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A Painter Comes Home

Taking It Easel: A.D.M. Cooper completed more than 1,000 paintings in his lifetime, a portion of which he gave away to pay for his Bohemian lifestyle.

San Jose's most famous artist chronicled the passing of the frontier in grand and romantic canvases, thumbed his nose at society matrons, and paid his bar bills from San Francisco to Santa Cruz with paintings of nudes. Nearly 75 years after his death, A.D.M. Cooper remains a legendary local figure, whose reputation for Bohemian excess outstrips his artistic achievements.

By Geoffrey Dunn

In the spring of 1898, Jane Stanford, wife of railroad magnate Leland Stanford, commissioned A.D.M. Cooper, San Jose's celebrated artist and bon vivant, to paint a still-life study of her jewelry. Mrs. Stanford was planning to raise money for the Stanford University Library by auctioning off a large collection of her diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, but she wanted to maintain an artistic record of her treasures for posterity. The acclaimed Cooper, she believed, was the right man for the job.

Notoriously proper and aristocratic, not to mention a staunch advocate of temperance, Stanford demanded that Cooper dress in formal attire and refrain from drink while he accomplished his task. Irked by her pretensions, Cooper stormed out of the Stanford mansion before completing his work. Back in his studio, he precisely added the final touches to the painting from memory, then placed his study in the window of a downtown San Jose saloon for the public to gawk at.

Upon learning of Cooper's indecorous gesture, Stanford ordered her driver down the peninsula to retrieve the painting, which was then prominently displayed in the Leland Stanford Room of the Stanford Museum. "What a sad thing," Lady Stanford reportedly opined about Cooper. "All that talent--dulled by John Barleycorn."

By the time of his imbroglio with Jane Stanford, A.D.M. Cooper had already achieved an international reputation for his grand and romantic renderings of American Indians, buffalo herds and frontiersmen--as well as his idealized portraits of partially clad young women. That Cooper's talents had been "dulled by John Barleycorn" remains open to debate, but he was most certainly an incorrigible carouser and lover of the night life, often to the consternation of San Jose's more polite society circles.

Super Duper Cooper Trivia:
What does the M really stand for in A.D.M. Cooper?

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"Of the 16,000 artists I've chronicled," declares Edan Hughes, author of the definitive reference book Artists in California: 1786-1940, "none was as colorful as Astley David Middleton Cooper. That man knew how to live. He was a true Bohemian, and he loved to have a good time. He knew how to party. And paint. And then party some more. He had a zest for life unmatched in the artistic annals of California."

Nearly three-quarters of a century after his death in San Jose, in 1924, Cooper remains a legendary local figure, his reputation still larger than life. In terms of concrete tributes to the man and his art, however, his recognition is minimal at best.

A handful of Cooper's paintings hang at the San Jose Historical Museum, where a good deal more of the Cooper archive remains in storage. A quartet of Cooper's works can be seen in the VIP Lounge at the San Jose Convention Center, not readily accessible to the general public. You can occasionally spot one or two of his lesser works in local antique shops--and that's about it.

"It's time that this community paid tribute to someone who had a significant impact on American art," says gallery owner Paul Bingham. "People here say they are always tired of living in San Francisco's cultural shadow. Well, we have a cultural history here, too. Cooper was one of the most successful commercial artists of his time. His paintings sold everywhere: New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, London, Paris. ... I'd say it's about time San Jose paid him his due."

Bingham currently represents a dozen of Cooper's works, including one of his renditions of Inquest on the Plains, a dramatic depiction of buffaloes surrounding a dead Indian warrior with an arrow through his heart. The paintings, put together over 25 years by a collector who traveled the country in search of Cooper's work, will be displayed in Bingham's Fairmont Hotel gallery through April. The asking price for the dozen paintings, just in case anyone is looking to redecorate their living room, is somewhere in the half-million-dollar range.

Although Bingham clearly has a vested interest in his enthusiasm for Cooper, he is also a man with a larger mission. "My vision is to have a central place in San Jose--maybe the Convention Center, the San Jose Arena or even some local corporate headquarters--bring together the works of this city's early important artists, people like Cooper, Andrew Hill, Charles Henry Harmon and Albert DeRome," he says. "It's a cultural outrage that more civic attention isn't paid to their works--especially Cooper's."

Named after a fabled British scientist, Astley D.M. Cooper was born on Dec. 23, 1856, in St. Louis, Mo., then the gateway to the American West. His father, David Middleton Cooper, was a prominent Irish-born physician, while his mother, the former Fannie Clark O'Fallon, was the daughter of Major Benjamin O'Fallon, a well-known figure in the American Indian wars, and a grandniece of the legendary Louisiana Territory explorer William Clark.

The O'Fallons, Clarks and Coopers counted among their friends George Catlin, the most regaled painter of American Indians in the 19th century. "My purpose [is to] snatch from hasty oblivion ... a truly lofty and noble race," Catlin once declared. "I have flown to their rescue so that phoenix-like they may rise from the stain on the painter's canvas."

Between 1830 and 1836, Catlin became so intimate with certain Native American tribes that he was one of the first--and only--European Americans to witness what he describes as sacred sexual and warrior rituals. The young Cooper was fascinated by the stories and paintings of Catlin, who would hold a lifetime influence on his talented protege.

Cooper attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied European art and showed early promise in portraiture and landscape drawing. At the age of 20, before completing his degree, he embarked on a journey through the West that saw him follow in the footsteps of his mentor Catlin. He lived with Indian tribes throughout the region, earning their respect; and him, theirs. He viewed the war being waged against them by the U.S. government as a tragedy of biblical proportions. Events like the Battle of the Little Big Horn, which took place in 1876 while Cooper was still on his journey, would weigh on him for life.

Settling down for a two-year stint in Boulder, Colo., Cooper took a position as an illustrator for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and soon achieved national attention for his depictions of American Indians and frontier landscapes. His life as an artist was cast.

At the age of 24, Cooper arrived in San Francisco, where he assumed the pose of a Bohemian artist on the city's Barbary Coast. Establishing his first studio in the city's Latin Quarter, his reputation continued to soar, and he was commissioned to paint an official portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant. By the early 1880s, his paintings were being marketed throughout the U.S. and Europe.

In 1883, his ability to make a living secured, Cooper decided to move south to the agriculturally rich Santa Clara Valley, settling into a home at 250 S. 19th St. in East San Jose. His widowed mother eventually followed him. Cooper assimilated into the cultural life of his burgeoning adopted city.

By most accounts, Cooper took San Jose by storm. Handsome, debonair and charming, he was also a renowned ladies' man when he first arrived and a frequent imbiber at local saloons. Local legend has it that Cooper paid many a bar tab with one of his paintings. It was a rare drinking establishment from San Francisco to Santa Cruz that didn't have a Cooper nude hanging from its walls. At least one local bar, the Louvre, was said to have dozens of Cooper's paintings on display.

Cooper was an accomplished violinist and occasionally sat in with local orchestras. According to Clyde Arbuckle's History of San Jose, he often invited visiting vaudeville troupes and opera singers to his home for after-hour performances and raucous parties.

All the while Cooper maintained a furious painting schedule. He was never a "struggling artist." He commanded a high income throughout his life, during which he completed more than a thousand paintings. One of his works--Trilby, named after a 19th-century novel by George DuMaurier--reportedly sold for $62,000 in the 1890s, while another, The Story of the Evil Spirits, sold for $20,000, both extraordinarily high prices for their day. He expanded his repertoire beyond the Western genre scenes that made him famous to include classical allegories, religious and historical depictions, portraits, and landscapes.

Although the content of Cooper's paintings was largely reflective of his times and even to an extent imitative, his style was highly distinctive. "You can look at one of his paintings and know it's his," observes Bingham. "He really didn't need to sign them. His style was his signature."

Cooper's early compositions were representational and linear, much like Catlin's. In the mature stages of his career, he frequently invoked a more impressionistic style that hinted at the tonalism of painters like James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Arthur Davies.

Using broad brush strokes and dark backgrounds, Cooper often imparted somber moods to his paintings, even to the point of being macabre. Unlike the tonalists, however, he infused his works with action and drama, and an underlying political commentary. For Cooper, Indians and buffaloes were symbols of a great American tragedy. Throughout his life, he portrayed their passing as paradise lost.

That Cooper's philosophical perspective was informed by the prejudices of the Gilded Age goes without saying. His romanticized depictions of American Indians--and for that matter women--are clearly at odds with our modern-day sensibilities. But unlike his contemporaries, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, who celebrated the 19th-century American West and its genocidal excesses, Cooper was, in essence, painting its eulogy.

This is the dominant motif of the collection currently on exhibit at the Bingham Gallery. The most accomplished painting in the ensemble, The Buffalo Hunt, completed in 1890, draws one immediately into the center of the canvas by its complex use of light and movement. It is without question one of Cooper's masterpieces.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Strokes of Genius: Gallery owner Paul Bingham thinks it's about time San Jose paid Cooper his due.

Although Cooper was a contemporary of California painters like William Keith, Arthur Matthews and Xavier Martinez, he seems never to have been a part of the so-called California Movement, which flourished in the decades straddling the turn of the century. He was rarely mentioned in California art books of the time, and is rarely included in contemporary exhibitions of the genre.

Particularly in respect to his use of sunsets, moonlight and fire, he appears to have been influenced by Julian Rix and Howard A. Streight (the latter lived in Mountain View from 1890 until his death in 1912), though there is no record that Cooper had any interactions with either. His one close artist friend and drinking companion, Alexander M. Wood, was clearly his inferior artistically, although they occasionally worked together on the same canvas, including The Buffalo Hunt.

Cooper's painting style was therefore a product of Western and European influences, not of California, and remained so throughout his career. While his heart may have been in San Jose, his artistic inspiration, for the most part, was located somewhere east of the Sierra Nevada and west of the Mississippi River. A regional artist he was not. Cooper apparently didn't let the international acclaim he received go to his head. He was well known in the community for his generosity, oftentimes to strangers. Many of his paintings were presented to friends and associates to commemorate wedding anniversaries and birthdays.

Arbuckle cites "old-timers" from San Jose who recalled Cooper as someone "who would literally give you the shirt off his back."

Cooper's nephew, John George, now in his mid-70s, tells the story of the time Cooper rode into town on a streetcar for an evening of recreation with some of his friends. Knowing that the streetcars stopped running at midnight, Cooper asked the "mop boy" from a local saloon what time it was.

"Don't know," the lad replied. "Ain't got no watch."

Cooper missed the last train.

A short time later, after selling one of his more expensive paintings, Cooper traveled to New York City, where he purchased a gold watch for the mop boy. Upon returning to San Jose, he presented it to the astonished youngster. "The next time I ask you what time it is, I want you to know."

In 1909, Cooper commanded the attention of the entire San Jose community when he constructed an ornate, Egyptian-styled studio at the northeast corner of San Antonio and South 21st streets, in the middle of a quaint residential neighborhood not far from his home. It was here that Cooper housed some of his most accomplished paintings and found respite in the latter years of his life.

An account of a visit to Cooper's "Egyptian castle" in the San Jose Daily News noted that it contained "a maze of paintings of every kind and description, while the ceilings and walls are adorned with a myriad of fascinating odds and ends with distinct appeal to the imagination." A small, simple sign on the building bore the words "Cooper studio."

Cooper himself was described as "grey-haired, but stalwart and erect," with a "smile that played gentle wrinkles about the eyes," while smoking a "characteristic cigar."

A decade later, in July of 1919, Cooper married Charlotte George, the daughter of some family friends, who was 26 years his junior. By then in his early 60s, he was finally ready to settle down. "There is only one thing dearer to me than my painting," Cooper declared near the end of his life. "And that is my wife." The couple had no children.

Cooper's domestic bliss lasted little more than half a decade. In September of 1924, after a long battle with tuberculosis, Cooper passed away at his 19th Street home, at the age of 67. He was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery.

Citing a passage from Eugene T. Sawyer's History of Santa Clara County, the Mercury obituary declared: "Holding to high ideals, Mr. Cooper has gained a position of distinction in his profession because he has never been satisfied with the second best, but has ever striven for something above, beyond and better, and his contribution to art is a notable one."

Over the last 75 years, Cooper's artistic reputation has taken something of a roller-coaster ride. During the Depression and the early days of World War II, he became a forgotten figure on the cultural landscape as his paintings gathered dust in barrooms, basements and attics throughout the city. His Egyptian studio had been razed, leaving only an empty lot to mark his memory.

In 1944, San Jose City Councilmember Clyde L. Fischer, who had known Cooper as a boy, attempted to have the city purchase some of the artist's more important works from his aging widow. Fischer's efforts generated a lengthy profile of Cooper in the San Jose Evening News as his legend was rekindled for a new generation.

In the 1950s, Cooper's historic significance was beginning to be recognized, although the value of his paintings remained low. His massive, 10-foot-by-15-foot painting The Blacksmith was restored by a local artist and placed on display at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. The mural-sized work depicts a blacksmith shop owned by Amos Williams on Santa Clara Street at the turn of the century, where Cooper reputedly spent a considerable amount of time seated on a nail keg socializing and sketching. The painting is currently in storage at the San Jose Historical Museum.

In the spring of 1976, the Triton Museum in Santa Clara hosted the first retrospective on Cooper, bringing together 25 of his works. A catalogue of the exhibit, clearly reflecting the consciousness of the times, declared:

[Cooper's] paintings were a tribute to the Indians, who were viewed with respect by the artist and portrayed as strong human beings. Cooper's paintings also captured the vastness of the North American landscape and its then untouched beauty, preserved by the Indians who lived in harmony with nature. His paintings stood as symbols of a way of life that had vanished long before Cooper stopped painting his scenes; thus his later paintings took on an element of tragedy in that they represented remembered visions of life long past.

The Triton exhibition heightened interest in Cooper, both locally and nationally, and the prices on his paintings climbed dramatically. Paintings that once sold in antique stores for $50 were now demanding four figures.

In 1986, the San Jose Redevelopment Agency purchased from the late "Trader Lew" Bohnett four of Cooper's most important paintings--including Allegory of California, completed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco--for $80,000. The agency spent another $31,000 to restore them. Some local art experts balked at the expenditure, dubbing it a sweetheart deal, while others viewed it as a first step in the right direction. Since then, some of Cooper's works reportedly have sold for as much as $90,000.

Are the paintings of A.D.M. Cooper really worth that kind of money? Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and value in one's pocketbook. The cold hand of the art market ultimately will determine the price of each work.

California painting expert Edan Hughes says of Cooper, "When he was good, he was brilliant; when he was bad, he was laughable." Nevertheless, Hughes contends, Cooper is definitely in the "first tier" of California artists. "He had a national reputation," Hughes notes. "And deservedly so."

Hughes tells of encountering a painting of a buffalo head by Cooper more than 25 years ago. "It was a magnificent beast," he recalls, "so perfectly rendered that you could almost smell it. I have been haunted by that painting ever since."

A few years later, Hughes traveled to Sacramento, where a work by Cooper was advertised for $25. It was a small canvas of cherubs playing alongside a creek. "The painting was not worth that much," Hughes chuckles. "I laughed all the way home."

This disparity in Cooper's work is what makes pricing his paintings so difficult, especially for the casual collector. Even today, some of his more erratic compositions still bring under $1,000.

Hughes believes that Cooper's drinking was the source of his unevenness. "Cooper is the only painter in the early California repertoire in whose paintings you can ascertain his level of inebriation," he contends.

Bingham, however, argues that Cooper's drinking has been greatly embellished over the years. "Did he drink? Sure he did. Most people do. Was he an alcoholic? I don't think so. The unevenness in his oeuvre, I believe, reflects the varied reasons why he painted. When he was painting for friends or the local clientele, he often hurried his work. He lowered his standards, if you will.

"But his professional works--those paintings by which he earned a living, the ones that were intended for East Coast or European markets--were consistently of superior quality. His level of professionalism was never compromised. It's on those paintings, I would argue, that his reputation should be based."

Cooper's nephew, John George, also doubts his uncle was an alcoholic. "He was basically a 'good-time Charlie,' " George says. "My father said that while he often drank when he painted--either wine or whiskey--he never saw him drunk. My Aunt Charlotte [Cooper's wife] always claimed that the drinking stories were mostly exaggeration. They made for a good yarn and helped feed the legend. But his paintings speak for themselves."

The Bingham Gallery is located on the ground floor of the Fairmont, 170 S. Market St. (408/993-1066). Hours are 11am-5 pm, Tuesday-Saturday.

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From the Mar. 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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