Rocky Mountain High, 1861

One of the most remarkable images in the collections of History Colorado is an ambrotype by George D. Wakely of a M’lle Carolista daringly walking across a tightrope extended over Larimer Street in July 1861. Interestingly enough, Wakely was himself an itinerant entertainer who had first arrived in Denver as part of the Thorne Star Company during the fall of 1859 when the Pikes Peak Gold Rush was in full swing. Charles R. Thorne was a veteran actor and manager who seemingly had a nose for opportunity, having been among the first American entertainers to visit the California gold fields and subsequently touring on the “Pacific circuit” through Hawaii, Australia, and China in the 1850s. Thorne enlisted Wakely, his wife Matilda, and her four children from a previous marriage to perform at the National Theatre in Leavenworth, Kansas, before traveling overland to open at Denver’s Apollo Hall. Although the troupe was initially very successful, Thorne and his son skipped town one evening when business declined, leaving the other members of the company stranded. While some of the Wakely clan continued to perform at the theatre, George opened up the first photography gallery in Denver, having already practiced the trade in Chicago years before. Wakely was a prolific portraitist who also took some wonderful street photographs documenting the city’s growth in the early 1860s.

Despite her rather romantic nom d’arena, M’lle Carolista was an acrobat from Cleveland who began performing on the tightrope following the sensationally successful North American tour by the French tightrope walker Charles Blondin during the late 1850s. Although American circuses had long featured tightrope ascensions on their programs, the rather more daring and spectacular feats of Blondin included a celebrated walk across Niagra Falls in 1859. After his initial crossing, Blondin introduced a number of variations such as walking blindfolded, on stilts, pushing a wheelbarrow, and with his manager riding piggyback.

Wikimedia Commons

M’lle Carolista performed many of these same feats, billing herself as the “female rival of Blondin.” Her husband and manager was Gus Shaw, and the two traveled around the country giving exhibitions through the late 1860s. Carolista typically performed as an entr’acte in a local gallery or theatre while Shaw attempted to drum up funds from the public for a more sensational open-air exhibition . Once a certain amount of money was raised, a date was picked, the rope was installed, and Carolista would go through her routine. Afterwards Shaw essentially passed a hat around in an attempt to solicit even more compensation from the excited crowds. Such was the format of their visit to Denver in July of 1861, as M’lle Carolista performed at the Criterion Saloon while Shaw circulated a subscription for a “Grand Tight Rope Ascension,” which eventually raised $170. A rope was stretched across Larimer Street from the New York Store to Graham’s Drug Store and on July 18, 1861, a large crowd gathered to witness M’lle Carolista’s daring feats. Ostensibly sensing an opportunity to cash in on the event, the Daily Republican and Rocky Mountain Herald reported that:

Mr. Wakely, Daguerrean and Ambrotypist on Larimer street showed us some beautiful views taken of the crowd assembled yesterday to see M’lle Carolista in her daring feat of rope walking. These are valuable not only on account of representing that interesting affair, but they also present a grand view of Larimer street, the pains, etc. Call at Wakely’s and see those pretty representations.

While the article suggests multiple views were made, the only extant version is the 4.25″ x 6.5″ half-plate ambrotype reproduced below.

Courtesy History Colorado
Courtesy History Colorado

By all accounts it was a very successful exhibition, and M’llle Carolista at one point balanced on the top of her head halfway across, amongst other dramatic variations. As the paper indicated, the ambrotype offers a beautiful view of Denver’s main thoroughfare, which is lined with newly built stores, including a confectionary and ice cream parlor. More entertainingly, a seemingly worried or flabbergasted man standing with his hands on his head can be seen in the center of the foreground.carolistadetail


At right is a detail of M’lle Carolista, who seems to have dressed up for the occasion, as she paused for Wakely’s photograph. This wonderful ambrotype offers both a tantalizing glimpse into the earliest era of Denver’s history and captures something of the vibrant world of mid-nineteenth century popular entertainment in the United States.

Sources: Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers of the Far West (2000); Terry Wm. Mangan, Colorado on Glass (1975); Melvin Schoberlin, From Candles to Footlights (1941)

A Circus Treasure Re-emerges!

Frederic Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) was an American artist who spent most of his career in France, but is now perhaps best remembered for the “Orientalist” paintings that he made during a series of visits to North Africa. My own curiosity about Bridgman was stimulated after finding a reference to a painting he made of a circus that caused a stir at the Paris Salon of 1870. Bridgman was born in Tuskegee, Alabama and moved to New York City at a young age, where he worked as a draughtsman before departing for France in 1866. In Paris, he studied painting under the tutelage of Jean-Léon Gérôme and adopted his highly finished academic style. Like many other expatriate artists at the time, he traveled to Brittany during the summer and often stayed in Pont-Aven, a coastal town that was fast becoming a significant artist’s colony. Bridgman made of number of paintings during this time depicting rural Breton life, including one that was initially known as Un cirque en province. After debuting at the Paris Salon to wide acclaim, the painting was featured at the Brooklyn Art Association’s Annual exhibition in 1870, where it was again warmly celebrated. In 1875 and now titled The American Circus in France, it was included in the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition in New York City. It was at this time that the London-based Art Journal commissioned James Geraty to make a steel engraving of the painting, “which last year was the event of the National Academy Exhibition,” for the February 1876 edition of the publication.

geraty, after bridgman-american circus in france

It was also around this time that the original painting was sold to a Mr. Edward F. Rook of New York. Per the New York Times, it was subsequently auctioned off by the Fifth-Avenue Art Galleries in April 1888 for the then princely sum of $1,000. Although the buyer was unnamed, the painting later appeared in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1890. However, after that it seemed to have disappeared. Fred Dahlinger and I wanted to use the engraving as an illustration for his essay in the American Circus volume, so we made a concerted effort to find out more about the painting, with marginal success. Part of the problem we had in tracking it was the evolving title, having been variously displayed as Breton Circus, The American Circus in France, American Circus in Paris, A Circus in Brittany, Circus in the Provinces, A Circus in the Province, and American Circus in Normandy. I had actually come to think that the painting had been lost until one of my former students, who is now working at Sotheby’s, casually mentioned the other day that there had been an old American circus painting up for auction last fall. I fairly bolted for a computer and there it was, lot #5 in a 19th Century European Art auction at Sotheby’s this past November!


The painting was estimated at between $250,000-$350,000, but according to the results was either withdrawn or remained unsold. The provenance published by Sotheby’s indicated that Rook’s son was the unnamed buyer at the 1889 auction and revealed that it was subsequently gifted to Nelson C. White in 1960 and passed down through his family. It turns out that we had somehow missed the fact that it was included in a major traveling exhibition about American artists in Brittany and Normandy in the early 1980s, but that seems to have been its only public appearance since 1890. Really I was just happy to see that the painting survives as it is a rather lovely representation of a subject that greatly interests me, namely the American circus abroad.

Of course, much of the secondary literature has speculated about the veracity of the scene. According to Ilene Susan Fort’s dissertation, Bridgman wrote a letter to an unidentified correspondent on February 20, 1871 detailing how he made a model ring and tent using an old sail before going “to a neighboring city to make a study of the whole arrangement of the interior and costumes.” Fort speculates that it was a European troupe, and in his definitive history of the circus in France, La Merveilleuse histoire de cirgue (1947), Henry Thetard reproduced the engraving and described it as an English circus. In all likelihood though, this is an American circus. One obvious clue is the Native American figure sitting with his back to the ring by the bandstand, however, the simple fact that it is a tent circus with a sidewall and center and quarter poles more or less confirms that it is an American one as this was a very characteristic set up. Moreover, an American show managed by James Washington Myers (1820-1892), an all-around circus man who featured as both an equestrian and clown, arrived in France during the spring of 1867. Billing the show as “Le Grand Cirque Americain,” Myers spent the next two years performing in Paris and touring the provinces with an American-style tent circus. Below is a detail of the set-up from a herald in the Musée national des Arts et Traditions Populaires which makes it fairly clear that this was the circus upon which Bridgman modeled his painting.


I will follow up with another post about the classic elements of the circus–ringmaster, equestrians, and clowns–depicted in the painting soon, but I just wanted to highlight Bridgman’s wonderful work and clarify something of its background first.


Sources: For the definitive treatment of Bridgman’s career, see Ilene Susan Fort, “Frederick Arthur Bridgman and the American fascination with the exotic Near East,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, City University of New York, 1990); David Sellin, et. al., Americans in Brittany and Normandy, 1860-1910 (Phoenix Art Museum, 1982); David Fitzroy, Myers’ American Circus (Self-published, 2002).


Benjamin in Vegas

A recent trip to Las Vegas reminded me of the work of Walter Benjamin, a philosopher whose work I was very taken with as a graduate student. The surreal quality of the city and its surfeit of gamblers and prostitutes got me thinking about some of the more elegant and opaque passages from his unfinished Arcades Project. In Convolute O,  Benjamin wrote that “the figure of the gambler becomes a parable for the disintegration of coherent experience in modern life.” He went on to connect the gambler to the life of a worker in a capitalist society: “Since each operation at the machine is just as screened off from the preceding operation as a coup in a game of chance is from the one that preceded it, the drudgery of the labourer is, in its own way, a counterpart to the drudgery of the gambler. The work of both is equally devoid of substance.”  The gambler thus becomes a model for modern man, cheated out of experience and driven by boredom to endless repetition of an activity that never satisfies. The dehumanizing character of modernity is likewise found in the prostitute who becomes an exploited and fetishized commodity. Benjamin equates labor with prostitution, writing that “the prostitute [as] the ur-form of the wage laborer, selling herself to survive,” and a “figure of the denigration of the human body and of nature itself through the process of commodification.”  The gambler and prostitute are significant for Benjamin’s understanding of the diminution of human experience and the distortions of commodification in the modern capitalist city.Luxury shopping at Bellagio

Contemporary Las Vegas would seem to validate elements of Benjamin’s perceptive analysis of the relationship between capitalism, gambling, and prostitution. Indeed, as the place where American capitalism has perhaps found its purest expression, it hardly seems surprising that so many of those he regarded as its casualties call Las Vegas home.

Sources: Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project, Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (New York: Belknap Press, 2002)