Sunday, August 2, 2015

Melvin Earl Cummings - Monumental Sculptor of the City

Only one San Francisco resident was represented in the catalogue for the 1929 exhibition Contemporary American Sculpture presented at The California Palace of the Legion of Honor in conjunction with the National Sculpture Society.  Earl Cummings (Melvin Earl Cummings) also had the distinction of being San Francisco's representative on the Jury of Selection for the exhibition as well as being a member of the Board of Trustees of The California Palace of the Legion of Honor.  (The only other Northern Californian represented in the show was Joseph J. Mora, the sculptor of the Cervantes monument in Golden Gate Park.  Leo Lentelli, who moved to New York and is the subject of an earlier blog, is also included).

Cummings was born August 13, 1876 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  His father Melvin Elisha Cummings worked as a cashier at the Utah Commercial and Savings Bank.  Upon moving to San Francisco he was employed as a clerk for the Board of Public Works.  His grandfather James W. Cummings was a Mormon elder who arrived in the Utah Territory in 1851.  A man of local prominence, he was a Utah State Legislator and a Salt Lake City Councilman.

As a boy Melvin Cummings showed talent for wood carving.  He apprenticed himself to a carver and received training as he worked on the decoration of the Mormon Temple.

He won a San Francisco Art Association scholarship to attend the School of Design of the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art.  Under the tutelage of Douglas Tilden he had completed at least two works "Love and Death" and "Bohemia's Toast to the Owl" (then exhibited at the Bohemian Club).

At age 20 his family moved to San Francisco studied at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute under Douglas Tilden  The 1900 Crocker Langley San Francisco Directory lists Cummings as a student of Douglas Tilden living at 1121 Leavenworth.  He had exhibited a few works when Phoebe Hearst (widow of a U.S. Senator and mother of William Randolph Hearst) noted his talent and sent him to study at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris where he studied with Mercié and Louis Noël.  Below are a few of his Paris works.

Cummings in Paris with "A Portrait Bust" his first work accepted at the Paris Salon (1901)

 Design for A Mausoleum, ca. 1900-1
Les deux puissances, le bien et la mal (The Two Forces: Good and Evil) Paris Salon 1902

He presented one of his Paris salon works, "La Soif" (Thirst - also known as "Man Drinking Water"), as a gift to the City.   This sculpture portrays an elderly man on a rock. Cummings stated that he "donated the little figure to the city because it seemed so appropriate for the neighborhood of Washington Square."  He also noted that the model for this work was the same one who posed for Rodin's work "John the Baptist."

 La Soif in Marini Plaza
La Soif viewed in the context of Columbus Avenue / Washington Square

This 800 pound statue made the news in 1923 when it was feared to have been stolen by "narcotic addicts."  The truth turned out to be far less interesting. The Board of Public Works had considered removing it because they wished to turn the triangular space into a safety zone. Without notifying anyone, the Park Commission transferred the work into storage while they considered an alternate location for it.  In the end the statue was return to its rightful spot and in the process acquired a fountain that accounts for the visible trickle of water on the statue.

The 1905 Catalogue of the San Francisco Art Association noted that Cummings was "employed in a responsible position" for San Francisco's Department of Public Works. At the same time he worked as a professor at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art where he taught the modeling classes.  He exhibited two works that year, both in plaster - a bust of his teacher Douglas Tilden and the earlier mention "Love and Death" which was owned by Mrs. Hearst herself.

On June 7, 1905 he married Guadalupe Rivas, the daughter of Isaac Rivas, a physician and surgeon who came to San Francisco in 1869 as the Mexican Consul.  Rivas was a prominent member of the community and was an early member of the Bohemian Club.

One of Cumming's most easily overlooked works is located in one of the most heavily traveled places in the City.  His commemorative plaque of Carl G. Larsen is visible, though probably unnoticed, to all pedestrians and vehicles on the west side of Route 1 / 19th Avenue at Ulloa Street.

The inscription reads: "Carl G. Larsen has generously given these two blocks to the City of San Francisco for park pleasure purposes A.D. MCMXXVIII."
M.E. Cummings and Carl G. Larsen stand before land Larsen gave city for park (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection).

Cumming's plaque was placed upon a 40 ton piece of stone that was extracted from Golden Gate Heights and moved to Larsen Park.

Cummings created an earlier bronze commemorative tablet in 1921 for the San Francisco Fire Chief's Residence at 870 Post Street memorializing Dennis T. Sullivan.  Sullivan had been the Chief Engineer of the Fire Department during the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 who died from wounds sustained during that cataclysm.  The work was commissioned and paid for by the City's firefighters and was placed on the residence when it opened in 1922.

In addition to these public sculptural works Cummings also created a number of works for the Bohemian Club.  He taught modelling in the architecture department at UC Berkeley from 1906 until his death in 1936.
Another one of Cummings' less-noticed sculptures is the pair of mountain lions that border the clock inside the lobby of the former Bank of California.  This work is similar to the bronzes sculptures he created for the 8th Avenue entrance to Golden Gate Park.  Some of his other works include some of the figural work on the Sather Gate on the University of California at Berkeley campus (which caused some controversy at the time) and a statue of Commodore Sloat in Monterey.  He also exhibited works at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915.

Cummings was a person who held great prestige, power and authority in the San Francisco art community. He was a member of the board of trustees of both the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum.  In this capacity he a great influence on the works selected or rejected for the museums.  In 1930 he was even an interim director of the Legion of Honor.

He was also a San Francisco Parks Commissioner from 1904 where he was the mandated artist-member and chaired the advisory committee of artists and architects.  Very much a man of the establishment, he was a member of the National Sculpture Society, the Society of Colonial Wars, the Army and Navy Club, the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and a member of the Order of Founders and Patriots of America.

He and his wife lived in Pacific Heights at 3966 Clay Street.  Their names appear in the high society San Francisco Blue Book from 1907.  They appear in San Francisco's Social Register from 1914.  Cummings was listed in Who's Who In America from 1906 to 1932.  He is also listed in Who's Who In California in 1929.  He was listed in the American Art Annual in 1910 and 1915.  In 1913 he was also included in the Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart.  He receives less mention in more recent reference books.  Nevertheless, the  Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon of 1999 and, of course, Edan Hughes' Artists in California give him substantial mention.

a portrait of Melvin Earl Cummings from the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection

In his final days he experienced liver and kidney failure and went into a coma.  He died on July 21, 1936 at the age of 59. An obituary of Cummings from UC Berkeley described his as "a naturally quiet and unobtrusive man, though one of intensely social instincts."

He did a substantial amount of work in Golden Gate Park that will be discussed in a later entry.

"Ah-h-a-a! 'Le Soif' is Found," San Francisco Chronicle November 30, 1923

 Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon: Die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, Band 23 (K. G. Saur, 1999).

Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, achter Band, hrsg. von Dr. Ulrich Thieme und Dr. Felix Becker (W. Engelmann, 1913).

American Art Annual (MacMillan Co., 1898-).

American Sculpture: The Collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco by Donald L. Stover (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, [1982?]).

Artists in California, 1786-1940 by Edan Milton Hughes (Crocker Art Museum, 2002).

Biographical Encyclopedia of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers of the U.S.: Colonial to 2002, compiled by Bob Creps (Dealer's Choice Books, 2002).

California Art Research, volume 6

Catalogue of the San Francisco Art Association, Mark Hopkins Institute of Art (San Francisco Art Association, 1905).

Contemporary American sculpture / The California palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, San Francisco, April to October, MCMXXIX ([National Sculpture Society], 1929).

"Cummings, S.F. Sculptor, Dies," San Francisco Chronicle July 22, 1936.

"Death Claims M.E. Cummings, S.F. Sculptor," San Francisco Examiner July 22, 1936

Dictionary of American Sculptors: "18th Century to the Present," edited by Glenn B. Opitz (Apollo, 1984).

"Earl Cummings," San Francisco Call May 6, 1901, 9. [source: California Digital Newspaper Collection]

"Earl Cummings Here: Talented Salt Lake City Artist En Route to Paris," Deseret News September 24, 1900, 2. [source: Google Books]

"40-ton Stone Will Mark Larsen Park" San Francisco Chronicle August 13, 1928, 11

Medders, Stan, "From the Golden Age of City Sculptors," California Living Magazine / San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, May 3, 1981. [source: Artists File]

"Melvin Earl Cummings, Architecture: Berkeley," from 1935-36, University of California: In Memoriam (1937), digitized in Calisphere.

"Quintons Quit Legion Palace," San Francisco Chronicle May 8, 1930, 3

"The Recent Work of M. Earl Cummings," The Mark Hopkins Institute of Art Review vol. 1, no. 9 (Mid-summer 1904). [scanned in Google Books]

San Francisco Blue Book (Charles C. Hoag, 1904-).

"Sculptor Cummings Ill," San Francisco Examiner July 21, 1936.
Social Register, San Francisco (Social Register Association, -1976).

Stein, Ken, "Sather Gate's Checkered Past," San Francisco Chronicle (October 28, 2008)

A Survey of Art Work in the City and County of San Francisco, prepared by Martin Snipper for the Art Commission, City and County of San Francisco (1953).

Who's Who in America (Marquis Who's Who, 1906-1932).

Who's Who in California: A Biographical Directory, 1928-29, edited by Justice B. Detwiler et al. (Who's Who Publishing Co., 1929).

"Work of Art Removed From North Beach," San Francisco Chronicle November 29, 1923, A1

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