Thursday, July 21, 2016

A.E. Mathews views of Colorado

I spend a lot of time in the summer driving or biking around the mountains of Colorado. Colorado is one of the most beautiful places in the world and I am constantly filled with awe looking at the scenes of the state. Early visitors to Colorado were often impressed by the view of the Rocky Mountains from the plains and a few early prints were made of that scene (cf. the view of Pike's Peak from John Frémont's 1842 expedition above), but these were quite scarce and other than some scenes from the Pacific Railroad Surveys in the 1850s, there were scant images of the state up to the end of that decade.

Things changed, of course, when the Pikes Peak Gold Rush brought thousands of miners, and those who made money off of the miners, to the front range. Now there was a significant population here, which both brought new interest in and opportunities for the marketing of images of Colorado.

The first artist to really take advantage of this opportunity was A.E. Mathews (1831-1874). Mathews was born in England, but came to the United States at an early age and ended up being raised in Ohio. He worked as a typesetter, itinerant bookseller, and school teacher, with a predilection for landscape sketching. During the Civil War, Mathews served in the Union Army with Ohio troops for three years, making topographical maps and views. He also produced a number of excellent first hand images of scenes of the Civil War for a number of Cincinnati print publishers.

After the war, Mathews moved to nascent city of Denver, the main entrepot of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. Mathews arrived in Denver November 1865, when Colorado was in the process of becoming a thriving mining region. In less than a decade, Colorado had been transformed from a sparsely settled backwater to a dynamic economic powerhouse. In 1866, the towns, such as Denver, Central City and Black Hawk, were exciting communities, with a veneer of civilization only somewhat covering over the raw frontier hotchpotch of gambling dens, saloons, and brothels.

Mathews decided he could continue his artistic career by producing a series of prints of Colorado to be sold to the new citizens, and those back in the East who might be interested. This resulted in 1866 with his Pencil Sketches of Colorado. This was a portfolio of twenty-three prints (which were also sold separately) showing thirty-six scenes in Colorado. The prints were lithographed in New York by Julius Bien.

Mathews’ Pencil Sketches captures the gold rush era of Colorado, a transient and foundational moment in the history of the territory. Mathews had a keen eye and considerable skill—-likely aided by a camera lucida—-so his images are accurate, detailed and filled with a sense of the time and place that is remarkable. The variety of the views is comprehensive, showing scenes of mining and processing, the landscape, and town, especially Denver with the three street scenes of particular note.

One of the fun aspects of this series is that, in order to make more money than from just selling the prints, Mathews offered Denver business owners the opportunity, for a fee, to have their businesses named in the three street scenes of the city. It is interesting how many businesses did accept this offer, though the unnamed shops in the scenes also indicate that not all bought into this scheme.

I have always loved the way that antique prints capture a period of our history, letting us see our past through the eyes of those who were there then, and there are no better views of from the past of Colorado than those by Mathews.


  1. Each print tells such an incredible story - what a find! I felt like I was taken back in time :)