John Edward Thompson (1882-1945) was called the “Dean of Colorado Painters,” a title later given to Vance Kirkland after Thompson’s death.
Thompson was born in Buffalo, New York and first studied art there and then in New York City. He moved to Paris in 1902 and remained in Europe until World War I brought him back to the United States. While in Europe, Thompson traveled widely and lived for a year in Holland, but France was his base. He studied for three years with Percival Tudor-Hart, a great color scientist. Thompson saw the Paul Cezanne retrospective in Paris in 1907 and changed his own paintings as a result of Cezanne’s use of geometry and color.
When Thompson returned home to New York in 1914, a railroad agent recommended he move to Pine, Colorado, because of the fine quality of mountain light. While in Pine he painted this painting:
He returned to Buffalo with his new wife in 1915 to teach, but came back to Colorado two years later.
In Denver, Thompson made a splash when he took part in the controversial, landmark exhibition held in 1919 at the Denver Public Library. It was innocently called the Twenty-fifth Annual Exhibition of the Denver Art Association (renamed the Denver Art Museum in 1923) but was nicknamed the “Denver Armory Show,” a reference to the 1913 New York Armory Show. The 1919 exhibition was the first time modern art was collectively displayed in Denver. It caused a scandal, but Thompson persisted along with other modernists who championed the cause.
In 1923 Thompson began working with an architectural firm and completed many decorative paintings and murals in Denver office buildings and homes. From 1924 – 1929 Thompson taught at Chappell School of Art at 13th and Logan. In 1929, Chappell School was purchased by the University of Denver and Vance Kirkland was hired as Director of the school. Thompson continued to teach at D.U. until his death in 1945. Thompson is one of the many Colorado artists who worked and studied abroad and in the eastern United States and elsewhere, enriching our state with the latest international directions. He, along with Robert Graham, was a teacher of Clarence Durham (significant Denver Artists Guild painter) and Frank Vavra (one of the 15 Colorado Artists).
There is a tribute to John Thompson on Kirkland Museum’s lower level through the end of July 2011. Though he died before the formation of 15 Colorado Artists, he is Colorado’s first truly modernist painter, and we honor his contribution to modern art in our state.