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