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Portrait of Howard

Irma Howard Cook
SMA 2008.04.53


ca. 1936

10 x 13 inches

25.5 x 33 centimeters

Gift of Katherine & Howard A. Cook

about the work

Only a few artifacts survive to us from this period of Irma Howard Cook's  life, many of which are emblematic of the complex relationship between her domestic life and artistic life. Few of Irma’s artistic works remain, and others that appear to be her style are unsigned; illustrative of the challenge between balancing her domestic responsibilities and artistic talent. Theresa Mann, former Executive Director of the Spartanburg Art Museum, stated “August [Cook] was often heard to say his wife was the better artist of the two, yet he always got more attention.”

This delicate watercolor painting depicts Irma and August's son Howard as a baby. Many decades later, Howard would gift this painting to the Spartanburg Art Museum in honor of his parents.

about the artist

An early childhood trauma left Irma Howard Cook deaf by adolescence. She  might have learned sign-language as an alternate form of communication,  but her parents, who feared doing so would isolate her from mainstream  society, had her learn lip-reading instead. The decision proved to be a  prescient one. In her adult life, Irma became known for her  gregariousness, humor, and extroversion as much as for the unique manner  with which she communicated.  These skills served her well as a student at the prestigious  Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art (Now known as PAFA), where she enrolled  in the early 1920s. While a student at PAFA, Cook distinguished herself  by winning two Cresson Scholarships, in 1923 and 1924 respectively, as  well as the Academy’s coveted Charles Toppen prize. 

Irma is said to have  ‘taken on as a project’ a fellow student - August Cook - early on in  her academic career at PAFA. Young August was quiet and introverted, and  although he had won a Cresson Sholarship of his own in 1921, we can  only image the dynamic interest the considerably accomplished, garrulous  Irma must have held for him. On the other hand, August must not have  been without charms of his own - the same year that Irma was awared the  Toppen Prize, she and Cook married. August accepted a teaching position  at Spartanburg’s Converse College, and the couple moved there together  shortly afterwards.  Sadly, the nascent but significant talent demonstrated by Irma’s  academic achievements would never be given full expression. Her story echoes that of many 19th and 20th century women artists - Cook’s  artistic career took a backseat to the societal pressures and immediate  concerns of family and domestic life. Irma kept a basement studio in the  family home and taught art to several private students, and achieved  some renown as a portraitist in Spartanburg and its immediate environs,  but devoted most of her life and energy to her children and spouse.  

Susan Cook Parsons recalled, in 2000, that “The fact my grandmother chose to raise a family and put her artistic pursuits second place was  always difficult for my grandfather…[but he] became resigned to not  having the partner he’d perhaps hoped for in his artistic pursuits.”

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