Thursday, 6 January 2011

James M Cowan - the Scotch-Irish donor of the Cowan colection

Nashville was known as the 'Athens of the South' and a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Athens was built in Nashville in 1897 as part of Tennessee's Centenial Exposition.  Originally built of plaster, wood and brick, it was rebuilt in the 1920s with concrete and in 1927 it became home to a magnificent collection of sixty-three paintings known as the Cowan Collection.

This collection of paintings was provided through the generosity of James Montgomery Cowan, a Scotch-Irish philanthropist, who was born in 1858 in Hernandez, Mississippi.  At the age of thirteen, he moved with his family to Tullahoma in Tennessee and remained there until he was in his twenties.  Several of his immediate relatives were buried in Tullahoma and he considered the state of Tennessee to be his ancestral home.

Cowan moved to Cincinnati and became a successful insurance executive in Aurora, Illinois.  while he was in his thirties he began collecting art and this was his real passion in life.  By the time of his death in 1930 he had amassed some seven hundred works of art.

In 1897 Cowan was invited to the Centennial Exposition in Nashville, held at the future site of what is today Centennial Park, and this further strengthened his affection and admiration for Tennessee.

He decided to donate a collection of paintings to Nashville and in April 1927 twenty-one crates arrived in the city from the Grand Central Galleries in New York City.  These were the first of three shipments of paintings and at that point the donor was anonymous.  It was not until his death in 1930 that the identity of the donor became known.

The collection spans the years 1765 to 1923 and Cowan was very specific in the choices for his collection.  His selection emphasises the landscape and seascape more than any other subject matter and all the artists were American.  Most of them were also members of the National Academy.

There were several Cowans in the Tennessee Scotch-Irish Society - John W Cowan, Robert Cowan and Samuel Cowan in Nashville and J D Cowan in Knoxville - and it seems that James M Cowan was also of Ulster-Scots ancestry.  As regards the Cowans of Tullahoma we have the evidence of a letter written on 28 March 1895 by his father Dr James Benjamin Cowan (1831-1909), who was chief surgeon to the famous Confederate soldier Nathan Bedford Forrest:
My father was Samuel Montgomery Cowan.  Before the late war between the states we had a family tree but it was lost and I will have to write from memory.  My great-great-grandfather was Samuel Cowan.  His sons were John, James, Samuel, William and Robert.  I don't know that I have given them in order of age ... Samuel Cowan had several daughters.  One of them, Elizabeth, married Samuel McCroskey, and their daughter Elizabeth wed Samuel Houston.  Samuel and his brother William Houston have often been at my father's home, and they called each other cousin. ... I have known many members of these families and they all trace back to the same place, to Samuel Cowan or his brothers.
My great-grandfather was Major John Cowan ... My grandfather [Captain James Cowan] was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and all of his family, as far back as I know them or their history, were Presbyterians.
Samuel Cowan's family came at quite an early date.  He came from Londonderry, Ireland, and our family came from Scotland to Ireland.
Cowan's grandfather Samuel Montgomery Cowan (1801-1881) was a minister in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

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