Herndon Davis, Colorado Artist

You’re probably familiar with the Face on the Barroom Floor, the mysterious portrait of a dark-haired lady on the floor of the Teller House in Central City. But did you know that the same artist who painted this iconic image also used his paintings to document the Colorado he knew, before it vanished forever?

The Face on the Barroom Floor. Herndon Davis, 1936. Credit: Denver Public Library Western History & Genealogy Department

Herndon Davis (1901-1962) started his artistic career as a commercial illustrator in several midwestern cities. He moved to Denver in 1936, working for the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. While in Central City to paint a series of murals for the Central City Opera House, Davis painted the Face, thought to be an image of his wife, Nita.

Over time, Davis began to notice how much Colorado, and Denver especially, were changing. Gone was the frontier West, which Davis set about to document in paintings of rickety frontier towns and old mine sites. He painted and sketched numerous portraits of notable Coloradans like Kit Carson, John Brisben Walker, and Helen Bonfils. He even painted Colorado dinosaurs.

But Davis is perhaps best appreciated for his paintings of old Denver and metro area buildings, often documenting them before they were lost. Davis painted the remaining homes of early Denver area settlers; fine Capitol Hill mansions; and famous nineteenth-century Denver buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Buildings that were the pride of nineteenth-century Denver are shown surrounded by parked cars, for sale signs, and empty lots. Yet each retains a dignified beauty that Davis was able to capture, even as the structures were about to be lost to the wrecking ball.

The Hallack Mansion, one of Capitol Hill’s largest homes, painted by Davis in 1940 shortly before the building’s demolition. It is now the site of the Cash Register Building at the corner of 17th and Sherman. Credit: Denver Public Library Western History & Genealogy Department.
The Tabor Grand Opera House, 16th and Curtis, painted by Davis in 1941 as the building fell into disrepair. Most Denver historians agree that the Tabor was the finest building ever built in Denver. Credit: Denver Public Library Western History & Genealogy Department.
This view of the Navarre building, which still stands on Tremont Street, shows the changing landscape of Denver in 1940. Credit: Denver Public Library Western History & Genealogy Department.

Davis and his art are featured in Herndon Davis: Painting Colorado History by Craig Leavitt and Thomas J. Noel (University Press of Colorado, 2016), a full-color book which you can check out from our library or on Prospector. Much of Davis’s art is now in the Collection of the Denver Public Library Western History Department, and you can view many more Davis paintings on their website.

Credit: University Press of Colorado.
Amy Zimmer

Amy Zimmer

Technical Services Librarian at State Publications Library
Amy Zimmer

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