Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Comparing Denver & Paris in the 1870s

As Passport to Paris invites us to travel back in time through the history of French art, visitors may wonder what was happening in Denver at similar points in history. When the impressionists were bringing their easels out of their homes and into the streets, what did the streets of Denver look like?

For a large part of the history encompassed in Passport to Paris, Denver had no streets at all. In fact, the city of Denver was not even yet the haziest of dreams. It wasn’t until Francis Bonvin was working on his Still Life with a Side of Beef that a collection of log cabins sprung up on the Front Range, and General William H. Larimer thought to call this collection of houses “Denver.”

Parisians may have been settling into a flourishing period of artistic development known as La Belle Époque, but contemporaneous Denverites were struggling with the realities of forming a new city in the newly created Territory of Colorado. The fire that threatened and destroyed a large part of the burgeoning downtown Denver area was certainly not on the minds of beachgoers depicted by Eugène Boudin in his Beach at Trouville (1863). And while Denver is known for its spectacular sunsets, the idyll captured in Sunset on the Hills of Jean de Paris by Pierre-Etienne-Theodore Rousseau (1864) would have been a wonderful respite to Denver’s denizens who were dealing with the aftermath of a massive flood of the Cherry Creek River that year.

While the early citizens of the city of Denver certainly faced challenges, this time was not without its triumphs as well. The same year of the Cherry Creek flood also saw the founding of the University of Denver. While women in France were donning boater hats and dresses similar to the pieces featured in the show, Denver Pacific Railroad was completed and the inaugural train from Cheyenne pulled into Denver, thus marking the first time that the continental United States was truly traversable by rail.

While the boldest of the bold-faced names featured in this exhibition, were exploring new styles, Denver was experiencing a silver boom that brought an influx of new wealth, commerce, and opportunities to Colorado. While Claude Monet was working on his Fishing Boats (1883) Denver hosted the Mining Exhibition of 1883 that featured several of Colorado’s leading artists. And while Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was capturing the roaring Parisian nightlife, as in his work Jane Avril leaving the Moulin Rouge (1892), Denver built its famous Brown Palace, which was one of the first atrium-style hotels.

While dancer Jane Avril was enjoying extraordinary success as a dancer in Paris, the women of Colorado enjoyed their right to vote, which was won in 1893. Colorado was the second state to afford women this right we now consider inalienable. Perhaps such a major milestone was reported in the newspaper featured in Edouard Vuillard’s Reading the Newspaper (1893). But if not, Coloradans could read about it in The Denver Post, founded in 1892.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Megan Lynch was a special project assistant and interim curatorial assistant in the painting and sculpture department at the Denver Art Museum.