Cornell’s ‘Priority of Nature’ On View in Portland Gallery Show

Thomas Cornell, "Farm Pig," 1974, engraving.

Thomas Cornell, “Farm Pig,” 1974, engraving.

An exhibition of works by Thomas Cornell, Bowdoin’s Richard E. Steele Artist-in-Residence, who worked for 50 years at the College before his death in December 2012, is currently being shown at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland. The Priority of Nature, a collection of prints, will be on display through September 27, 2013. Author and art critic Martica Sawin pays tribute to Cornell in an essay she composed in conjunction with the show.

Before his death last December, Thomas Cornell had completed 50 years as a faculty member in the Bowdoin College Art Department. He arrived at Bowdoin in 1962 with a reputation based on his prodigious skill as a printmaker. His earliest series of etchings of monkeys, executed for a book of selections from Thomas Huxley’s History of the Manlike Apes, had already been singled out for purchase by William Lieberman, then curator of prints and drawings at the Museum of Modern Art.

Read more of Martica Sawin’s essay. Read Daniel Kany’s review of The Priority of Nature in the Portland Press Herald.


  1. I was part of Thomas Cornell’s studio art class during the 1962-’63 academic term, which was his first year at Bowdoin, and I continued to strive under his direction during the following year (’63-’64). Had we been privileged to meet later in life to discuss how it had all worked out, I’m not sure which of us would have been more surprised that I went on to have my own (somewhat limited) career in the fine arts.

    He made me think.

    Robert A. Benjamin ’66

  2. Richard V. West says:

    I’m delighted that Tom is being remembered for the amazing printmaker he was (among other talents). He could sing, too, you know. I knew him pre-Bowdoin when we were both at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Through a peculiar quirk of fate, Tom, Don Lent, and I—all from UCSB—ended up in Maine together during the late 1960s—Don at Bates, Tom and later me, at Bowdoin. I do hope that the BCMA will eventually mount a full memorial retrospective of Tom’s prints, drawings, and paintings to show the full scope of his talents and career.

    Richard West
    Director BCMA 1967-1972

  3. Tom and I were good friends at Yale and UCSB, and he asked me to replace him for a year at Bowdoin in 1965. I have always believed his etching was his most powerful and remarkable work. For one thing the medium encourages the commentary on ideas and history that interested him. Etching has the character of an elegant newspaper headline and, in fact, Tom’s work in the medium is often an editorial comment similar to Goya’s or the prints of Kathe Kollwitz. But it is also a rich form of poetic expression. The intimate expression of a print is direct. We hold a proof in our hands or examine a book of etchings on our lap. I can see Tom’s hand drawing on an etching plate, the little finger raised off the ground as he cut lines as swift and graceful as the blade marks a figure skater leaves on the ice.

    Don Lent

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