Item of the Week: The mysterious John Clifford Cowles

Published: November 5, 2010

A few weeks ago, when two of the Clark’s librarians were going through over-sized items housed in an out-of-the-way spot, they discovered a scrapbook related to American artist John Clifford Cowles, which has apparently been a part of the library’s collections for a long time.  At first puzzled about how and why the scrapbook was at the Clark in the first place, manuscript and archives librarian Becky Fenning quickly realized that not only did the album contain an interesting visual look at early 20th-century Los Angeles, but that Cowles may have been a significant player in the formation of William Andrews Clark, Sr’s art collection as well as a friend to the entire Clark family.

J.C. Cowles and his pug in Echo Park, ca. 1905

Though the details of Cowles’ life and his connection to the Clarks are still shaky, the basic outline of his life and work are relatively easy enough to discover. Born in 1861 in Illinois, Cowles studied art at the National Academy in New York City and was a student of painter Albert Bierstadt, among others.  In the 1880s, Cowles seems to have specialized in landscape paintings of ranchlands in the West, executing a number of still extant paintings for large landowners in New Mexico and Texas, as well as a large painting of Shoshone Falls, Idaho for William Andrews Clark.  By the 1890s, Cowles was studying in Paris with Jean Charles Cazin and Albert Besnard.  While in Paris, it appears that he advised Clark on paintings to acquire for his collection — which, at the time of Clark’s death in 1925, contained 22 paintings by Cowles’ mentor Cazin.  In 1903, Cowles was back in Los Angeles, and in 1932, he published a mystical novel called The Whispering Buddha. He died in 1951 at the age of 90, and many of his belongings — at least the photographic ones — were sold to the Old Trading Post in Echo Park.  A woman named Mary L Bennett happened to buy some of these photos, and intrigued by what she was told about Cowles, walked up to his former house on North Waterloo Street.  The real estate broker who had taken over the property had burned much of Cowles’ remaining belongings, but she was able to talk him into selling her the as-yet-unburnt portion still housed in an old trunk.  She then proceeding to cut up manuscripts, typescripts, news clippings, photographs and other ephemera to make this scrapbook tribute to Cowles.

Cowles in San Diego, ca. 1897

The album is a confusing and sometimes strange assemblage of items, seemingly arranged around the transcriptions Bennett made from a fictionalized biography she found in Cowles’ papers.  Cowles’ own typescripts and handwritten manuscripts are also pasted into the volume.

A reproduction of one of Cowles' paintings, a Christmas greeting from WA Clark, III and a news clipping about his work

Without the original context of these materials (Bennett cut and pasted at will from the manuscripts, it seems), the veracity and attribution of many items is uncertain.  There are lots of images of Yosemite and locations in Europe, and it is nearly impossible to know whether the pictures were taken by Cowles, images he cut out of printed sources, or simply extra illustrations Bennett has added to the album.

Cowles spent winters in Argentina and Venezuela

Regardless, though, Cowles’ story is still intriguing. Hopefully, with the help of other institutions who are actively researching their paintings by Cowles, we will be able to learn more about this multi-faceted artist and his connection to the Clarks.

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