JOHN EDWARD THOMPSON
“The Pool”, 1926 | 26x24 - oil on canvas
In this painting, Thompson has framed a pool surrounded by rocks and tall trees. In this painting, he uses techniques he learned on his European travels and studies where he was exposed to the new art movements of the early 20th century. Each form is expressed in a moving, writhing context. This painting from 1926, avant garde at its time, was exhibited at the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. In 1945, it was exhibited at the Thompson memorial exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, in Santa Fe, and also in Santa Barbara.
“Pine, Colorado”, ca. 1914 | 16x20 - oil on canvas
Thompson’s sensuous ethereal painting of the landscape near Pine, west of Denver, conveys his personal reaction to the soft hills and green valleys of his new home in Colorado. The style is influenced by the Impressionist work he saw in Europe. The flattened picture plane bears reference to the work of Cezanne.
Thompson’s professional career as an artist and art educator is largely associated with Denver and Colorado where he lived and worked for more than thirty years. While he may not have achieved a commanding national profile, his well-informed and unceasing efforts as the Dean of Colorado Artists in the first half of the twentieth century introduced modernity into Colorado art and art education, making it possible for all types of good art to be seen and appreciated.
Producing his first drawings at age fourteen for a Professor Berger in his hometown, Thompson thereafter enrolled in the Art Students League of Buffalo, studying with Lucius Hitchcock, one of America’s noted illustrators. During that time he befriended artist George Carlock, nephew of Elbert Hubbard who headed the famous Roycroft Colony near East Aurora, New York, where they sketched and painted on the weekends. Thompson also developed his skill in bag-punching, later earning him extra money while studying in Paris.
The four Sherwood Smith money prizes he won for his life-class drawings in Buffalo enabled him to attend the Art Students League in New York for two years, beginning in 1899, where he studied with Frank Vincent DuMond. He also won a scholarship in drawing to the Chase School of Art (also known as the New York School of Art) where he was monitor of Hitchcock’s illustration class. The money he earned from illustration work in New York helped finance his trip to Europe where in the spring of 1902 he studied with Myron Barlow, an American based in Étaples in northern France. The atmosphere of the fishing port -- also an international art colony at the time -- introduced Thompson to the color and life of France.
In November 1902 he entered the Académie Julian in Paris, working under Jean-Paul Laurens, Henri Royer and Marcel Baschet who imparted a healthy respect for sound draughtsmanship. Among his classmates were Sheldon Cheney, American author on art and the theater, and Anton Otto Fischer, German-born illustrator and later Howard Pyle’s student in the United States. During his second year abroad Thompson spent his mornings at Julian’s and his afternoons at the Académie La Palette, directed by Jacques-Émile Blanche who attracted many British and American students seeking exposure to the latest avant-garde trends. He benefitted from the critiques of Charles Cottet, Lucien Simon and Edmond Aman-Jean with whom Birger Sandzén also studied in Paris.
In the spring of 1904 Thompson left for Holland, spending the next year and a half in the painting village of Laren near Amsterdam where he met Johannes Albert Neuhuys, one of the best known painters of the Laren School, and the celebrated genre painter, Jozef Israӫls, with whom he studied. During that time Thompson had two of his paintings accepted for the 1904 exhibition of the Société des Artistes Français.
Returning to Paris in July 1905 he briefly studied again at the Académie Julian and Académie La Palette before breaking with the academic style to pursue independent study at the Louvre and other Paris museums. There he assimilated diverse art forms including classical mosaics and murals, Persian miniatures, Old Master drawings and paintings, as well as the work of Daumier, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. He visited Gertrude Stein’s salon and viewed the Fauves’ work at the 1905 Salon d’Automne and the Cézanne retrospective at the 1907 Salon that greatly influenced his own creative output. Reexamining all that he had learned from a new perspective, he began developing his own vision, melding Cézanne’s color planes with the traditional art he loved. He considered Cézanne’s work a “belated return of art to the classicism of the old masters” and their concern with structural qualities, form, line and color.
Thompson and Carlock became Thomas Hart Benton’s first two American friends after he arrived in Paris in 1907 to study at the Académie Julian, as noted in Tom Benton’s America: An Artist in America. Carlock introduced Thompson to the great English color scientist, Percival Tudor-Hart. Working in his atelier from 1905 to 1908, he received a thorough grounding in composition research and color theory and also learned to think constructively for himself. For a time he painted scintillating color landscapes at Chezy-sur-Marne near Chateau Theirry. Thereafter he lived for six months at the home of the novelist George Sand at Gargilesse-Dampierre where he produced Impressionist style canvases. After 1908 he worked independently, taking painting trips to Martigues, Aix and Marseilles in the south of France. He also traveled to England, Spain and Italy, studying important public art collections in those countries.
At the outbreak of World War I he returned to Buffalo, New York, to await a quick end to the hostilities that did not materialize. Eager to paint and intrigued by railroad folders describing the light and rugged country in Colorado, he traveled to the state in 1914 where he spent about seven months at Shaffers Crossing and Pine in the mountains west of Denver. Among the images he produced there was Pine, Colorado. Reflecting his exposure to Post-Impressionism in Europe and stylistically very different from most of the art being produced in Colorado at that time, the painting has a certain freedom and minimum of detail combined with a sound structural base characterizing his work over the next thirty years. In addition to falling in love with the Colorado landscape in 1914, he met his future wife Harriette C. Brown, whom married the following year and returned to Buffalo.
His European credentials gained him several students of Polish heritage in Buffalo – Józef Bakoś, Alexander Korda and Walter Mruk. They followed him to Denver after he relocated there with his wife in 1917. Bakoś and Mruk later moved to Santa Fe where along with Fremont Ellis, Willard Nash and Will Shuster they became two of the founding members of Los Cinco Pintores (The Five Painters), the city’s first modernist art group. In the mid-1920s Thompson comprised part of the summer school faculty at the Santa Fe Art School that included Bakoś and Mruk, as well as Andrew Dasburg, B.J.O. Nordfeldt and Walter Ufer.
Seeking to educate the public in the fine arts, Thompson and his young students introduced modernism to Colorado in 1919 at the twenty-fifth annual exhibition of the Denver Art Association. It quickly became known as the Denver Armory Show because it generated similarly vituperative polemics in the local press as did the Armory Show held six years earlier in New York. Thompson’s painting, Organization of Rocks and Trees, was ridiculed by Horace Simms in the Rocky Mountain News as reflecting “downright idiocy of conception.” Some critics in the local press even went so far as to label the artist a “Bolshevik.”
He successfully weathered the storm, going on to teach for a time in the early 1920s at the Denver Academy of Fine and Applied Arts along with Laura Gilpin, Anne Van Briggle Ritter, Arnold Rönnebeck and Paul St. Gaudens. After he resigned, a group of students – among them Donald Bear, Josephine Hurlburt, Charles F. Ramus and Frank Vavra -- followed to study under him and to assist him in executing his numerous mural commissions. He also was a member of the Denver Atelier, a group of leaders in the arts and architecture community. He used the studio as a social gathering spot visited by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., Jacques Benedict, Burnham Hoyt and others. In 1924 Thompson began teaching at the Chappell School of Art -- the successor to the Denver Academy – which the University of Denver purchased in 1928. Until his death seventeen years later he served as Professor of Drawing and Painting in the College of Fine and Applied Arts at the University. During his tenure he was one of thirty-nine Colorado artists chosen to participate in the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first Depression-era federal government program providing financial assistance to artists.
Representative of his work from the mid-1920s is The Pool, a painting exemplifying his organization of forms and rhythms that are remarkable in their movement and sense of depth. It was shown in the Sesquicentennial International Exposition of 1926 in Philadelphia, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the 50th anniversary of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. The painting was also included in the artist’s posthumous exhibition held in Denver and Santa Fe in 1945.
As an artist and teacher, Thompson reiterated: “Nature is a warehouse of unarranged beauties. To select and harmonize them in fitting backgrounds is the function of art. Building paintings is like building bridges. In both there lies a fundamental framework upon which everything depends. Anything out of harmony with the structure should be omitted.” From his extensive study in Europe he believed that an academic training was necessary to every artist’s background, so he gave his students at the University of Denver a thorough grounding in traditional fundamentals, counseling them at the same time to avoid realistically copying nature. In this connection he likewise advised art students: “Drawing is an essential of art, without which nothing can be expressed, and composition is the foundation, the mother of all phases of art.” To those who called him “old-fashioned” for his adherence to these fundamentals he replied, “It is not a question of liking or disliking a work of art. Like the things which are eternal and significant!”
Based on his skill in mural decoration previously demonstrated with the Persian Room at the home of his brother-in-law, J. Leopold Brodie in Buffalo, New York, Thompson began receiving mural commissions in the 1920s from the architectural firm of Fisher & Fisher in Denver for the private homes of Lafayette Hughes (destroyed) and Lawrence C. Phipps, the Denver National Bank (now the Colorado Business Bank) and the Parco Hotel (now the Parco Inn) in Sinclair (formerly Parco), Wyoming. For his bank mural the American Federation of the Arts in New York awarded him a medal in 1929. That same year the City Club of Denver bestowed on him its fine arts medal. He also did mural decorations in Denver for the Midland Savings Bank, International Trust Building, Symes Building, St. Martin’s Chapel-St. John’s Episcopal Church, Casanova Room (destroyed), Brown Palace Hotel, and the Polo Club (destroyed), as well as the homes of Jarvis Johnson, Judge James Owens, John O’Connor, Richard Crawford Campbell, Webb-Waring, plus the Maytag home in Colorado Springs.
In 1929 Thompson designed and painted a large Shakespeare mural for the proscenium of the Little Theater in the historic Margery Reed Hall at the University of Denver. Barely one year after its unveiling the theater’s director, Walter Sinclair, had the mural covered over with layers of black paint and it was thought to be permanently lost. However, in 2007 Dan Jacobs, curator of the university’s art collection, redis-covered the mural and had it successfully restored in the renamed Reiman Theater on campus.
Solo shows: Denver Art Museum (1941,1943; posthumous retrospective,1945); Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; New Mexico Museum of Art (posthumous retrospective,1945); Santa Barbara Museum of Art (posthumous); Western History Department, Denver Public Library (2005); Myhren Gallery, University of Denver (2010).
Group exhibitions: Société des Artistes Français and Salon d’Automne, Paris (pre-World War I); Denver Public Library (1919); Philadelphia Sketch Club (1924); Sesquicentennial Exhibition, Philadelphia (1926); Denver Art Museum (1928); Corcoran Gallery of Art (now National Gallery of Art), Washington, DC (1935); International Watercolor Exhibition, Brooklyn Art Museum; Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; Art Institute of Chicago; American Art Today Pavilion, New York World’s Fair (1939); Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver (2006).
Collections: Smithsonian Museum of American Art and Corcoran Gallery of Art (now National Gallery of Art), both in Washington, DC; Denver Public Library Western Art Collection; University of Denver; and Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver.