An Art Collector Honors His Ancestors

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One day last week, we enjoyed a picnic in Nashville’s Centennial Park after Ray’s radiation treatment . . .

and later a walk by Watauga Lake.

Between our picnic and walk, we went inside the Parthenon . . .

. . . for a visit to The Cowan Collection gallery, the permanent art collection in the Parthenon’s lower level. To our delight, we found that the collection includes a 40″ by 30″ painting by Thomas Moran. Pardon the selfie. I wasn’t sure at the time what the photo policy is inside the Parthenon and thought that a selfie might be more acceptable than a photo of only the painting. After our visit, I learned that photography is allowed everywhere except for one display case about the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition.

Town Pond – East Hampton is Moran’s depiction of Goose Pond, which was in view of Moran’s home on Long Island, New York.

Town Pond – East Hampton by Thomas Moran, 1901
from The Cowan Collection in the Parthenon
in Nashville, Tennessee

I was also delighted to learn the history of The James M. Cowan Collection. The exhibit includes a typed letter to the manager of a New York art gallery, asking him to handle the transfer of a portion of this collection to Nashville. In the letter, Cowan told the reason he wanted to make the gift to the City of Nashville. He wrote:

Tennessee was my boyhood home, also the home of my forefathers and holds memories for me that are among the fondest of my life.

Cowan explained that he had been born in 1858 in Hernando, Mississippi, in DeSoto County, where his father was practicing medicine.  History lovers may note that Hernando DeSoto led the first known European exploration in much of the southeastern United States, thus the name of that town and county.

Cowan also told how his great-grandfather Jimmie “Pond” Cowan had come “over the mountains from Virginia in an ox drawn wagon in 1800 and with his brother settled where the town of Cowan, Franklin County, Tennessee, is located.” James M. Cowan’s great-grandfather served under General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812 and was wounded at New Orleans in 1815. Pond Cowan returned to Cowan, Tennessee, and died just over a year later in the spring of 1816.

Pond Cowan’s son was Samuel M. Cowan who was James M. Cowan’s grandfather. Samuel Cowan was a minister. He and his wife Nancy Clements Cowan lived in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

Samuel and Nancy Cowan’s son Dr. James B. Cowan was James M. Cowan’s father. Dr. Cowan married Lucy Robinson. Dr. Cowan served as chief surgeon in a Confederate regiment during the Civil War. After the Civil War, Dr. Cowan moved his family first to Franklin County, Tennessee, where his grandfather had lived, and later to Tullahoma, where he had grown up himself.

James M. Cowan left Tennessee at age 30 and had a long and highly successful career in insurance, mainly in Illinois, but he fondly remembered his childhood days in Tennessee. He was 69 years old when he wrote to the art gallery manager to tell his wishes. He wrote:

Being a lover of Art, having spent many years collecting paintings, having found great pleasure and satisfaction in possessing and living with them, it has occurred to me that through these paintings and the gift of them to the City of Nashville, I might be able in my humble way to express to the citizens of that state, to some extent at least, the love and reverence that I entertain for Tennessee. And it will be my hope that what has given me pleasure in collecting and studying for a great portion of my life, may prove to be of permanent benefit and afford real pleasure to the friends and citizens and coming generations of the State I love above all others.

As you teach your children year after year, remember that you are not only educating them. You are helping to create a childhood for them to remember with the same kind of fondness that James M. Cowan had in remembering his own.

Cowan also wrote that he was giving the paintings to Nashville:

. . . because of the very sacred memories of Tennessee as the scene of the lifelong activities of my ancestors and as being now their final resting place, I entertain for this State of Our Union a loving regard that I desire to express in some acceptable and permanent manner.

Obviously James M. Cowan believed that:

. . . the glory of sons is their fathers.
Proverbs 17:6b

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