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Earl Cunningham

Folk Artist

1893 - 1977
Inducted in 2003

Biography

Long recognized as one of the greatest American folk artists of the 20th Century, the late Earl Cunningham was a self-taught painter who used vivid colors to portray his own reflections of American life through a series of unique landscapes and seascapes.  His work largely celebrated the beauty of nature and often depicted dramatic storms or sunsets.   Painted in the American folk art style, he filled his canvases with images of birds, trees, boats and the sea.  His work stands as a genuine reflection of American history, from Native American life to more modern times.

Born in Edgecomb, Maine in 1893, Cunningham left his family farm at 13, traveling up and down the eastern seaboard working as a peddler and tinker. He later earned a license as a river and coastal pilot.  In 1915, he was married and settled on a farm in Maine.  When the marriage ended in the mid-1930s, Cunningham sold the Maine farm and bought another in South Carolina where he raised chickens, selling them to the federal government during World War II.  

In 1949, Cunningham moved to St. Augustine where he opened an art gallery and a curio shop.  He sent a painting entitled "The Everglades," to Jackie Kennedy in 1961 (the painting now hangs in the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston).  

By 1970, Cunningham's work was beginning to be widely recognized, thanks largely to art collector Marilyn Mennello of Winter Park.  Mennello championed his work and collected as many of Cunningham's paintings as she could find.  Cunningham soon became nationally prominent, and saw his work exhibited in one-man shows in 30 museums across the country. 

Twenty years after Cunningham's death, the City of Orlando opened the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art.  The museum houses Mennello's extensive Cunningham collection.  Today his work is part of the permanent collections of 10 major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia.  In 2007, Cunningham became the first folk artist to have a one-man exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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