WOMEN WHO PAINTED THE WEST (PART 2): HELEN HENDERSON CHAIN

by Linda Osmundson

(Author, freelance writer, and historian, Linda Osmundson is a good friend of mine who inspires me with her knowledge of the American West. Her expertise is art of the Old West. She has written three books in her How the West Was Drawn series: Cowboy CharlieFrederic Remington, and Women's Art (the last one is my favorite).

This second post, in honor of Women's History Month, is truly inspiring. It highlights plein air painter, outdoor adventurer, and immigrant activist Helen Henderson Chain.

You can learn more about Linda and her books at: www.LindaOsmundson.com or find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.)

Helen Henderson Chain (1849-1892) was the first woman to summit Colorado’s 14er Mount of the Holy Cross – and she climbed it wearing a corset, petticoats beneath a long skirt and while carrying an art supply pack and easel. She also ascended other 14ers – Pikes, Grays, Longs and Lincoln. Her romantic, panoramic Rocky Mountain landscapes included Mount of the Holy Cross, which she painted two years after her friend Thomas Moran.

Helen’s family called her “Trot” because of her love of travel. Helen, Colorado’s first resident woman artist, moved with her new husband, James Albert Chain, to Colorado in 1871. They, along with S.B. Hardy, opened Chain and Hardy’s Parlor Bookstore on Larimer Street. They not only sold books but published volumes on history and sold art supplies.

Although born in Indianapolis, Helen spent her youth in Antioch, California, where her father served as a doctor. At the age of 13, Helen lost her mother. Her father sent her and her brother to Indiana to live with an aunt. She received a liberal arts degree at Illinois Female College (later known as MacMurray College) and after graduation, taught there for two years. She and James moved to Colorado to seek dry air for his undetermined health conditions.

Helen commandeered a back room of the bookstore for her art studio. She exhibited her works and taught art classes. Rather than adhere to the accepted women’s art subjects of still-life and portraits, she preferred painting landscapes en plein air – outdoors. She and her students traveled into the Rocky Mountains.

Helen established herself as a Denver humanitarian. While growing up in California, she acquainted herself with many immigrant communities, especially Asian. After an 1880 anti-Chinese riot in lower downtown Denver, she opened her studio and taught Chinese immigrants to read, write and speak English. She expanded the classes to other Asian cultures.

The Chains had no children so they devoted their energies to charitable causes, both independently and through Denver’s Central Presbyterian Church. According to an article in Western Art and Architecture, “They sponsored children to attend school and sent Chain & Hardy’s employees and others to the couple’s pristine mountain property in Buena Vista, Colorado, for health respites — all anonymously.” They strove to make sure their goodness did nothing for personal enhancement. The public knew little of their generosity until their funerals.

California enticed Helen to occasionally visit her father and siblings. She traveled various routes which included sketching trips into Yellowstone, Yosemite and Arizona Territory. The Chains visited New Mexico via a Pullman railroad car arranged by photographer William Henry Jackson, a friend. She was the first woman to paint the Grand Canyon. In 1882 Helen exhibited two of her Native American Pueblo paintings at New York’s National Academy of Design, another first for women,

In the 1870s and 1880s, Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibit and the National Mining and Industrial Exposition in Denver included Helen’s works. They hung alongside paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Hamilton Hamilton and other eminent contemporaries. An East Coast publisher purchased six of Helen’s Colorado landscapes for mass reproduction as chromolithograph prints.

Trot’s love of anything Asian, led to the Chain’s embarking on a two-year round the world trip in 1892.  They spent two weeks in Japan while she studied Japanese art. She wrote and painted a long scroll in the Japanese style for Denver’s Fortnightly Club, Colorado’s oldest women’s literacy club. Thankfully, she mailed the scroll home to the club. Later, the Chains boarded the steamship Bokhara to travel from Shanghai to Hong Cong. In the China Sea, a typhoon sank the ship along with the Chains, passengers and crew.

After their deaths, the Fortnightly Club members and bookstore employees cut Helen’s scroll into pages and bound it as a massive volume, covered in Japanese silk. Her art advocacy was an important factor in the 1891 establishment of the all-woman Le Brun Art Club, later called the Denver Artists Club. This club transformed into the organization which years later founded the Denver Art Museum.

Helen Henderson Chain is only one of many Colorado women artists who painted and/or sculpted the West who should be honored during March Women’s History Month. View her works here.