Behind the Scenes at the DAM

How a Landscape Painter Got Around Colorado in the 1800s

If weekend traffic to the Colorado mountains feels like an inconvenience to the modern traveler, put yourself in the shoes of American landscape painter Charles Partridge Adams.

In September of 1880, Adams (1858-1942) accepted the invitation of fellow artist and friend Alexander Phimister Proctor to journey from Denver to Grand Lake, where Proctor’s parents had a cabin. With visions of camping, hunting, and sketching in the great outdoors during the months that lay ahead of him, Adams set off by train to Georgetown. Next, he hopped a stagecoach to Hot Sulphur Springs, near Granby. Finally, on the third leg of the trip, Adams walked 25 miles over a period of two days to reach his destination. What is now, on a good day, a 90-minute drive was, back then, a multiple-day excursion that must have encouraged one to truly enjoy the view.

Charles Partridge Adams and Alexander Phimister Proctor on a sketching and hunting trip in the Rockies, early 1880s.

Photo courtesy of Steve Andreas.

Photo courtesy of Steve Andreas.
Charles Partridge Adams and Alexander Phimister Proctor on a sketching and hunting trip in the Rockies, early 1880s.

Throughout Adams’ years in Colorado, both the journeys and the destinations within the state inspired him as an artist. He arrived west from Vermont with his family in 1876 with the hope of curing his sister’s tuberculosis, and it didn’t take long for him to be impressed by his surroundings. Recounting an 1881 horseback trip to Estes Park, his first visit to the increasingly popular tourist destination, Adams wrote in his memoir: "I saw the Rocky Mountains as I had dreamed of them before I came West. Towering above a great valley filled with afternoon mists, their summits glistening with the pure white of winter snows. They formed an entrancing sight that I can never forget."

The Rocky Mountain bug had bitten him, and he spent decades traveling throughout Colorado, sketching and painting its mountains and valleys and their trees, flowers, and rivers during all seasons and times of day. Even in 1893, when the silver panic hit Colorado and the economy nosedived, he managed to reach scenic sites and paint by striking up a deal with the railroad. In exchange for two of his works, he and a photographer friend received a free railroad pass, a private car, and the services of a cook. Estes Park also became one of his favorite outdoor haunts—he honeymooned there and eventually built a cabin and studio he called the “Sketch Box,” where he and his family spent many summers and enjoyed the majestic view of Longs Peak from their back porch. Although the Sketch Box no longer stands, the spectacular presence of the familiar peak that inspired many of Adams’ paintings remains. 

Charles Partridge Adams, Clearing Storm Over Longs Peak, date not known. Oil paint on canvas. Dusty and Kathy Loo Historical Colorado Art Collection.

Charles Partridge Adams, Clearing Storm Over Longs Peak, date not known. Oil paint on canvas. Dusty and Kathy Loo Historical Colorado Art Collection.

From December 16 through September 8, 2013, 34 of Adams’ landscapes—watercolors, oil paintings, and sketches—will appear together in Rocky Mountain Majesty: The Paintings of Charles Partridge Adams. The exhibition will take visitors from his beloved Estes Park to the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges and to many spectacular sites between. Get out your map, lace up your hiking boots, and join us on this Rocky Mountain adventure! 

Image credit: Charles Partridge Adams, An Autumn Hillside Sunset, Edge of Middle Park, Colorado, about 1890. Oil paint on canvas. Lent by Julie and Rob Lewis.

Molly Medakovich is the master teacher for western American art in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. Molly has been at the DAM since April 2012, and her favorite exhibition that has been on view here is In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein.