Bridging Past and Present, Herndon Davis Captured Denver in Paint

Painter Herndon Davis is getting his artistic due today, thanks to local historians preserving and exhibiting his depictions of Colorado's heritage.
If the late artist Herndon Davis reawakened in today's Denver, he might curse over how some of the stupendous old buildings that he painted in the early '40s had met the wrecking ball. Or marvel over how, for him, the surviving edifices are often surrounded by alien, modern landscapes.

Take, for instance, the Navarre Building, a onetime brothel, which currently houses a prominent collection of western art: Witness the nearby bridge now over the street connecting the Brown Palace Hotel with the Holiday Inn Express, as well as the surrounding skyscrapers.
Herndon Davis captured the Navarre Building, still standing across from the Brown Palace.
Davis would note how one of his old employers, the Rocky Mountain News, had bitten the dust, while his other, the Denver Post, abandoned its old familiar headquarters on Champa Street near 15th Street. How his once favorite taverns went extinct just like the region's dinosaurs, which he once fancifully painted; and that he needs a credit card nowadays, because running up bar tabs across town is no longer allowed. (Although he might be able to, once again, trade a portrait for a few drinks while sitting at a bar stool.)

If Davis wandered into the Denver Press Club, he'd be pleased to see that his mural, depicting yesteryear's stars of journalism, remains on a wall. As does the "Face on the Barroom Floor" on the floor at the Teller House Bar in Central City, painted by Davis in 1936 on a "whim" while "fortified by rum" -- a painting which later inspired a Colorado opera, and which was based on his wife's image.

An artist rediscovered

So who's singing Davis' praises today?

Until recently, it's said the Denver Art Museum wasn't even aware of his paintings, murals and drawings of notable Colorado people, architectural marvels and historical scenes, even though Davis was known in his day for his newspaper, magazine and government work, and he was exhibited in Manhattan galleries. (While still an army illustrator, Davis sometimes curried praise from a president or general by painting a likeness of them.)

While the art museum may be a latecomer to the celebration, rest assured, Herndon Davis, you're once again gaining recognition for your work. Davis' Colorado art is currently being showcased at a Denver Central Library exhibit (fifth floor) and within the new book Herndon Davis: Painting Colorado History, 1901-1962 (University Press of Colorado, 2016) by historians Craig Leavitt and Thomas Noel (a.k.a. "Dr. Colorado").

Diane Wunnicke, who produced a 1999 documentary about Davis' art and whose interest in Davis led to the genesis of Leavitt and Noel's book, calls him "a twentieth-century historian with a paintbrush."

Although Davis was a talented draftsman who "offers a window into Colorado history," Leavitt freely admits that, today, Davis is "remembered more for his subject matter than for his artistic ability."

The Tabor Grand Opera House is gone but not forgotten.In 1941, Davis painted the stately, brick Tabor Grand Opera House, which once sat at 16th and Curtis streets, until being torn down in 1964 (after Davis' death). One can imagine being on that street (which would later become the 16th Street Mall) on that rainy day, alongside the people frequenting the Tabor's shops or movie theater showing a Tyrone Power flick, back when cars still looked like trophies rather than running shoes. Noel calls the Tabor "the finest building ever done in Denver, many think" and laments that it has been "replaced today by that hideous Federal Reserve Bank."

Noel, a professor and preservationist working at the University of Colorado Denver, has written of the "tipsy artist," Davis: "He captured the people and places of the Old West transitioning to modern times."

Leavitt, with the Center for Colorado & the West at the Auraria Library, adds, "He was solidifying history during this period of time. We think of 'The Face on the Barroom Floor' as representing the West [-- but] it was done in 1936, not in 1886."

Davis' historical portraits weren't rendered with the subject sitting for him. Yet, for contemporary Coloradans, he still puts faces to familiar names through his paintings: e.g., Denver, Gunnison, Evans, Emily Griffith and Mother Cabrini. Additionally, his pen drawings sometimes look like photos that have had a photo-editing setting that might be labeled "crackly glass" added to them, a notable facet of his cross-hatching.

James Kroll, manager of the Denver Public Library's Western History/Genealogy Department, says that Davis was preserving history "before historic preservation became part of our consciousness." (The library owns many of the images displayed in both the book and exhibit.)

Herndon Davis at his desk.Kroll adds that Davis "fits into the scenario of what's happening during the first half of 20th century: That's where you have the descendants of the pioneers coming in and saying, 'Where did we come from? Who are we?'" Back then, people were so tied into the notion of being the offspring of the early Colorado settlers that newspaper headlines would announce when a "Pioneer Dies."

Davis -- a pioneer of Colorado art during the early to mid-20th century -- died in 1962 in Washington, D.C., where he'd been commissioned to paint a mural at the Smithsonian Institute. He's buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery.

According to Leavitt, "They say he had a heart attack right at his drawing table, and expired doing what he loved -- which was drawing and painting. "

"Herndon Davis: Journalist and Painter" will be on display through August at the Denver Central Library.

Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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