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Going, going, gone 

The art that got away and some that made it home to the Springs

click to enlarge Thomas Morans Mount of the Holy Cross.
  • Thomas Morans Mount of the Holy Cross.

Cathy Wright remembers the phone call. The longtime Fine Arts Center curator was in a meeting when it came in the fall of 1987. On the line was Jasper Ackerman, a wealthy, irascible Colorado Springs banker. He wanted to know whether the FAC would be interested in taking one of his paintings on loan for an indefinite period. There was, Wright recalls, stunned silence. Everyone in the room knew the painting. It was Thomas Moran's "Mount of the Holy Cross."

In 1871, Moran, arguably the greatest 19th century painter of the American West, learned from his friend, expedition photographer William Henry Jackson, of a Colorado mountain consistently and miraculously adorned with an immense cross of virgin snow.

Three years later, he journeyed to Mount of the Holy Cross, deep in the central Rockies, and sketched it. The subsequent painting was exhibited in 1875 in a New York gallery, and ultimately acquired by Dr. William Bell of Manitou Springs. Bell, friend and partner of Colorado Springs' William Jackson Palmer, brought the painting home to his mansion, Briarhurst, where it hung in an alcove specially created for Moran's great work.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of this painting. It's one of three iconic masterpieces of Western scenes that Moran created in the early 1870s. The other two, "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" and "The Chasm of the Colorado," were purchased by Congress, and now hang in the nation's Capitol.

"Mount of the Holy Cross" left Colorado Springs with the Bell family, and passed through several hands in the next century. Ackerman acquired it in the late 1960s, and had it hung for nearly 20 years at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Now, it seemed, the masterpiece was coming home to Colorado Springs.

"We were excited," Wright recalls. "We couldn't believe that the painting was actually on a truck headed for Colorado Springs when Ackerman called."

Surely, the FAC would move heaven and earth to permanently acquire the Moran -- a great painting, a Western painting, a Colorado painting, and one intimately involved with the history of Colorado Springs.

But the museum dawdled. Ackerman wanted cash; the FAC wanted it to be a gift, or at least a bargain purchase. There was no one like present-day museum director Michael DeMarsche on the scene to persuade donors that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and no wealthy visionaries on the board ready to write the big checks.

So years passed, with the painting hanging in limbo at the FAC. One day, a famous visitor was seen strolling its galleries -- none other than Gene Autry, the fabulously rich singing cowboy of a bygone era. Autry was interested in a single painting. A few days later, Jasper Ackerman brusquely informed the FAC that Moran's "Mount of the Holy Cross" was sold.

click to enlarge John Singer Sargents incandescent portrait of General - Palmers daughter Elsie.
  • John Singer Sargents incandescent portrait of General Palmers daughter Elsie.

Today, the painting hangs in the Museum of the American West, part of the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. And there, apparently, it will stay.

Since the 19th century, dozens -- even hundreds -- of significant works of art have passed through the Pikes Peak region. Many were created here, some came here by happenstance and still others, like "Mount of the Holy Cross," are part of our history.

But no matter how important they may be to Colorado Springs, such paintings can be gone in 60 seconds -- loaded on a semi and headed to other museums or private collections.

Over the decades, we've lost some and we've gained some. Works that many believe belong in Colorado Springs are long gone and far away. Conversely, works that ought to be elsewhere grace the walls of our own museums.

Here are some of their stories -- of bitter loss, unexpected gains, brilliant coups and dismal incompetence.

If ever a woman epitomized our nation's aristocracy, it would be Springs native Varuna Webb Stewart.

Granddaughter of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and daughter of tuberculosis treatment pioneer Dr. Gerald Webb, Marka (as she was known) was keenly interested in the Fine Arts Center.

In the early 1960s, Marka learned that painter John Singer Sargent's incandescent portrait of General Palmer's daughter Elsie, painted at Palmer's English estate in 1902, belonged to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. She called up the board chair of the small art museum and asked whether there was any possibility of the FAC obtaining the painting.

After much hemming and hawing, the Albright-Knox board agreed to an exchange. If Marka would find and purchase an equivalent Sargent, they'd trade. Marka demurred, as finding such a painting might take years. Finally, the New York museum consented to a cash deal: $30,000 and the painting was hers.

Graciously, the Buffalo museum gave Marka nearly a year to raise what then was a substantial sum. It took her over a year, but raise it she did, reaching into her own pocket and those of dozens of her friends. Today, Sargent's "Miss Elsie Palmer" is the FAC's signature piece, a great work by the greatest American portraitist.

click to enlarge Artus van Briggles Mermaid
  • Artus van Briggles Mermaid

And what would it cost today? It recently was reappraised at more than $2 million.

At the same time that Sargent was creating his brilliant portraits, Colorado Springs potter Artus van Briggle was earning acclaim. His revolutionary vessels, which integrated sculptural fluidity with functionality, caused a sensation at the Paris Salon of 1902 and the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904.

Rich, subtle glazes gave his ceramics a simplicity and purity that, to his contemporaries, recalled the master potters of the Sung Dynasty.

In July 1904 van Briggle died, struck down by tuberculosis at 35. His widow and partner, Ann, carried on his work for a few years, but eventually remarried, moved to Denver and sold the pottery.

Then, as now, the pottery itself carried the van Briggle name. But for decades -- until its recent revival under present owner Craig Stevenson -- the company marketed cheerfully schlocky wares that were very unlike van Briggle's transcendent masterpieces.

A few years after his death, van Briggle was forgotten. At the time, Arts and Crafts ceramics were neither honored nor collected. They were seen, at best, as irrelevant footnotes in the history of American decorative arts.

The pots themselves vanished -- consigned to attics and basements, used as doorstops or simply thrown in the trash. And many of the molds, records and original ceramics that remained in the pottery building at the corner of Uintah Street and Glen Avenue were destroyed in the flood of 1935. The pottery long since has relocated to the old Midland Terminal building at 21st Street and Highway 24.

Enter Colorado Springs resident Lois Crouch. Open-minded and inquisitive, Lois was poking around in an antiques shop in Paris in 1966 when she came across a magnificent vase, unlike anything she'd ever seen.

She found, to her astonishment, it was a van Briggle, originally fired in the potter's backyard kiln a few blocks from her own North End home. She was hooked, and for the next 30 years she sought out pieces of early van Briggle.

click to enlarge Laura Gilpins Corley Road Tunnel.
  • Laura Gilpins Corley Road Tunnel.

For a while, Crouch had the field to herself, and picked up monumental pieces for a few dollars at antiques shops and junk stores throughout the country. But in the late '70s, van Briggle's work again began attracting attention. Today, a piece from the 1901-04 period can command tens of thousands of dollars, and it'd be impossible to assemble a collection such as Crouch's. The great pieces are gone, locked away in the cabinets of rich collectors or hidden in the halls of institutions.

Not so with Lois' pots. In 1981, Crouch donated her entire collection to the Pioneers Museum, where it joined many significant pieces already in the museum's collection. The van Briggles are on permanent display, and comprise the finest and most comprehensive collection in the world. They're back home and, thanks to the museum's free admission policy, yours for nothing.

In 1941, Colorado Springs native Laura Gilpin, arguably one of the finest photographers of the American West, printed a carefully composed still life of three ceramic vases. One of them clearly was a van Briggle.

Thousands of Gilpin's photographs documented Colorado Springs from the 1920s to the 1940s. And when she closed her commercial studio here and moved to New Mexico in 1945, she was succeeded by photographer Myron Wood. From the '50s until his death in 1998, Wood took up the task of recording the life of Colorado Springs.

Both Gilpin and Wood were prolific and enjoyed commercial success. Each took thousands of photographs and kept negatives of every image they ever created. Their archives are extraordinarily significant to this city. So what happened to them?

In 1995, Wood agreed to sell his entire photographic archive -- more than 150,000 negatives, contact sheets and prints executed between 1947 and 1995 -- to the Penrose Library. It's a treasure house, full of photographs of the old Burns Opera House before its thoughtless demolition in 1965; of our vanished Victorian downtown; of the slow, peaceful, not-so-prosperous little city of the '50s.

But if Wood's archive is important, Gilpin's may be more so.

A student of the seminal American teachers Clarence White and Alfred Stieglitz, Gilpin is widely considered one of the finest photographers of the 20th century. Her photographs, not just of Colorado Springs but also of Mesa Verde, Chichen Itza in the Yucatan of Mexico, the Southwest and particularly the Navajo people, are both rare and expensive.

Curiously, her archive is neither here nor in her adopted state of New Mexico. It's at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Why?

click to enlarge Photograph by Frederick Stehr.
  • Photograph by Frederick Stehr.

Mitch Wilder, director of the Fine Arts Center from 1947-53, long had supported Gilpin. After his stint here, Wilder became director of the Amon Carter, and their friendship continued. Under Wilder's leadership, the Amon Carter sponsored several exhibitions of Gilpin's photographs.

After Wilder left Colorado, the FAC simply ignored Gilpin and her work.

A fiercely independent woman, strong and competent, Gilpin never married, and never was involved with a man. Her attachments were to other women: lifelong companions Brenda Putnam and Betsy Forster, and an early mentor, Ann Simon.

Did she feel uncomfortable and marginalized in her conservative native city, or did she sense that the powers-that-be at the FAC didn't take her seriously as an artist? Gilpin died a quarter of a century ago, so we'll never know. What we do know is that little of her work -- a handful of prints at the FAC and Fountain Valley School, and in private collections -- remains in Colorado Springs.

Gilpin and Wood were professionals who devoted their lives to photography. Frederick Stehr simply was a gifted amateur. Like so many others at the time, Stehr came to the dry climate of Colorado Springs in 1885 seeking to beat tuberculosis. He soon regained his health and spent the next 20 years in the Pikes Peak region.

Described as an "outgoing and fun-loving bachelor" by current Pioneers Museum curator Katie Gardner, Stehr took up photography as a hobby and recorded the antics of his friends and family.

His photographs never were published, and none of his prints have survived. Stehr returned to New York in 1906, where he died 50 years later. He had no children, and his estate passed to a niece.

Decades later, more than 450 glass plate negatives were found, still in their original boxes, in the attic of Stehr's house in the Adirondacks. Stehr's grandnephew contacted the Pioneers Museum. Would they be interested?

Registrar Dave Ryan flew out to retrieve these fragile artifacts, which somehow had survived for more than a century. They were perfect, neither faded nor damaged. The museum subsequently printed scores of images, which are beautifully composed, bright and sharply focused, as if they'd been created yesterday.

click to enlarge Myron Woods photo of the old Antlers Hotel in - downtown Colorado Springs.
  • Myron Woods photo of the old Antlers Hotel in downtown Colorado Springs.

These photographs little resemble the stiff, formal, somber, sepia-toned images that we associate with 19th-century photography. Like impressionist paintings, they overflow with merry, restrained sexuality, with youthful joie de vivre.

Of all the art created in the region since Europeans first ventured into the Rockies, Samuel Seymour's 1820 "View of James Peak" stands out.

Seymour was one of 22 members of Maj. Stephen Long's early expedition to the Front Range of the Rockies. The subject of his painting, James Peak -- named after the first man known to have scaled it, expedition botanist Edwin James -- has a different name nowadays: Pikes Peak.

So Seymour's watercolor is both the first painting of the mountain that defines our city, and the first painting created by a European in the Pikes Peak region.

For decades, "View of James Peak" has been part of the Karolik collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Rarely, if ever, exhibited, it's simply one of the 450,000 objects in the museum's collection, of which less than one half of one percent are on view at any given time.

Next year, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Zebulon Pike's expedition to the Southwest, the Pioneers

Museum is mounting a major show. Gardner asked the MFA to loan the "View of James Peak" to Colorado Springs for its duration.

The Boston museum officials refused, claiming they are beginning, at the end of this year, a major renovation program. They will not, they said, be lending from their collection until it's finished, some years hence.

Exasperated, Gardner pointed out to a reporter that the Pioneers Museum asked to borrow "View of James Peak" last November, a full 15 months before the renovation is scheduled to begin.

click to enlarge Charles Craig painting.
  • Charles Craig painting.

And, according to a story in The New York Times, the MFA has not necessarily refused to loan works from its collection. In fact, it recently agreed to rent out a group of impressionist masterpieces to the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

"We're a fully accredited museum, but the [Boston Museum of Fine Arts] probably thinks we're in a soddie somewhere on the prairie," Gardner notes.

MFA curators did not return repeated phone calls seeking clarification.

But is there such a thing as a regional heritage? Should some artwork stay in a particular place forever?

After a quarter of a century with the FAC, curator Wright doesn't think so.

"I've always been against such arguments," Wright says. "If we followed them [to their logical conclusion], then all of the Native American artifacts in England and Europe ought to be repatriated, and all of the European/Chinese/Indian art in American museums should go back, too."

Wright's glad that the FAC has Elsie, and sorry that it couldn't keep "Mount of the Holy Cross." But she says that's OK -- maybe, she suggests, it's just fine that the Moran painting is in Los Angeles, where millions of people will see it. And she's thankful that the FAC has fine pieces that perhaps "belong" somewhere else.

Ours is, after all, a transient city, so why should art be any different? We benefit from newcomers, and sometimes we lose the old settlers. We mourn our losses -- and we welcome our prodigal sons and daughters when they return.

And you never know what the morning

may bring, as the Pioneers Museum staff discovered a few weeks ago, when they opened a carefully wrapped package bearing a Florida postmark.

Inside were two paintings by Charles Craig, a nationally famous artist who lived and worked in the Springs at the turn of the last century. A brief note accompanied the two pieces: "My mother, who died recently, wanted you to have these two paintings of Pikes Peak."

Welcome home.

  • The art that got away and some that made it home to the Springs

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