The Murals of Allen True

If you’ve ever been inside the State Capitol, the Brown Palace Hotel, or the Telephone Building on 14th Street, you’ve seen the work of 1930s artist Allen True. Recently, another of his murals has been restored in Capitol Hill’s Tammen Hall. He’s also the artist who designed the iconic bucking bronco and rider featured on the Wyoming license plate. His work appears in three State Capitols — Colorado, Wyoming, and Missouri.

Allen True, Paschal Quackenbush, and an unidentified artist at work on murals for the State Capitol. Photo courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Who was Allen True? Born in Colorado Springs in 1881, True attended Denver’s Manual High School and then left to study at a series of East Coast art schools, returning to Denver in 1909. In the meantime, he had made a name for himself as an illustrator, with work appearing in Scribner’s, the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Weekly, and other popular magazines of the era. His interest turned to murals around WWI, when he worked on an installation in San Francisco. Back in Colorado, over the next several decades he painted murals that featured the people and places of the Old West. Many of his murals explore themes related to the buildings where they were housed. His 1937 murals at the Brown Palace, for example, depict the history of travel. Likewise, murals at the Telephone Building (1929) tell the story of the development of communications in the West. True also worked with artist Paschal Quackenbush to restore the murals at the Central City Opera House and nearby Teller House. Frequent collaborators, True and Quackenbush were both members of the Denver Artists Guild and are profiled in Stanley Cuba’s book The Denver Artists Guild: Its Founding Members, An Illustrated History (History Colorado, 2015) which is available for checkout from our library.

Hoover Dam designs by Allen Tupper True
One of Allen True’s floor designs at Hoover Dam.

True especially had an interest in Native American cultural heritage. Unlike some other artists who portrayed Native Americans as savages, True sought a more accurate and respectful portrayal, spending years studying Native culture and artifacts. True’s set of murals for the Colorado National Bank building, entitled “Indian Memories” (1921-26), depict Native American life in the days before the coming of the white man. In 1934, during the Great Depression, True went to work for the U.S. Department of the Interior, designing artwork and decorative schemes for dam projects including the Hoover Dam and the Grand Coulee Dam. He designed the famous Art Deco floor mosaics at the Hoover Dam, which take inspiration from Southwestern tribes’ pottery and sand paintings.

More on Allen True can be found The Denver Artists Guild as well as in the article “Seeing Allen True: The Life and Art of an American Muralist,” by Alisa Zahller, Colorado Heritage, Sept/Oct 2009. Both can be checked out from our library. History Colorado also produced an hour-long documentary, Allen True’s West, which is available to view online. Finally, check out the Colorado State Capitol Art and Memorials website for more information on True’s murals in the Capitol rotunda.

The completed mural in the State Capitol. The murals feature poetry by Thomas Hornsby Ferril.