such as The Saturday Evening Post and Outing Magazine.

But True’s heart remained in the West, says Hassrick, director emeritus of the DAM’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art.

“Even though he was studying in Wilmington, Del., he writes his parents on a number of occasions and says, ‘Someday I’ll come back and I’ll make a play for being the great Western painter,’” Hassrick says. “‘I’ll make our Western heritage that I’m so proud of the heart of my creative production.’”

And while illustrations paid the bills, True started setting his sights a little higher.

“Early on, he begins to get a little frustrated with that printed page thing because it’s so ephemeral,” Hassrick says. “People would open the page and read it and see his picture and then flip the page, and that would be the last they’d ever see of it. He wanted something that would endure.”

So True turned first to easel paintings — more than a dozen of which are on display at the DAM as part of the exhibit — and then to murals, one of the most enduring and public art form of the first half of the 20th century.

“In the scheme of things, as artists go, mural painters were at the top and illustrators were at the bottom,” Hassrick says. “And in between were fine art painters — portrait, history, landscape. So he started at the bottom, although he didn’t necessarily think of it as the bottom — he thought of it as his training and as a stepping stone to ultimately becoming a painter of murals.”

And a painter of murals True became, decorating the state capitols of Colorado, Wyoming and Missouri, the Denver City and County Building, the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Building and many other structures.

Expanding on the Western motifs that characterized his illustrations and paintings, True developed different concepts for different spaces. For the Colorado capitol, he created eight pieces that showed the importance of water in the West, from a trio of gold panners to a modern hydroelectric plant. Colorado National Bank got Indian Memories, a tribute to Native American life prior to the arrival of European settlers.

“Illustrations reach a number of people, but the impact of mural work in architectural settings — as public art and the messages they convey — he believes that to be the most important medium to him,” Zahller says. “He sees them as being a permanent fixture that are part of the building that people can see and experience and learn from.”

As part of the “True West” exhibit, curators developed a self-guided walking tour that leads visitors to many of True’s murals throughout downtown Denver.

Another event around “Allen True’s West” includes a curator-led tour of all three venues on Jan. 23. The event is a fundraiser for DU’s School of Art and Art History; it is sponsored by volunteer membership organization DU ART!

A one-hour documentary on True’s life also is running on public television station KDBI, Channel 12 in Denver.

For more information, visit www.history.denverlibrary.org/AllenTruesWest.

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