Editor's note: The following article was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on August 5, 2005 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Mr. Leet directly through either this phone number or address:


Charles Atherton Cumming: A Deep Root for Iowa Art

By Richard Leet



In the forward of the book Iowa Artists of the First Hundred Years, published in 1939, Iowa's all-time best-known artist Grant Wood wrote:

For a long time, it was generally thought that Iowa's only proper field was the raising of corn and hogs, and that creative art, particularly graphic and plastic art was the last thing in the world to look for in this Midland state. This conception, we now realize, is false. If Iowa has not produced a phenomenal number of artists, it has at least produced its share, and their contribution is well worthy of general note.[l]

The attitudes and conceptions to which Wood alluded in 1939 are still commonplace, and facts still support his statement: Iowa has produced many accomplished artists whose recognition and influence range from local to international. Among those to have major impact on the Midwestern art scene was Charles Atherton Cumming.

Cumming was born March 31, 1858 in Rochester, Illinois to parents of French and Scottish descent: George Paxton Cumming, a farmer and school teacher who died in the Civil War, and Eliza Ellen Atherton. As a youth, Charles exhibited an early affinity to visual art. He learned fancy writing from a minister's wife and won first prize for one of his drawings at a county fair.

Cumming attended Weatherfield High School in the Spoon River, Knox County area of Illinois. He studied briefly at Reading College Academy in Abingdon, Illinois, before enrolling at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. Cumming displayed such an interest in art that he was encouraged to transfer to the Chicago Academy of Design (which later became the Art Institute of Chicago). There he studied with Lawrence C. Earle from 1878-79, before returning to Iowa and Cornell in 1880.

According to the authors of Charles Atherton Cumming:

Iowa was still pioneer country when Charles Atherton Cumming began his teaching career at Cornell College, Mt. Vernon. ..People had little opportunity to learn about art and there was nothing to stimulate and encourage the young men and women who wanted to study art -- no galleries, art museums, art centers or art schools. Art was not considered a necessity. [2]

Three state schools (college and university level) had been established in Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls, and at least nineteen smaller schools offering two- and four-year degrees (most church-affiliated) dotted the state.

When Cumming returned to Cornell, he:

applied for a position as an art teacher, not as one of the regular faculty but for a place to teach with the College as a background of influence. The College agreed to rent him a basement room for a studio, the janitor moved out old boxes and rubbish, and with his own equipment, and supplies, he was in business. His salary was to be the fees he collected from his art students. So successful were the Cumming art courses that in a few months the College president ordered rooms on the second floor fitted up for his studio and before long he was on a regular salary. [3]

In 1885, the young artist/instructor took leave and traveled to Paris to study at the famed Académie Julian with Boulanger and Lefebvre. Cumming was inspired by the masterpieces of the Louvre and those seen in the Luxembourg galleries. He returned again to Paris in 1889, this time to study with Doucet and Constant.

Cumming copied the works in French galleries and painted the countryside of Brittany, which, he concluded, had many similarities to the atmosphere and landscape of Iowa. He contemplated the lives of the people he met, observing their social, economic, and health conditions. The experience effected many of Cumming's life's attitudes and activities. After witnessing much drunkenness and its ill effects on communities, he became a champion of abstinence, known as "the American who drinks water."[4]

These two visits to Europe deepened Cumming's understanding and appreciation of history and the roots of many of American traditions.

Back at Cornell, Cumming began to conduct weekly classes in Cedar Rapids, and to exhibit his work both there and in Iowa City. He declined the obvious path for most American artists. In 1895, rather than relocate to New York, which was even then a cultural and artistic mecca, Cumming moved to Des Moines, at the invitation of the Iowa Society of Fine Artists and the Des Moines Women's Club, to become director of the struggling Des Moines Academy of Art in its fifth year.

The Academy was located, apartment and studios, in the fifth floor attic of the YMCA at the corner of Fourth and Grand.

The academy promised to 'furnish a thorough education in drawing and painting, thereby fitting the student for any branch of the pictorial art. Great care is taken to direct each one in such a way as to develop the best natural inclination and ability.'
The plan for teaching art 'is the same as that of the French atelier. It is a common workshop where its members may receive criticism and instruction certain days each week. Students may choose their own medium and subject for study, but are expected to stay within the limits of their ability.'
Instruction would be given in linear perspective and all students were invited to take part in the composition class -- 'a thorough course in drawing and composition is an absolute necessity to persons who desire to do illustrating.' They were encouraged to do as much sketching out-of-doors as possible and bring their work to the studio for criticism. [5]

The Academy was moved to a new location in 1899, and became The Cumming School of Art in 1900.

About this same time, plans were developing for a new public library; Cumming put forth a proposal to include a space for the school. The idea was approved and when the library opened in 1903 he leased the upper story; the Cumming School of Art flourished. Remnants of the apartment and studio space can still be viewed today.

The library, or at least its grounds, attracted additional, if not unusual, clientele. The Des Moines Tribune reported in 1905 that:

One public-spirited citizen has been pasturing his cow in the shade of a tree on 'the library lot.. .. And within the radius of its tether strap, the bovine has wandered for the past week making a ring not unlike that seen in an outlying prairie after a circus has used it.' Patrons of the library first thought the cow had been tied there by the art students in Professor Cumming's art school for the purpose of sketching real life. But when it was observed day after day, it was concluded that there must be another reason. [6]

Though the school became widely recognized for serious study, it also sponsored many social activities.

All Members of the school could take part in the composition class held Saturday evenings in the lecture room on the second floor of the library.... After the lecture and awards, everyone went upstairs to Mr. Cumming's private studio where he and Mrs. Cumming served tea and cookies. Most of the young people drifted into the large portrait room to dance to piano or Victrola music. Others lingered to take part in animated discussions about art and experiences in Europe. The studio was a charming place with the tapestry covered chairs, the carved wood seat and chest from Brittany, the carved wood cabinet with hammered brass panels, the oriental rugs and paintings on walls and easels -- a perfect setting for conversations about art and artists. Visitors were welcomed and many prominent Des Moines men and women added to their knowledge of art and enjoyed a social evening with the artists. [7]


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