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 Jennie Ruth Cleveland  (1859 - 1937)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania      Known for: landscape and figure painting, art education

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
One of the prime motivators in Erie, Pennsylvania art history was Jennie Ruth Cleveland, an educator, artist and activist.

Born in Hornell, New York, May 4, 1859, she was a daughter of Washington Lafayette and Julia E. Stidd Cleveland, both of English ancestry.  He was from Smyrna, New York, and she was from Millford, Pennsylvania.  He descended from a decorated Revolutionary War soldier.  The couple had two other children, Frank and Della Flora.

Educated as a teacher and trained as a carpenter, Mr. Cleveland worked in carpentry and was deputy sheriff of Steuben County, New York.  After oil was discovered in Western Pennsylvania, the Cleveland family moved to Erie in 1861 where he founded an oil refinery and invested successfully in oil fields.  Later he owned Cleveland & Co., a foundry which manufactured mill and machinery castings, as the family rose to local prominence.  They resided at 189 East 8th.

The Cleveland children were educated in Erie schools, and at one point, their father served as secretary and treasurer of the city school board among his civic interests.

Early in life Jennie made acquaintance with Lovisa O. Card, possibly in her first year in Erie.  At age nine she was a pupil in a public school where Card taught for only one year.  In a reminiscence Jennie recalled examples she worked from Greenleaf’s Arithmetic and the poem, “The Last Leaf” she learned, both under Card’s tutelage.

In 1870 a long association with her art mentor began with drawing lessons at the newly formed Card School of Art.  She later referred to the woman as a painstaking teacher but also a friend.  For several years her lessons involved pencil, crayon, pen and ink, pastel, oils and watercolors.  
Proudly she once recalled the fad of school girls to have autograph albums.  She relished Miss card’s inscription in her book and followed in her footsteps.  Jennie went on to teach at Erie Academy for 10 years.

At age 25 she was already productive, exhibiting seven works in the 1884 Exposition of Amateur Art in Erie.  Listed items were a plaque called Child’s Head, a landscape in charcoal and the following oil paintings – A Girl I know, Daffodils Study, The Fisher Bay, The Water Carrier and Landscape.  She owned all the works.  Her sister Della also exhibited oil paintings and embroidery designs in the show.

Jennie Cleveland‘s activity with the Art Club dates back to its founding meeting at which she was present.  She was a member of the first board of directors.  In the Club’s first exhibition in 1898, at age 39 she showed nine works, the titles of some suggesting a preoccupation with nature studies.  Among them were “When the Frost is on the Pumpkin and, The Fodder’s in the Shock American Beauties, Marigolds, Pineapples and In Forest Co. Lumber Camp.  Eventually friends would present her study called Chrysanthemums to the Art Club’s permanent collection.
As the Art Club’s representative, she attended the annual convention of the American Federation of Art held in 1899 in Cleveland.  High on the Federation’s agenda that year was action to combat the growth of billboard advertising along highways.  The Federation wanted Congress to enact legislation prohibiting such ads, a move that obviously failed.

Her ardent support of other causes is documented.  After ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Cleveland joined the local brand of the League of Women Voters and acted as a delegate to its 6th annual convention in Erie in 1925.  She also promoted art on behalf of the Women’s Club.

Throughout the Art Club’s formative years, she was involved and assumed the presidency upon Mrs. Card-Catlin’s death in 1925.  She eulogized her close friend at the memorial meeting early in 1926, warning, “…if the Art Club would cease to exist, it would be a disrespect to the memory of Mrs. Catlin.”  The Club prevailed and prospered.

A hallmark of Cleveland’s term of office came in the spring of 1926 when the son of painter Junius R. Sloan, Percy H. Sloan, then of Chicago, sought to donate 150 of his father’s paintings to the Erie group since he had worked in the city.

Correspondence ensued between the two relative to the donation, and at one point she referred the matter to the Club’s Fine Arts Committee.  Her views on the matter, however, were unequivocal.  In a letter to the chairman, Mrs. Hard, dated April 27, 1926, handwritten from her home at 411 West 9th, Cleveland stated her official position.  “We have no room for so large a collection,” and she believed “no museum would take 150 pictures of one artist’s work…particularly if the artist were not known.”  The younger Sloan had hinted she was keeping a great municipal museum secret.

Concurring with its leader, the committee declined Sloan’s donation in a letter of May 3, 1926, owing to lack of space.  The gallery, it was stated, had one room and no prospects for its own building for years to come.  Although Cleveland prevailed, eventually Sloan’s work found its way to preservation and posterity. 

Another milestone of her career came in March 1931, when the local Business and Professional Women’s Club honored her as one of the 12 greatest women in Erie County history.  As a long-time educator, she was cited among the leading advocates of art.  By then she was conducting private lessons in culture and the arts.  The award also recognized her as a past president of the Women’s Club and long-time chairman of its art department.

Six years later, Cleveland died at the age of 78, on June 12, 1937.  She was laid to rest in the family plot at Erie Cemetery.

Submitted by Edward Bentley, Fine Art Researcher from Lansing, Michigan

Erie Artists – A History of Heroes, by Dr. Kirk W. Steehler.  Courtesy of Erie Art Museum.

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