Cummer Museum's 50th anniversary celebration begins with 'The Cummer Legacy' exhibit

By Charlie Patton
In 1906, while on a second honeymoon in New York, Arthur and Ninah Cummer, a prominent Jacksonville couple, bought a painting titled "Along the Strand" from artist Paul King.

It was the first of 60 pieces of art the Cummers, primarily Ninah Cummer, would acquire during the next half-century.

Arthur Cummer, whose family made its fortune in the lumber business, died in 1946.

Sometime in the 1950s, Ninah Cummer decided to share her collection by creating a new art museum on the site of her home on the banks of the St. Johns River.

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is kicking off its year-long 50th anniversary celebration with "The Cummer Legacy," an exhibit that brings together most of the 60 pieces Ninah Cummer collected in her lifetime. That exhibit opened Friday in the Thomas G. Jacobsen Gallery of American Art in the Riverside Avenue museum.

The refurbished and updated Tudor Room, which will also feature some pieces from Ninah Cummer's personal collection, including that first acquisition, "Along the Strand," was originally scheduled to reopen the same day. That has been delayed, but museum director Hope McMath promised it will be open by Saturday, when a reception for Cummer members is planned.

For most of her collecting life, Ninah Cummer concentrated on acquiring pieces that appealed to her personal aesthetic, favoring portraits and landscapes, said museum curator Holly Keris.

But in her last few years, she switched approaches, "trying to develop a survey collection," Keris said.

That approach led to her acquisition of two of the most significant pieces in "The Cummer Legacy," Angolo Gaddi's "Madonna of Humility with Angels," a tempera on a panel painted circa 1390, and Peter Paul Rubens' 1605 oil on copper, "The Lamentation of Christ."

But even when she was simply buying pieces to hang in her riverfront home, Ninah Cummer had excellent taste, Keris noted.

For instance, "The Cummer Legacy" includes two paintings by Winslow Homer, a 19th century American landscape artist "who, through a bold, vivid, and personal naturalism, created an imaginative vision of nature that has come to be accepted as a reflection of American pioneering spirit," according to "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art & Artists."

Ninah Cummer's two Homers are 1874's oil on canvas "Waiting for a Bite," a depiction of a young fisherman, and 1890's watercolor on paper "The White Rowboat on the St. Johns River." "The White Rowboat on the St. Johns River" is one of 50 "Cummer Favorites" chosen in voting by visitors last year. A book featuring postcards of the 50 favorites is on sale in the Cummer gift shop.

Other notable pieces in "The Cummer Legacy," which will be on exhibit through Sunday, May 22, include:

- Augusta Savage's bronze sculpture "The Diving Boy," which Ninah Cummer purchased in 1939. Savage was an African-American artist who was born in Green Cove Springs and later moved to New York, where she was part of the Harlem Renaissance.

- A small bronze by Auguste Rodin, 1884's "Young Girl Reclining." Rodin was considered perhaps the greatest sculptor of the late 19th and early 20th century.

- Frederick Childe Hassam's 1897 oil on canvas "Afternoon in Pont-Avon, Brittany." Hassam was considered one of the foremost American Impressionists.

- Jean-Baptist Camille Corot's 19th century oil on canvas "A Stream Beneath Trees." Corot, one of the leading figures of the Barbizon school of 19th century French artists, was known for his landscapes

- Martin Johnson Heade's 1870 oil on canvas "Orchid with Amethyst Hummingbird." Heade was a 19th century American painter known for his landscapes.

- Eastman Johnson's 1857 oil on panel "The Kitchen at Mount Vernon." Johnson, a 19th century painter sometimes called the "American Rembrandt," was a co-founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Tudor Room, which includes paneling, flooring, the fireplace and much of the furniture from the Cummers' parlor, has long been a part of the museum. But it had been neglected and was in need of restoration, McMath said. It also had little signage and tended to confuse visitors, who didn't understand its purpose, she said.