Percy Cowen and his ‘dearest Jane’

The M.V. Museum showcases the illustrator’s professional and personal life.


The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s exhibit “Percy E. Cowen: My Own Dearest Jane” takes us back to an era before texting, apps, and websites fed us the news from the world and loved ones 24 hours a day.

The show tells the story of one man, his artistry as a successful magazine illustrator and maritime painter … and a genuine love for his Vineyard wife, Jane. This exhibition features artwork on loan from Cowen’s family, including his richly illustrated WWI correspondence, lovingly preserved for more than 100 years.

Born in New Bedford in 1888, Percy was already a successful magazine illustrator in New York City for the likes of Putnam’s and Harper’s by his early 20s. Samples of his paintings for magazine covers and inside illustrations hang in the gallery. Looking carefully, you see that the images differ from fine art. For the covers, Percy left large swathes of space for the magazine title and other text, and the black-and-white interior illustrations sometimes softened out at the edges, as was the style of the day.

Regardless of their final location in the magazine, Percy’s illustrations brim with life. He often painted from life as well as photographs, particularly for action-oriented scenes where he had to convey his model mid-motion. Chief curator Bonnie Stacy has included some of the photographs Cowen used as the basis for his illustrations. Comparing the black-and-whites to Cowen’s renderings reveals his artistic choices, in terms of what to include or leave out, and subtle changes that make all the difference in creating more dynamic compositions.

Among the photos are those of Cowen in various positions that he took to get precisely the pose he wanted for his illustrations. Speaking about Cowen’s drawings for magazine stories, Stacy said, “He had a really good feeling for how to bring them to life.”

Cowen and some friends came to vacation in Chilmark around 1915, where he met Jane Look, who came from an old Vineyard family. An entire section of his illustrated lighthearted courtship correspondence to her reveals an immensely amusing wit. We see images of him running for the Friday afternoon ferry on his commute from New York, a goofy-looking fisherman reeling up a rubber boot, and the artist in his New York bed dreaming of an idyllic Chilmark home.

The couple married in 1918, just three weeks before Cowen went to war. The illustrations on the letters he wrote home to Jane have a very different feel. Shipped to France in July 1918, part of his task with the 301st Engineers was making maps and signs, among other assignments he could not share with Jane because of military secrecy.

Cowen typically wrote twice a week when he was out, making drawings on the top or bottoms of the blank pages, which he filled when returning to his quarters. Among the many images, we see village scenes, bombed-out buildings, soldiers distributing food to children, and tents in a military camp. He wrote dozens of letters during his year away, only sharing information about being under attack or an influenza outbreak after the fact, for fear of worrying his beloved wife at home.

“One of the things he often said in his letters was, ‘When I get home, I can see these and tell you all about these places,’” Stacy shares. “He couldn’t share everything he knew because of censorship during wartime.”

Although World War I lasted only another four months after Cowen arrived, he remained overseas until 1919, not returning home to Jane until close to their first wedding anniversary.

At that point, the couple summered in Menemsha, and lived in Connecticut the rest of the year, where Cowen commuted to New York for work. He also began experimenting with less commercial art, and moved toward landscape painting. The examples in the show reveal a new direction, with different brushwork, subtler colors, and more atmosphere. He, in fact, befriended Thomas Hart Benton, and the two did some painting together.

Sadly, Cowen died from cancer just four years after returning home. The first signs had shown up during his Army unit’s 200-mile march from France to Germany, where chafing from the heavy pack he carried revealed the first sign of the disease that would eventually kill him, despite radium treatments and surgery that proved to no avail.

Stacy reflects, “I would love it if people could understand how much good work is forgotten. Cowen is a good example. He is definitely not a household name anymore. How many more artists could there be who, for one reason or another, we don’t remember? Maybe for those of us who are more familiar with artists on the Vineyard or anywhere, it’s a surprise to find really good art by someone you’ve never heard of.”

We are also left wondering what more Cowen himself would have done had his life not been cut so short.

“Percy E. Cowen: My Own Dearest Jane” is on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through May 26, 2024. For more information, visit