E.E. Cummings, 1894 – 1962

E.E. Cummings,  Self Portrait , 1962, 50.8 x 38.1 x 2.5cm,National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution  http://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.73.26

E.E. Cummings, Self Portrait, 1962, 50.8 x 38.1 x 2.5cm,National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


By Anna Niederlander 

In a dialectic prose between a critical interviewer and an artist E.E. Cummings wrote: 

“Tell me, doesn’t your painting interfere with your writing?
Quite the contrary: they love each other dearly.
They’re very different.
Very: one is painting and one is writing.
But your poems are rather hard to understand, whereas your paintings are so easy.
Of course — you paint flowers and girls and sunsets; things that everybody understands.
I never met him.


E.E. Cummings was man who forever changed the language of literature, but is far less well known for his achievements as a visual artist. Not only did he spend more time painting than he did writing, but he also studied visual arts on his own by creating detailed notes on colour theory, analysing the human form and reflections on the Masters. 


Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1894. His family was well known, as his father was a Harvard professor and would later become a minister for the Old South Church in Boston. Already as a child he started writing poetry and painting the children in his neighbourhood. He was constantly surrounded by intellectuals, eventually graduating and receiving an advanced degree from Harvard. Visual art and literature were always intertwined to him; during his time at Harvard, he wrote a term paper called “The New Art”, which had a large impact on his unique typographical style. 


Soon after graduation he became an ambulance driver in France before America entered World War One, where the French authorities promptly arrested him for three months for suspicion of treason. For several decades he, with the help of his mother, had to pay for the publication of his work, as he became know as a poet who lacked originality and creativity, as well as stylistic and structural conformity. Unfazed by rejection, Cumming dedicated his book No Thanks(1935) to the fourteen publishing houses that had turned him down. In the beginning, his career as a visual artist was no more successful than his as a writer. His career as a visual artist can be divided into two chronological periods. The first phase, which went from 1915-1928, was the more popular amongst the public, and featured large-scale abstract paintings, well liked drawings and caricatures that were featured in The Dial, the leading modernist journal. 


Between 1920 and 1930 Cummings married and got divorced twice, additionally, his father unexpectedly died in a car crash. Trying to cope with these difficult events, he started traveling abroad. Documents of his travels with ink drawings remain that show his development as an artist. During this period, two subtle changes are noticeable in his art. The themes in his writing switch to darker ones, increasingly focusing on the themes of life and death. Furthermore, his paintings reveal a much more private approach and subject matter. From 1928 until his death in 1962, he switched not only from an avant-guarde perspective to a representational style, but also a much more traditional perspective, painting landscapes, portraits, nudes and still lives. 


His thoughts as a writer very much correspond to those as a painter; just as his writing reflected his belief that the contemporary world killed creativity as a writer, so did he resent the modern artistic establishment. Instead, he attempted to stay away from art critics and tried to create art that would not fall under any specific art school. 


“He always referred to himself as a poet and painter, but he finally came to accept the fact the he was never going to be seen as a professional painter,” said Cohen, author of the only book devoted to Cummings’s visual arts. In many ways his prose overshadowed his skill with a paintbrush, and few even today know of the visual artist that Cummings so strove to become. 





“About E.E Cummings’ Art,” Ken Lopez Bookseller, accessed August 15, 2018, https://eecummingsart.com/about/#ken-lopez-bookseller. 


Caleb March, “Happy Birthday, E. E. Cummings, Poet and Painter, ” Finding Dulcinea, October 14, 2010, accessed August 15, 2018, http://www.findingdulcinea.com/features/profiles/c/e-e-cummings.html. 


“E. E. Cummings Biography,” Biography.com, last modified August 22,2016, accessed August 15, 2018, https://www.biography.com/people/ee-cummings-9263274.


“E. E. Cummings: The Artist,” The Kidder Collection, Accessed August 15, 2018, http://thekiddercollection.com/e-e-cummings-the-artist/.