Charles Atherton Cumming: A Deep Root for Iowa Art

By Richard Leet



Cumming's success gave rise to more offers and patronage. In 1909, he was invited to build on a fledgling art program at the State University of Iowa after the state's Board of Education received a memorial gift in the amount of $83,000 for the purpose of art instruction. Unwilling to give up his own school, Cumming arranged to work split-time: so many days in Des Moines each week, so many in Iowa City.

At Iowa, he developed courses, established the faculty and the faculty studios. A close cooperation existed between the Cumming School in Des Moines and Iowa City's growing art department for a number of years, with numerous student exchanges and some shared social events. His wish for an art building was finally realized nine years after he retired, four years after his death.

As with many schools, enrollment at the Cumming school declined during World War I. It never quite recovered the numbers of its peak, but continued in later years under the direction of the artist's widow, Alice McKee Cumming, until it closed in 1954.

Charles Cumming was involved in many organizations and programs throughout central Iowa. In 1900, he was named to the Capitol Improvements Commission. Renamed the Iowa Capitol Commission in 1902, the group played a major role in enhancing the government facility, placing murals and acquiring art works. Cumming was commissioned in 1912 to paint one of four murals for the Polk County Court House, depicting the area's early history. His mural focused on the Departure of the Indians from Fort Des Moines.

The artist left his mark on several other programs as well. In 1914, he was named Superintendent of the Department of Art at the Iowa State Fair and was also named a board member to the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts. That same year, Cumming and four of his students formed the Iowa Art Guild to provide a meeting ground for artists and to promote the arts in Iowa. The Guild still exists, but consists of only a handful of members, most former Cumming students or disciples.

All the while, Cumming practiced his art. As with his teachings, Cumming approached painting from an academic perspective. He believed in fundamentals and in a personal discipline, producing still life images, landscape, and many portraits of state dignitaries.

Cumming had a special relationship with the State Historical Society of Iowa and was called often to work on subjects for the Society's collection. At least twenty-four of his portraits are still held by the Society, more than by any other artist.

The Iowa Historical Building opened in Des Moines in 1898. According to a brochure article by Edgar Harlan, its curator during the 1920s and 30s:

The Historical Department of Iowa desires to assemble in its beautiful fireproof building the work of recognized artists that portrays Iowa and American men and women who have been effective in the establishment and maintenance and good name of our commonwealth or nation....

To realize this goal, the department focused on the state's best portrait painters. First to come to mind was Charles A. Cumming, who had, by this time, gained a sizable reputation for his painting. [8]

For about forty years, Cumming found sporadic employment for and with the Historical department, prominent individuals, and/or their families. Many of his pictures were painted from life, and others, from photographs of deceased individuals. He was acquainted with some of his posthumous subjects, lending his own interpretation to their photographic likenesses.

According to Michael O. Smith, current chief curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa, one of Cumming's society portraits has an interesting origin. Samuel Hawkins Byers was a soldier, lawyer, diplomat, poet, and song writer. A major in the Civil War, he was captured and later escaped from a Confederate prison.

The story goes that Byers' portrait was the result of a bet that Cumming could not paint Byers in one sitting. Cumming had Byers stand by a chair and recite poetry and tell Civil War stories for more than six hours while Cumming painted. Byers' portrait was finished in one sitting and Cumming won the bet.[9]

Another quick portrait, not in the Society's collection, was that of Rose Simmons, 1896. Cumming completed it as a thirty-five minute sketch. The spontaneity, color, and mood of this image are very much in the Impressionist vein, while the mood, style, and character of another, Portrait of Jenny Fitch, is reminiscent of works by the nineteenth-century master American painter Thomas Eakins. Still another, Portrait of J. J. Richardson, looks to be in the manner of John Sloan or Robert Henri, following in the Hals/Manet tradition. It has the dark background, vigorous, direct brush work, and rosy cheeks of the Ash Can School.

Of Cumming's landscapes, a couple of his most beautiful, and certainly most Impressionist in style, are Lady With White Parasol, undated, and Moonrise at Sunset, 1892. Moonrise is poetic in nature: quiet, with soft focus. Lady With White Parasol is distinctly Impressionist in color, subject, lighting, and technique; the broken brush strokes are clearly visible and there is an overall plein air feeling.

Cumming was active during a significant period in the history of the visual arts. Although he remained a staunch academic and bucked many newer trends, it is quite apparent in viewing the large body of his works that he employed newer ideas as they could be incorporated into representational or realist directions.

But as art methods and trends evolved -- in large part due to the advancement of "modernist" theories and practices -- Cumming's influence lessened and his name and his work retained less limelight than perhaps he deserved. But it is obvious that Cumming's hand was at the root or seedling stage of much that influenced Iowa's artistic tides around the turn of and into the twentieth century. Although he did not "go with the flow," Charles Atherton Cumming laid foundation blocks for that which has followed; he is not to be forgotten.


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