Helen Henderson Chain settled in Colorado Territory in 1871 and was its first resident female artist. But the pioneering painter eschewed such typically feminine subjects as still lifes, instead venturing outdoors to render rugged landscapes.
Born in Indianapolis in 1849 to farmer George and wife Mary Henderson, Helen majored in English and studied art at Illinois Female College (present-day MacMurray College) in Jacksonville, Ill. She graduated in 1869 and soon met future husband James Albert Chain. After marrying in Indianapolis on March 23, 1871, the couple moved to Denver, where James and business partners started a bookstore that also published volumes on local history and sold art supplies. Using a back room as her studio, Helen worked on her painting technique. But the outdoors beckoned. The Rockies particularly inspired her.
The Chains spent a great deal of time outdoors, both to take soak in the spectacular views and to ward off James’ unspecified health issues, which had forced him west for the drier climate. The husband and wife team ultimately bought a small hotel in the tiny mountain town of Buena Vista, Colo., which they used as a base for summer expeditions and as a summer camp for their bookstore.
As the couple roamed the region, Helen proved an adept mountaineer. Clad in petticoats, long skirts and corset, she summited many of state’s most famous peaks Chain became the first woman to scale and paint 14,011-foot Mount of the Holy Cross and among the first to paint 14,115-foot Pikes Peak. In her oil on ivory Pikes Peak (below) a worn wagon path in the foreground climbs into the foothills while an iridescent morning mist wreathes the distant summit.
In 1873, while on a sketching trip through Colorado, landscape artists Hamilton Hamilton and John Harrison Mills, both of Buffalo, N.Y., met the Chains and took note of Helen’s developing style. Chain also explored Yosemite, Yellowstone and Arizona Territory, where she became one of the first women to paint the Grand Canyon. By 1877 she was studying under Denver landscape painter W.F. Porter, who organized Chain’s first art exhibition. When Porter died suddenly, she took over his classes and taught from the bookstore. One of her first students was 19-year-old bookstore clerk Charles Partridge Adams, who went on to become one of Colorado’s most famous landscape artists.
The Chains befriended renowned Western artist Thomas Moran and through him met photographer William Henry Jackson, with whom they made repeated trips to New Mexico Territory and south into Mexico. Jackson and Helen Chain often worked from the same vantage points to capture the beauty of the Southwest, his photographs often informing the settings for her paintings. For example, a noted Jackson image of a historic New Mexico mission church in the early 1880s was the subject of Chain’s exquisite oil San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay-Owingeh).
The Chains spent the rest of their lives exploring and capturing what they saw in words and paint. In March 1892 the couple embarked on a two-year world tour. That October 10, as they crossed the South China Sea between Shanghai and Hong Kong on the steamship Bokhara, a typhoon sank the vessel, drowning the Chains and 123 other passengers. More than a century later, in 2014, Helen Chain was the focus of two well-received Denver retrospectives—“Helen Henderson Chain: Art and Adventure in Early Colorado,” at the central library’s Western History Art Gallery, and a 20-work exhibit at the Kirkland Museum.
Her legacy lives on with the land. WW