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Charles A. Cumming Papers

Identifier: RG99.0029

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Scope and Contents

The Charles A. Cumming papers include photographs of his paintings and those by his wife, Alice. Also included are newspaper clippings and correspondence relating to his career, and a 1915 diary of Alice McKee Cumming. Series I contains family records, biographical and personal correspondence of Charles A. and Alice McKee Cumming.


  • Creation: 1880-1958


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright restrictions may apply; please consult Special Collections staff for further information.

Biographical / Historical

Charles Atherton Cumming was born on March 31, 1858, in Rochester, Illinois. His mother was Eliza Ellen (Atherton) Cumming. Charles was six years old when his father, George Paxton Cumming, died in action during the Civil War. Charles studied at Reading College Academy in Abingdon, Illinois, followed by Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. He was enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1878 to 1879.

In 1880, Cumming established the Art Department at Cornell College and taught there until 1895. During his time at Cornell, he made several leaves of absence to study art in France. He resigned from Cornell in 1895 in order to direct the Des Moines Academy of Art, which was struggling in its fifth year. He was invited to take this position by the Des Moines Women's Club and the Iowa Society of Fine Arts. Just one year under his guidance increased enrollment to 40 students. In honor of his service, the Des Moines Academy of Art was renamed the Cumming School of Art in 1900. By 1906, Cumming stated that "only two other schools west of the Mississippi River are doing more real academic work and sending out more trained students than my school." The school's peak enrollment was in the 1948-1949 school year.

In 1908, the State Board of Education asked Cumming to establish and direct the Department of Graphic and Plastic Arts at the State University of Iowa. Reluctant to abandon the school he had developed, he managed to divide his work week between Des Moines and Iowa City until he retired from S.U.I. in 1927 due to poor health. At S.U.I., Cumming was considered innovative for including studio art classes in the curriculum, in addition to lectures. Cumming also founded the Iowa Art Guild in 1914.

His best-known paintings were portraits in the Impressionist style. His subjects were well-known Iowans and large murals of Iowa scenes. One of his murals, "The Departure of the Indians from Fort Des Moines," is in the Polk County Courthouse. Twenty-four of Cumming's paintings reside with the State Historical Society of Iowa. Cumming witnessed new Modern painting styles emerge in Paris while he studied there. A pamphlet Cumming wrote in 1928, "Democracy and the White Man's Art," was outspoken against modern abstract styles of painting, which eclipsed the popularity of Impressionism during the 1910s.

Cumming married Nellie Millet Young in 1894. Cumming's second marriage was to Alice McKee of Stuart, Iowa, on August 26, 1926. Following their marriage, Alice and Charles lived in California for one year, on leave of absence from the State University of Iowa. The couple returned to Iowa in 1930. Cumming met Alice during her enrollment in the Cumming School of Art in 1915. Before their marriage, Alice served as a secretary at the Cumming School of Art, and as an art instructor at S.U.I. Following the death of Charles A. Cumming on February 16, 1932, Alice directed the school. Mrs. Cumming closed the school upon her retirement to Arizona in 1954. She died on March 16, 1965.


2.50 Linear Feet


Impressionist painter and founder of art departments at Cornell College in 1880 and the University of Iowa in 1909. Developed the Des Moines Academy of Art, which was renamed the Cumming School of Art in 1900.

Method of Acquisition

These materials were transferred from the State Historical Society of Iowa in August 1979 and purchased from Charles Apfelbaum, a rare books and manuscripts dealer, in September 1993. Guide created in July 2008.

Related Materials

Folder, "Cumming, Charles Atherton," Faculty and Staff Vertical Files collection (RG01.0015.003)

Records of the School of Art and Art History (RG06.0007.001)

Ferguson, Bess.Charles Atherton Cumming, Iowa's Pioneer Artist-Educator. Des Moines: Iowa Art Guild, 1972

Ferguson, Bess. "Charles Atherton Cumming: Pioneer Artist and Educator." The Iowan 30, no. 3 (spring 1982): 28-33, 50-52

Firestone, Evan R. "Incursions of Modern Art in the Regionalist Heartland." Palimpsest72 (fall 1991): 148-160. Includes Charles A. Cumming, Lester D. Longman, Grant Wood, and the University of Iowa.

Rasmussen, Chris. "Agricultural Lag: The Iowa State Fair Art Salon, 1854-1941." American Studies 36, no. 1 (spring 1995): 5-29. Includes Charles A. Cumming and Grant Wood..

Denise Anderson, July 2008
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Iowa Archives Repository

100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City IA 52242