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A.D.M. Cooper: San Jose's First Bohemian Rock Star

Cooper was a natural-born showman, an avant-garde aesthete far ahead of the locals
A young San Jose had never seen anything like avant garde painter A.D.M. Cooper's East Side studio.

In 1909, East San Jose was a separate town from San Jose proper. What's now the intersection of 21st and San Antonio was the intersection of Jones and Franklin, just a few blocks east of Coyote Creek. At this corner, the Egyptian-style studio of San Jose's most famous painter, Astley D.M. Cooper, came to life. Born in St. Louis in 1856, Cooper arrived in East San Jose in 1886, and then spent the rest of his life here, before dying in 1924 at the age of 68.

Throughout nearly four decades in San Jose, Cooper blossomed into the young town's bon vivant and possibly its first-ever bohemian rock-star artist, working with a variety of subjects. His heroic portrayals of indigenous peoples, frontier life and the diminishing buffalo population cemented his reputation as a formidable painter of the American West. As an illustrator, his years drawing for Frank Leslie's Newspaper earned him a reputation from coast to coast. Cooper's large-scale works, sometimes 12 feet in length, traveled to expositions and department stores across the country, drawing hundreds of thousands of casual viewers to his work. In addition to Old West scenes, he painted allegorical and mythological imagery plus many good old-fashioned nudes. In the latter case, local saloons throughout Northern California displayed Cooper's more risque paintings. Legend has it he paid off his bar tabs with paintings of topless women.

Nothing cemented such epic status more than the ambitious Egyptian-style studio Cooper commissioned in 1909 at Franklin Street and Jones Avenue, an entirely separate building from the house in which he lived a few blocks over. Architect Frederic Thompson designed the building, taking inspiration from other structures he created for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

It was in Buffalo, on the exposition midway, where an Egyptian-style building, Cleopatra's Temple, featured several Cooper paintings along with intentionally ludicrous freakshow-style testimonials outside on a placard. Such fun-house aesthetics were common on the exposition midways of the day, resulting in tremendous fanfare for Cooper's paintings. Cooper's San Jose studio, realized by Thompson as a scaled-down replica of an authentic Egyptian temple, was unlike anything the young town of San Jose had ever seen. This was 18 years before the Rosicrucians showed up and built their complex at Park & Naglee.

Cooper was a natural-born showman, an avant-garde aesthete far ahead of the locals, so when he first opened his exotic studio to the public, the media ate it up. On Nov. 7, 1909, the San Jose Herald articulated the scene: "A tall brazier burning pitch in the yard lighted the way for the guests approaching the portals of the temple." Regarding the accoutrements inside, "Ra, Apis and other divinities of an ancient civilization, surrounded by hieroglyphics and mystic symbols used in Egyptian architecture, looked down from the walls upon a brilliant gathering."

The press didn't stop there. In May of 1911, San Jose Magazine debuted a column called Beauty Spots of San Jose, the "first in a series of articles dealing with odd and interesting places," with the author gushing over Cooper's Egyptian temple-style studio: "Simple in architecture, yet grand in its suggestiveness is this studio of one of America's foremost artists, with its broad veranda and its porticos, each bearing a tale or secret of its own, each vie-ing with its neighbor to catch the eye of the many who are constantly visiting this home of art." Continuing, the author declared that one entire day was not long enough to drink in the joys of Cooper's genius and that listening to Cooper talk about each detail of every single painting on display was an education none could afford to miss, especially, "how instinctively he portrays sunshine and shadow upon the canvas; the expressions and colorings, all blended together to form a likeness of which nature herself might be justly proud."

By the time Cooper married Charlotte George in 1919, a woman 26 years his junior, he'd forged a substantive path as San Jose's most famous artist. Today, anyone drawing on a barroom wall in Silicon Valley probably owes a debt to Astley D.M. Cooper. Likewise, any politician who thinks real estate is more important than the arts in San Jose should be booted out of town, just like in the Old West.

Gary Singh is currently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University, where he is researching the life of A.D.M. Cooper.