In 1897, James M. Cowan from Aurora, Illinois, visited the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. He visited as the director of a group of girls who made up the Armour Drill Corps of Chicago. Cowan already had ties to Tennessee. At the age of thirteen, he had moved with his family to Tullahoma, Tennessee, and remained there until he was in his twenties when he moved to Cincinnati. He subsequently made his wealth in insurance, but his true passion was collecting art. As he neared the end of his life, Cowan had some seven hundred pieces in his collection. Aware that Nashville's Parthenon was being reconstructed as a permanent structure, he decided to donate anonymously a portion of his collection to be housed there. Between 1927 and 1929, the works were shipped to Nashville, to be moved into the Parthenon upon completion of the reconstruction.
In fact, he purchased many pieces specifically with this destination in mind, eventually giving sixty-three pieces to Nashville. These works, all oils on canvas, dating 1765-1923, are housed permanently in the Parthenon and bare the name of its generous donor - the Cowan Collection.
A distinguishing characteristic of this collection is that all of the work was done by American artists. Fifty-seven artists are represented in the collection, most of which dates late 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost all of the artists represented were also members of the National Academy of Design, a prestigious artists' league of the time. Within the collection, many connections occur among the artists as among their paintings.
A common theme found in most of the paintings is Impressionism. Impressionism was a school of painting introduced by the French in the first Impressionism Exhibition held in Paris in 1874. It was an attempt using pure color to imitate light. Many of the artists in this collection studied in Paris during their careers. Within the collection can be found many secondary artist alliances including the Hudson River School, the Luminists, the Symbolists, Barbizon School influences, and Nabis influences.
The primary concentration in the collection is fifty-one landscapes, including many plein-air paintings (done on location) and four seascapes which emphasize an undulating ocean and coast; a difficult and unusual subject matter. There are eight portraits in the collection, all of which the subject of the portrait is anonymous.
Generally, there is one work by each artist in the collection, so in looking you can learn something of the man who formed this collection by his choices. We see a man who was taken with the landscape in its more unrefined form, and had a diverse and unusual interest in figure paintings. This is a fine collection of American art and we are indeed fortunate to have it here in Nashville.