The unmarried members of the Coe College faculty organized an informal club in fall of 1920. They planned to have a party “every time that the spirit moves” and “celebrate as much as troubles with the students allow,” according to the unofficial rules.
Coe professor Marvin Cone was a charter member of the group, but he was “ousted” at an Oct. 28, 1921, meeting after his marriage to Winnifred Swift. The ousting came with a party and “many burlesque gifts of art,” The Gazette reported.
Cone’s exit from the club followed a trip on the Canadian Pacific steamship Grampian with his good friend and fellow artist, Grant Wood, after they’d spent the summer painting in France. On that voyage, Cone met a Canadian, Elizabeth Winnifred Swift. It took him seven trips from Iowa to Ontario to convince her to marry him and move to Cedar Rapids.
The two were wed Aug. 10, 1921, at Trinity Church in Watford, Ontario. After a honeymoon at Niagara Falls, they set up house in what Winnifred recalled was a “tiny, little, below-ground apartment on 12th Street close to Coe.” They then found a cottage on Fifth Avenue SE, where Winnifred lived until she died in 1997.
Cone’s time was split between his art and his commitment to Coe’s French department. Winnifred made sure her husband didn’t neglect his art.
“It was the important thing to find time for him to paint,” she said in a later Gazette interview.
Winnifred was not an artist, but she was an excellent artist’s companion, according to those who knew the couple. One of her favorite phrases to her husband, when she saw something she liked, was, “Take a painting, Marvin.”
By 1926, Cone’s work was a staple in the Art Association’s gallery, along with paintings by Leon Zeman and Wood. Winnifred was active in Coe’s art community and at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
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As Wood’s fame increased, Cone seemed to be in his friend’s shadow, though he was increasingly recognized in his own right. A fair share of the credit for that goes to Winnifred.
Although not an extrovert, she was nevertheless a firm and constant advocate for her husband. If she thought he needed encouragement, she encouraged. Solitude? She kept their home quiet. Perspective? She pointed out possibilities for future works. She encouraged him to do landscapes when he quit painting clouds. When Cone gave a talk at an Art Association event, Winnifred was usually there as well, serving tea.
In 1929, Cone’s paintings became more modern and versatile. Winnifred thought if her husband spent more time abroad, he would be “as modern as the next one.”
Twenty Cedar Rapids art lovers agreed and arranged for him to spend the summer in Paris. The Cones rented a studio and, between picnics at Chartres, sampling lager and roaming the flea market outside the city, Cone completed enough work for an exhibit at Cedar Rapids’ Little Gallery.
In 1934, Marvin gave up teaching French at Coe to establish Coe’s Department of Art, where he was a professor of art and painting.
Although Cone’s paintings sometimes seemed eerie and surreal, the Cone home was always bright and cheerful. The family dining room was Cone’s studio on most weekends and holidays.
His art involved his family. The three of them — including daughter Doris — would think up titles for his paintings. One such painting was of a room with a picture on the wall of a man with a handlebar mustache. When they couldn’t figure out who the man was, someone said, “Probably Charlie.”
The painting became known as “Probably Charlie.”
The circus came to town in August 1940. While others were entranced with shows under the big top, the Cones were taking pictures of the tents, “for future reference,” because Cone was fascinated by the planes and angles.
The Cone dining room ceased doing double duty when Cone retired in 1960, and the Cones built a studio addition to their home. After Cone died in 1965, the studio became Winnifred’s bedroom.
In 1971, Winnifred consented to a showing of paintings from the family’s private collection at Coe’s Sinclair galleries.
“Mr. Cone graduated from Coe in 1914, studied three years at the Art Institute of Chicago and taught at Coe from 1919 until 1960. He was a member of the famous Stone City Art Colony in the 1930s and was a close friend of Grant Wood’s,” according to publicity for the show.
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In 1980, the Cedar Rapids Art Center mounted an exhibit of 75 of Marvin’s works. That was followed by the 1983 opening of a new permanent gallery of Marvin Cone works at the Art Museum at 324 Third St. SE.
Winnifred Cone continued to encourage and support Coe art students until her death in 1997. The Winnifred S. Cone galleries in the Stewart Memorial Library today feature dozens of works by her husband.
After Winnifred’s death, Iowa City artist Byron Buford said of her, “She was kind, loyal and gentle. She was always supportive of the arts without being spectacular about it.”
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