Plein air art history
Helen Henderson Chain, Untitled (San Luis Valley, CO), 1885, oil on linen, 20 x 39 3/4 in., Collection Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver

As a plein air painter, you are part of one of the largest art movements in history. Learn about those who have helped start this movement in some way, and be inspired to continue your own journey.

Our Plein Air Heritage

Helen Henderson Chain (1849–1892)

Colorado’s first female resident artist, Helen Henderson Chain, was born in Indianapolis and studied with Hudson River School painter George Innes before moving to Denver with her husband, James. There, they helped establish the Chain & Hardy Bookstore, which would eventually become the city’s first art gallery and publishing house.

Converting a back room of the store to a studio, she taught art classes and sold supplies. Rather than paint the ladylike florals and still life paintings expected from women artists of her day, she preferred to tackle the rugged Colorado landscape en plein air.

Dressed in corsets and long skirts, she scrambled up the area’s most notable peaks, art supplies in tow, becoming the first non-native woman to summit the 14,000-foot Mount of the Holy Cross.

A true pioneer, she also headed south to paint the pueblos of New Mexico decades before the Taos School painters would discover them.

In 1882, she became the first woman to exhibit paintings at the National Academy of Design in New York, showing two of her New Mexico pueblo scenes.

Tragically, Chain and her husband died 10 years later when their ship wrecked in a typhoon while traveling in Asia.

Watch a documentary about the plein air painting movement to learn more about its history and evolution:


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