It took a while to get the arts properly organized in Columbus.
Writing in 1932, H.B. Arnold of Columbus reflected on the difficulties: "Among the essential elements in the life of a growing American city fifty years ago, the fine arts were not accorded the prestige they have today.
"To be sure, in the larger cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia important museums had been established, famous collections had been started and gallery visitors were numerous and constant. But in the smaller inland cities where pioneering had been a more recent experience the people as a whole were not art conscious and endowments for art museums were rare. Those who had the leisure and means for travel, however, invariably returned to their native cities with a desire to keep alive new interests and to provide a place where art treasures might be accumulated and shared."
Although Arnold undoubtedly meant well, her observations might be overstated. There was a time in the 1820s when the rough and ready settlers of Ohio's capital city lived in log houses and carefully avoided the pigs running loose in the cornfield on Statehouse Square. But by the 1880s, in the era to which Arnold refers, the cultural scene had improved.
With the arrival of the Ohio and Erie Canal and the National Road in the 1830s, Columbus became a city of more than 5,000 people and entered a period of steady growth. The arrival of the first railroad in 1850 soon was followed by more, and Columbus became a major railhead during the Civil War. When the war ended in 1865, the city's population rose to more than 18,000 people. The opening of the Hocking Valley Railroad in the 1870s brought immense quantities of inexpensive coal, iron and timber to Columbus, and by the 1880s, more than 70,000 people called the city home.
Since the founding of Columbus in 1812, the town never had been bereft of art and artists. State capitals attract notable people.
James Monroe was the first president to visit Columbus in 1817. He complimented the "Infant City" -- pigs and all -- and rode on to the next town on his tour of the west.
Other notable people visited town. Henry Clay came to Columbus often to practice law. Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth stopped by during his American tour. Entertainers ranging from Jenny Lind to "Jumbo the Dancing Elephant" passed through town as well. More importantly, people came to Columbus and stayed here, becoming governors, legislators and jurists.
All those prominent people attracted artists who vied to paint them for posterity -- and for a fee. Among the most important of them was John Henry Witt. Born in Indiana in 1840, Witt studied with J.O. Eaton in Cincinnati and came to Columbus in 1862. He painted politicians and trained local artists -- among them Silas Martin, James Mosure and Philip Clover. After 1840, with the invention of photography, the portraitists found themselves competing with local "daguerrean artistes."
The society they served was a sophisticated one. Writing to a friend in 1833, a local visitor commented on the people he had met in Columbus: "The society of married ladies is decidedly superior to that of any other part of the state I have visited. It is not my intention to panegyrize nor even describe; but they in general possess grace, beauty, and no small fund of information.
"The younger class of females in these respects resemble their mother, but with some exceptions. ... Of the men I shall only say, they are agreeable and well informed. The young men are attentive to strangers, polite to the ladies and have quite a literary taste."
It was in this long tradition of propriety and gentility that ladies in the 1870s began to take an interest in an arts organization.
A later account described how the movement began: "Here a group of alert women in the early seventies met once a week to read and discuss Winckelmann's "History of Art." This was one of the many indications throughout the country that the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 had awakened and stimulated an interest in art as an important element in the development and growth of this young republic.
"The discussion engendered by the reading of Winckelmann's book proved so stirring, so provocative and so dangerous to the friendly relations of the ladies composing the club that Mrs. Alfred Kelley was approached and asked to organize a larger group where discussions might become more impersonal and the growing interest in art be extended to a wider circle."
The result was the formation of the Columbus Art Association on Oct. 18, 1878.
With community support, the association created an art school that would become the Columbus College of Art and Design; through various convolutions, the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts would become the Columbus Museum of Art.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.