The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Cumming, Charles Atherton
(March 31, 1858–February 16, 1932)

–painter, teacher, and arts administrator—was born in Rochester, Illinois, to George Pax-ton Cumming and Eliza Ellen (Atherton) Cumming. His father, a farmer and schoolteacher, died in the Civil War.

    Charles begandrawing as a child, learning to love and appreciate nature and the wonders and beauty of life. He was taught how to do fancy writing and won a first prize in drawing at a county fair exhibit. His high school years were spent at Weatherfield High School in the Spoon River area of Knox County, Illinois. After high school, he briefly attended Reading College Academy, Abingdon, Illinois, then enrolled at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa. Cornell did not offer art classes, but his talent became so apparent that he was encouraged to transfer to the Chicago Academy of Design (now the Art Institute of Chicago) so that he could get the quality of training he needed. While there (1878-1879), he studied with Lawrence C. Earle.

    In 1880 Cumming returned to Cornell and asked the administration to allow him to create a position as an art instructor but not as a member of the faculty. Cornell rented him a basement room, which he turned into a studio. His pay came from the fees collected from students who signed up for his classes. Within a few months, the college gave him space for a studio on the second floor and put him on salary. He continued as a "regular" faculty member until 1895. During his tenure, he also conducted classes in Cedar Rapids, exhibiting his work there and in Iowa City.

    A leave in 1885 took him to Paris, where he studied at the Academie Julien with Boulanger and Lefebvre and visited the Louvre and galleries in Luxembourg. He went to Paris again in 1889 and studied with Doucet and Constant. During these European sojourns, he experienced a classical, academic training, and his encounters with another culture greatly influenced his work for the rest of his life.

    In 1895 he accepted the invitation of the Iowa Society of Fine Arts and the Des Moines Women's Club to become director of the fiveyear-old, struggling Des Moines Academy of Art. The academy prospered under Cumming's direction and was eventually renamed the Cumming School of Art in 1900. The Cumming School of Art was so successful that in 1909 Cumming was invited to take charge of the program of art classes started in 1906 at the State University of Iowa. Prompted by a major cash gift in 1908, the State Board of Education moved forward with plans to develop an art department at the university, and Cum-ming was the top choice to lead the way. Not wanting to leave his school, he worked out an agreement for split time between Des Moines and Iowa City. The amicable arrangement spawned a close relationship between the two schools. During World War I, the Cumming School started to decline and never regained the prominence it had achieved earlier. It did, however, continue to operate until 1950.

    During his prime, Cumming contributed to or led in the work of a number of other organizations and programs in central Iowa. He was named to the Capitol Improvements Commission (renamed the Iowa Capitol Commission), which had much to do with the acquisition, commissioning, and placing of murals and other art works in state government buildings. In 1912 he was commissioned to paint a large mural for the Polk County courthouse. In 1914 he became superintendent of the Department of Art at the Iowa State Fair and joined the board of the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts. During these same years, with four of his students, he formed the Iowa Art Guild, which held programs and exhibits for its members into the latter half of the 20th century.

    Cumming became widely recognized for his work. He was much sought after as a portrait painter, but he also did still life, genre subjects, and landscapes in oil, his favorite medium. A special relationship evolved between the artist and the State Historical Society of Iowa, which often called on him to do portraits for its collection. The society still holds at least 24 of his works, more than by any other artist. Stylistically, his images ranged from academic realism to impressionist in flavor and color. He stuck to his academic ideas, bucking newer trends, although he did employ some of them when they could be worked into a representational or realist approach. As "modernist" tendencies began to dominate the art scene, Cumming's influence lessened, and his art received diminished attention. He died in Des Moines in 1932 after spending a couple of years in California.

    Charles Atherton Cumming occupies a niche in Iowa history as one of the first Iowans to gain considerable stature and recognition as an artist, as a participant and leader in many arts programs, and as an arts administrator. He is one of the roots of Iowa's rich visual arts tradition.
Sources include Bess Fergusen with Velma Wallace and Edna Patzig Gouwens, Charles Atherton Cumming (1972); and Richard Leet, "Charles Atherton Cumming: A Deep Root for Iowa Art," American Art Review 9 (1997), 114–19.
Contributor: Richard E. Leet