Kenyon Cox (1856–1919)

A distinguished American muralist and art critic.

By Chelsea DeLay

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Suggested Resources
VII. Notes

I. Biography

Remembered as both an artist and critic, Kenyon Cox was born October 27, 1856 in Warren, Ohio. His father was Major-General Jacob D. Cox, who was Commander of the Twenty-third Army Corps, Governor of Ohio, and the United States Secretary of the Interior.[1] Around nine years old, Cox was afflicted with a condition that rendered him invalid for about four years; it was around this time that his penchant for art began to show the first signs of morphing into a potential career path. With a realized dedication to his trade, Cox enrolled at the McMicken Art School in Cincinnati in 1869, where he continued to take classes until he was eighteen years old.

Cox enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1876, and while the curriculum provided a solid foundation for technique, it was not enough to satiate his goal of artistic perfection. Only a year later, Cox made the trans-Atlantic journey to Paris, where he spent five years studying at various ateliers. His style was quick to absorb the Parisian influence that was evident throughout his entire career: the draftsmanship in his paintings exhibited a high degree of finish, and consistently demonstrated an allegiance to formal values and an ideal aesthetic.[2]

Raised by a father with staunch beliefs in the importance of public and military service, it came as no surprise when the themes of civic morals and responsibility pervaded Cox’s work. Cox was primarily known for his allegorical murals that decorated the hallways and ceilings of the state capitols of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, in addition to the Library of Congress and numerous public buildings in New York City. As Manhattan began to show the first signs of the approaching industrial age during the 1880s, the art world tried its best to hold on to formal European ideals. After Cox returned to the United States in 1883, he took a position at the New York Art Students League, where one pupil in particular caught his eye. On June 30, 1892, Cox married his student Louise Howland King, who was a talented painter from San Francisco.[3] The couple worked together on several occasions, and records show that Mr. and Mrs. Kenyon Cox were asked to contribute to the murals that decorated the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

During the years up until the turn of the century, Cox steadily began to exhibit a wide range of portraits and landscapes that demonstrated his gift as a colorist. Nevertheless, it was his definitive skill as a draftsman that established Cox as one of the foremost mural painters of the late-nineteenth century. In addition to the success achieved through his paintings, Cox also proved that he was a double-edged sword within the art world; he published numerous insightful criticisms that have come to be regarded as some of the foremost literature on American anti-modernism. As both an artist and a critic, Cox advocated a beautiful and even surface, precision, and workmanship that demonstrated a painter’s ability to bring out the beauty and highest qualities of his material.[4]

A proponent of an academic approach and historical traditional, Cox explained in Academicism and the National Academy of Design, “The danger to American art is not that of rigid conformity to fixed standards, but that anarchic individualism, or unbridled license and of the absence of all standards.”[5] He continued to work, producing both paintings and literature, up until his death in 1919. Cox passed away in New York City at the age of sixty-three. His paintings and murals can still be seen today in institutions and public buildings such as the Library of Congress, the New York Appellate Court, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Rhode Island School of Design.

II. Chronology

1856 Born October 27 in Warren, Ohio
1869–74 Attended McMicken Art School in Cincinnati, Ohio
1876 Enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1877– 83 Traveled to Paris
1888 Awarded Hallgarten Prize from the National Academy of Design
1892 Married his student Louise Howland King on June 30
1896 His son, Allyn Cox, was born
1896–97 Painted the murals in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC
1900 Elected Associate Member of the National Academy
1903 Nominated for full membership to the National Academy, elected Academician
1910 Awarded the Medal of Honor for his mural paintings by the Architectural League
1915–1919 Served as President of the National Society of Mural Painters
1917 Published Concerning Painting: Considerations Theoretical and Historical
1919 Passed away in New York City

III. Collections

Appellate Court, NY, mural
Bowdoin College, ME
Brooklyn Institute Museum, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Carnegie Institute, MI
Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
Citizens’ Building, OH, mural
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Delaware Art Museum, DE
Essex County Court House, NJ, mural
Federal Building, OH, mural
Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, WA
Hudson County Court House, NJ, mural
Library of Congress, Washington, DC, mural
Luzerne County Court House, PA, mural
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Morris Museum of Art, GA
National Academy of Design, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
Oberlin College, OH
Public Library, MN, mural
Raydon Gallery, NY
Rhode Island School of Design, RI
Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
St. Louis Art Museum, MO
State capitol buildings in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, mural
West Point Museum, NY
Westmoreland Museum of Art, PA
Yellowstone Art Center, MT

IV. Exhibitions

1879–82 Paris Salon
1882-1908, 1915, 1917 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, medal, 1891
1883, 1892 Brooklyn Art Association, NY
1883 Clossen’s Gallery, OH
Cincinnati Industrial Exhibition, OH
1884 New England Manufacturers and Mechanics Institute, MA
1884–97, 1910 National Academy of Design, NY, prize, 1889; medal, 1910
1889 Paris Exposition, medals
1893 Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL, medal
1895–1909 Boston Art Club, MA
1896, 1923, 1942 Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
1904 St Louis Exposition, MO, medal
1905 Buffalo Fine Art Academy, NY
Albright Art Gallery, NY
1908, 1916 Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
1909 New York Architectural League, NY, medal
1953 Columbus Gallery of Fine Art, OH

V. Memberships

American Academy & Institute of Arts and Letters
Art Students League, Instructor
Lotos Club
National Academy, Associate, 1900; Academician, 1903
National Free Arts League, founding member; secretary
National Society of Mural Painters, President, 1915–1919
New York Architectural League, 1889
National Institute of Arts and Letters
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, fellow
Society of American Artists

VI. Suggested Resources

Falk, Peter. “Kenyon Cox” in Who Was Who in American Art, 756. Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999.
Morgan, H. Wayne. Kenyon Cox (1856–1919): A Life in American Art. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994.

VII. Notes

1. “Kenyon Cox,” American Art News 17 (March 22, 1919): 4, accessed July 3, 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/255899446.
2. Sarah J. Moore, “In Search of an American Iconography: Critical Reaction to the Murals at the Library of Congress,” Winterthur Portfolio 25 (Winter 1990): 234, accessed July 3, 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1181285.
3. Archives of American Art, “Kenyon and Louise Cox papers, Certificate of Marriage, 1892,” June 30, 1892, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Certificate-of-Marriage--192201.
4. Kenyon Cox, “Workmanship,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 12 (July 1917): 146, accessed July 5, 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3253807.
5. Kenyon Cox, “Academicism and the National Academy of Design,” The Art World 2 (August 1917): 427, accessed July 2, 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25588040.

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