The Secret Art Life of E.E. Cummings

The great modernist poet had a sideline passion—creating a multitude of visual art: 1,600 sketches, drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings during his lifetime.


American greats like Dorothea Lange, Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol are the artists one expects to find within the walls of the new Whitney Museum when it opens its doors to the public on May 1 in New York City’s Meatpacking District.

But among these hallowed visual artists is a wordsmith whose name may raise eyebrows: e.e. cummings.

Few realize that the poet who lovingly, lyrically crafted

“i carry your heart with me(i carry it inmy heart)i am never without it(anywherei go you go,my dear;and whatever is doneby only me is your doing,my darling)”

was a devoted painter well before his first writing was ever published.

Cummings completed around 1,600 sketches, drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings during his lifetime, in addition to his prolific career as a poet and master of prose, said Milton A. Cohen, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who wrote Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings’s Early Work, the only scholarly book devoted to Cummings’s visual arts.

“It was part of his daily routine,” said Cohen. Cummings was always painting and working on art throughout his adulthood, regardless of his locale.

“He had a studio in Patchin Place [his famous apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village],” said Cohen. “He would go every summer to his family’s farm in the White Mountains, and he would paint every day. He had a flat area on the roof where he could set up an easel.”

From his youth, Cummings was fascinated with painting and the fine arts. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1894, he began drawing and writing well before his time at Harvard University. “He drew from childhood just as he wrote poems from childhood. He just knew he wanted to be an artist,” said Cohen.

“He was an artist first and foremost, and these [writing and painting] were the two forms of expression that were always part of his work,” said Cohen. “It was clear he was good with words, and he was determined he would just as good with a pen and paintbrush.”

Yet, as determined as Cummings as was to be a painter, he was adamant in his refusal to take formal lessons. Instead, by the time he was getting his master’s degree at Harvard, he had set up a studio in his parents’ home.

It was around this time that Cummings saw the famous Armory Show art exhibition that toured the U.S. in 1913, a seminal moment in his artistic development.

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The exhibition, which was the first major display of European modern art on the other side of the Atlantic, shocked and intrigued American audiences.

Then-scandalous nudes by Matisse and Duchamp stole much of the press. But when the Armory Show hit Boston, Cummings was “knocked out by the Picassos,” said Cohen.

The future two-time Guggenheim Fellowship winner became “determined to train himself to be modernist in both poetry and painting,” said Cohen.

While one can’t necessarily tie a specific painting to a specific poem, there are links between Cummings’s visual and verbal creations. “There is a lot of interconnection between the two,” said Cohen. “His poetry moves in a much freer way over the page and sometimes lines form diagonals. That was intentional. He cared about where each letter and each punctuation mark appeared, the way a painter would care about ink on white space. He was very careful about the way he arranged his poems visually.”

“He was trying to get what he called the ‘third dimension’ in his poetry, just as painters were juxtaposing colors,” said Cohen. “Modernist painters tried to use pure color [as opposed to black shading] to communicate the ‘third dimension.’ Cummings studied that very closely.”

Cummings doggedly read and studied Willard Huntington Wright’s 1915 Modern Painting—Its Tendency and Meaning. He attempted to teach himself through taking copious notes on painting styles and techniques to shape both his paintings and his poetry.

Of all the artists featured in the Armory, Cézanne ultimately came to have, perhaps, the greatest impact of all on Cummings’s art.

“Cézanne was the major influence. He [Cummings] really studied his technique and tried to apply something like that to his poetry,” explained Cohen. “Cézanne would carefully arrange colors that would either come forward or recede,” while Cummings “experimented with combining opposite words or emotions to try to suggest this ‘third dimension.’”

Cézanne appears to have also influenced Cummings’s selection of subjects. Like Cézanne’s series on Mont Sainte-Victoire in France, Cummings also did studies of Mount Chocorua near his family’s home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

While Cummings was drawn to nature in both his poetry and paintings, he also had more risqué subjects.

“He liked to go to strip shows and burlesque shows,” said Ken Lopez, a bookseller in Hadley, Massachusetts, who is also a curator and seller of Cummings’s works of art.

He noted that Cummings often visited the strip clubs on 42nd Street in New York. “There are a lot of dancing nudes, a whole body of works, he just went to those places wherever they might be.”

Cummings’s sketches of a nude woman along with ones of curvy, undulating ladies dancing are on display at the Whitney. In Lopez’s collection, there are sultry oil paintings of strippers and nude dancers whose blurred lines and rich colors add an intoxicating sensuousness.

Lopez said Cummings did a series of “nude men and women, almost in precarious shoreline positions where the weather is very intense and tumultuous.”

The focus on romance and sex is unsurprising considering Cummings’s own at times salacious prose. E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey has nothing on Cummings’s “may I feel said he” poem.

may i feel said he(i’ll squeal said shejust once said he)it’s fun said she

In other paintings, Cummings took bold colors, blurring and swirling them into one another much like the experimental liberties he took with language in his poetry. His 1925 “Noise Number 13” is one of his most famous paintings, and it is the only oil painting in the Whitney collection.

“Noise Number 13” was produced just as Cummings’s reputation as a poet was eclipsing his status as a visual artist. Throughout the 1920s, he published several sketches and paintings in the Dial, the modernist literary and arts magazine, which was the first to publish T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.

However, the publication of his first book, the autobiographical novel The Enormous Room, in 1922 and his first collection of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, in 1923 overshadowed his art work.

Cummings continued to produce art and to occasionally submit his pieces to exhibitions or small gallery showings. In 1931, he even published a book of his visual art, CIOPW, which stood for the five media he worked in: charcoal, ink, oil, pencil, and watercolor.

However, Cummings’s national fame was entirely due to his writing. “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.

Following Cummings’s death in 1962, his common-law wife, Marion Morehouse, donated his paintings, some of them to raise money for a camp in New Hampshire that the family has supported. Lopez acquired dozens of Cummings’s works in the late 1990s with a couple of partners. “The idea that there was a body of artwork by such an acclaimed 20th-century poet was as startling to me as anyone else,” he said.

A quick look at Lopez’s collection shows that Cummings’s works still retail for a pretty penny, with some of his oil paintings go for $10,000—though that’s chump change compared to the more than $250 million spent on his idol, Cézanne’s, “The Card Players.”

The State University of New York at Brockport also houses 72 of Cummings’s paintings, but the collection is not widely known.

Cummings’s disappearance from the art world may not be as simple as that his fame in the world of poetry stole the limelight from his art.

Lopez suggested that Cummings’s patience for the pretentiousness of the New York art scene was fading fast by the 1930s.

“He got sick of the New York gallery scene. He dropped out because he thought it was becoming personality-driven, and he thought art out to stand on its own. He thought artists were capitalizing on their names, and the art world bought into it. A bad Picasso was still a Picasso, [but] he thought that had no cachet,” said Lopez.

In his own form of protest, Cummings “almost never signed his work because he thought it didn’t matter,” said Lopez.

Just as he refused to confine himself to any specific literary style, Cummings resisted subscribing to any specific movement or school or art.

“From the 1930s on, his paintings were largely representational, so it didn’t track with the evolving works of art, like [ones by] surrealists,” said Lopez. “He was a little curmudgeonly towards the art world, and the art world would pay him in kind.”

But the split between Cummings and the art world may not have been mutual, as much as rejection from the latter.

Lopez said Cummings stopped promoting his art work professionally and, thus, it became almost more like a passionate hobby.

“Some of the paintings were for entertaining. It’s more like someone who goes out in his backyard and shoots baskets. He’s not playing in the NBA,” said Lopez. However, Lopez added that Cummings “did make plenty of full-fledged artwork.”

Cohen suggested that Cummings may simply not have been able to hack it in the visual arts—especially since he had so firmly rejected formal training.

“He taught himself, which was both good and bad. He felt studying formally would inhibit him, and it may have, but on the other hand it probably would have improved his technique,” said Cohen.

“He was really trying to teach himself what he would have gotten in a studio, but what he didn’t get was constructive criticism. That would have enabled him to grow. I think that limited his ability as an artist,” said Cohen.

I ask Cohen if Cummings, who died in 1962, actively resisted lessons and critiques because he was arrogant. “He was ruthlessly independent,” he said. “One of the aspects of independence is trying to do things on your own terms.”

This quality was hardly limited to Cummings’s life as a painter. “In poetry, his rebelliousness and innovation with lines and words and letters were something new. People looked at him as sort of this ‘bad boy’ of modern poetry. He didn’t feel he needed instruction with poetry, and he didn’t feel he needed it with painting,” said Cohen.

“I think he was a natural-born poet, so he was right about the poetry. I think he was wrong about the painting.”