Allen True was a family man.
Victoria Tupper Kirby says her grandfather taught her to fly fish, play chess and draw horses. She recalls less about his work in the studio than she does about True gently training the family dog. "He was a very patient man, my grandfather, with children and animals," she says.
But True was more than a loving grandpa. He was also an artist who studied under the prestigious Howard Pyle and counted N.C. Wyeth among his close friends. He illustrated books and widely read magazines such as Collier's Weekly and the Saturday Evening Post. He was commissioned to paint murals in the capitol buildings of Colorado, Wyoming and Missouri, as well as many important locales in Denver: the library, the children's hospital, several banks, the Brown Palace Hotel. He's also credited with having designed the bucking horse and rider on Wyoming license plates.
So why is it then, that when we talk about Western art locally, we speak of names like Remington, Catlin, Deas and Russell, but not True, who was actually born in Colorado Springs? Though he considered Denver his home, he was married at Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery. (He also completed one mural here: a fairy-tale homage on the walls of the Historic Day Nursery, now Early Connections Learning Centers.)
It could be that two of True's three main art forms have often been seen as more crafty than lofty: illustration and murals. Allen True's West, which opens Friday at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, challenges this notion. This 40-plus-piece retrospective charts True's career through illustrations, murals and easel paintings.
Earlier this year, a larger version of the exhibit opened up north, spanning the Denver Art Museum (which organized the show), the Denver Public Library and the Colorado History Museum. Though scaled-down, the FAC's exhibit will feature some works that didn't show in Denver, from local private collections.
True's Western roots run deep, says Kirby, speaking from her home in San Francisco. He came from a family of frontier people. His father founded the first general store in Colorado Springs, True and Sutton Grocers, which once stood on the corner of East Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street.
This heritage helped shape True's vision of the West, and his goal to establish a Western identity as an artist, says museum director and curator of American art Blake Milteer. During the time True illustrated, between 1905 and 1916, Americans saw illustration as a way to identify themselves, Milteer says: "There in the late 19th, early 20th century, we're figuring out who we are, really."
It was early American image-making, and True was at the forefront. He outfitted novels with stunning images of gunfights, river rapids and cowboys trudging through dangerous forests. In the exhibit, six books bearing True's work will stand next to their corresponding original painting.
The setup calls attention to the idea that illustration is something less than fine art. Part of that stems from the relative anonymity of the illustrator, says Milteer: In a book, images are presented in support of the author's narrative, and absorbed as an organ of the overall product. When you see the original painting, the auxiliary role expires and you see "something we associate in no uncertain terms with the artist's hand."
Yet even True's murals can assume a complementary role. One striking specimen, "The Commerce of the Prairies," presents a lively blue-hued scene with dozens of men gathered to talk, play cards, play music and trade. For all the carousing within, the work appears faded; Milteer says that True commonly used a chalky palette so the mural would blend harmoniously with the architecture around it.
"Commerce" highlights one of True's most interesting qualities. He painted a border of sharp vines and flowers around the work, the flavor of which, more than Art Nouveau, is nearly Art Deco. In one work, True merged two seemingly disparate genres together. Later murals, such as those for the Colorado State Capitol and the Denver Telephone Building, feature broad, flat planes of color and smooth, expressive lines, far from the precise action shots of his earlier illustrations and the loose brushwork of his easel paintings. His style evolved, but then again, so had his muse.
Drawing a new era
Unlike the artists before him, True saw modernity take over the region. Cowboys were no longer a memory, but a myth.
"I think he was definitely engaged with a somewhat romantic view of a West gone by that point," says Milteer. "Here's a West that has not only been settled, but is in the midst of technological advancement."
Some of that technology came thanks to electricity and the telephone company. True's mural study for 1927's "Mountain Telephone Construction" shows crews erecting triumphant telephone poles while clouds toil above a mountain range in the background. Where there might have been a wagon stands the company truck.
"[He] really depicts the development of the West, from miners to construction workers to telephone workers to Native Americans," says Kirby.
True's devotion to the subject matter, says his granddaughter, was unabridged. She remembers not only him painting pictures up on a scaffold while she was sprawled on the floor, drawing, but also him giving presentations and writing articles on the wealth of inspiration that lay in the West.
Now 70, and a singer and an artist herself, Kirby celebrates these memories in a book started by her mother, Jere True, called Allen Tupper True: An American Artist. Thanks to the book and the show, several of True's murals have been saved or restored in Denver.