Henrietta “Nettie” Bromwell (1859–1946) was a prominent artist and author active in Denver’s social scene during the early to mid-1900s. In addition to her artistic success, she was a Denver socialite. Today, Bromwell’s legacy is her writings and artwork, especially landscape paintings.
Henrietta Elizabeth Bromwell was born July 13, 1859, in Charleston, Illinois, the first child of Henry Pelham Holmes Bromwell and Elizabeth Payne Bromwell. In 1862 Henrietta became a big sister to baby Henry. Elizabeth died in January 1865, and five years later, when Henrietta was eleven, her family moved to the Colorado Territory, where Henry became a respected jurist and member of the territorial legislature. Young Henrietta was educated at home by private tutors, attaining a fine education. Her brother, meanwhile, studied to become a lawyer but died in 1881 at age nineteen. Henrietta later recorded that her father, whom she cared for and lived with for the remainder of his life, “never recovered from the loss and was never the same.”
Neither did she, it appears. Father and daughter became involved in tasks to help fill the void left by Henry’s death. Her father was a dedicated member of the Masonic Order and commenced work on a lengthy manuscript titled Restorations of Masonic Geometry and Symbolry. Later, he worked with the state legislature on behalf of women’s suffrage, enacted in Colorado in 1893. Meanwhile, Henrietta, or “Nettie” as she was known, prepared for a career as an artist, enrolling in 1885 at the University of Denver, a few blocks from the Bromwell home at 1117 Eighth Street. The curriculum consisted of charcoal and color work, with indoor and outdoor sketching exercises and the study of composition. It appears that she remained in the program for a year before earning a diploma.
The Bromwell residence stood near the bottoms of the South Platte River, where various industrial and wooded sites offered many opportunities for landscape studies. As her abilities sharpened, Nettie established a reputation as a fine local artist. The Rocky Mountain News noted, “Miss Bromwell sticks faithfully to her old hunting ground, West Denver, Arlington [Auraria], and the Cherry Creek Bottoms.” She spent her summer in the mountains, particularly Mt. Manitou, where she sketched red rocks and cedar trees.
Bromwell was part of a growing community of artists in late nineteenth-century Denver. In 1893 she and Anne Evans, daughter of Colorado’s second territorial governor, John Evans, helped to organize the Artists’ Club of Denver, which later became the Denver Art Museum. Bromwell played an important role during the group’s formative years. As club secretary, a position she held until 1897, she attended to clerical matters, acted as a jurist, and helped organize catalogs and shows.
Bromwell’s art career, though interrupted at times, spanned some fifty years—from 1885 to 1930. Unfortunately, she neglected to date many of her works and left several unsigned, making it difficult today to analyze her growth as an artist. Her paintings believed to be from 1885–93 include wooded mountain trails and farmhouses by streams—complete with clothes flapping from clotheslines and sometimes with women and children feeding chickens and doing chores. Bromwell also painted industrial landscapes. Some of these earlier works appear static and shadowless. Later, her color palette lightened, her brushstroke loosened, and shadows of blue and purple appeared in her works.
She used oils, watercolors, and pen and ink and was influenced by European landscape artists who were early proponents of “painting out in the open air.” Inspiration could also have come from American artists such as George Henry Durrie and Jasper Francis Cropsey, who focused on farmhouses, barns, haystacks, and farmers’ chores.
In 1897 Bromwell exhibited her work in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. The next year, she and fellow Artists’ Club member Charles Partridge Adams represented Colorado at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska. She also taught art in a downtown studio in Denver’s Majestic Building and wrote a brief essay titled “Sketching and Painting from Nature” for the January 1899 publication The Western Club Woman. In the article, she wrote that the French impressionist Claude Monet had an important influence on landscape painting. Her art career was secure, but personal tragedies were to interrupt her life for years to come.
On January 3, 1903, Bromwell’s father died in the home they shared. She had cared for him during his final years, and the death was a shock from which she never recovered. She is last mentioned as entering the Artists’ Club of Denver annual exhibits in 1903. Six months after her father’s death, Bromwell founded the Henry Bromwell Masonic Publishing Company to publish the book that her father had worked on for so long. In this she exhibited considerable business ability. From 1905 through 1907, she traveled widely in Colorado and elsewhere by train, visiting Masonic lodges and selling her father’s book. Bromwell’s travels were chronicled in several sketchbooks and her diary of 1905–7, with descriptions often as vivid as her paintings. The Masonic book was followed by a volume of poetry her father wrote, after which she prepared and published three genealogy-based books. Though unmarried and childless, she seemed determined to keep her family’s name alive, even at the expense of her art career.
Whatever affinity Bromwell had for the Denver art scene apparently diminished by 1917. After a private viewing of the twenty-third annual exhibit of the Artists’ Club of Denver, she exclaimed, “I shall never go to another of these! These hellish artists! How I wish I had never known any of them!” Two weeks later, however, she accepted an invitation to an artists’ get-together in a fancy home at 305 Gilpin Street in the Country Club District. She invited two members of the art club to visit her and see her sketches. She waited for days, but they failed to show up.
In 1922, at age sixty-three, Bromwell appears to have briefly revived her artistic activities, sketching twenty-two pencil drawings of Colorado scenes in a small, green leather-bound book. But she soon returned to writing, preparing the five-volume reference work Colorado Portrait and Biographical Index. Her father’s entry took up seven pages; perhaps she wished to ensure yet again that his name and accomplishments would not be forgotten.
During her final decade, without family and with only a handful of close friends, Bromwell donated her belongings to the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) and the Denver Public Library. The Society received ninety-six artworks, plus personal mementos such as family picture albums and scrapbooks, a diary, 232 books, Haviland chinaware, musical instruments, Indian artifacts, clothing, a parasol, and a voluminous amount of genealogical notes. On January 8, 1946, Nettie Bromwell died after a lingering illness, the nature of which she never disclosed. She lies buried next to her father at Riverside Cemetery in Denver.
Adapted from Maria Matthews, “The Art of ‘Nettie’ Bromwell,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 17, no. 2 (1997).