Nathan Cummings surrounded by his collection in 1981.

Now celebrated as a collector of companies as well as art, Nathan Cummings future did not look auspicious at the time of his birth in 1896 in St John, New Brunswick, Canada, the first child of migrants from Lithuania. It was pure chance that he was born Canadian: his parents had disembarked there, the first port of call, assuming it was their destination, New York City. The family moved to Waltham, Massachusetts, setting up a small shoe shop. They moved to Manchester, New Hampshire, and eventually relocated their business in Montreal. Cummings dreamed of becoming a businessman but had little education to prepare him. He was not able to finish high school at Waltham, but was sent to the Dry Goods Economist Training School in New York for a year before returning to work with his father. From the age of fifteen he sold shoes until, at nineteen, he took on the job of travelling salesman for a shoe manufacturer.

Nathan Cummings waits on a customer at one of his retail stores, c.1949

Determined to succeed, Cummings had a shoe shop and factory of his own by 1924, but the business foundered during the Depression, and he was forced to declare himself bankrupt in 1932. A model of tenacity, he paid off his debts and started afresh. By the mid-thirties he had acquired a biscuit and candy company in Canada and the success of the business prompted an invitation to manage the Baltimore based coffee, tea and sugar chain, C.D. Kenny Company. Cummings acquired the company in 1941 and its continued prosperity allowed him to expand his holdings to found a business empire.

Cummings acquired company after company in the next decade. He established his corporate headquarters in Chicago in 1945, forming the Consolidated Grocers Corporation as the hub from which to control the conglomerate. His first art purchase was made in the same year. In 1954 the company name was changed to Consolidated Foods Corporation, which Cummings thought was 'less old-fashioned', and in 1985 the name Sara Lee Corporation was adopted. Sara Lee was the name of one of the company's best known brands, which Cummings had acquired in 1956.

Cummings had retired from the company in 1968, but remained honorary chairman and active in company affairs until the end of his life. Nathan Cummings died in 1985.


Nathan Cummings visiting with Pablo Picasso in the 1960s

There was little in Nathan Cummings's background to suggest an affinity with art. Later in his life, when he was known for his patronage and surrounded by his illustrious collection, he liked to tell of his first tentative encounter with art: 'An advertising man convinced me that I should have a painting made of the view from my window.' Cummings liked it so much that he asked the artist to paint the scene a second time - the view at night. His satisfaction with these works sparked an interest in collecting art that was to develop with the passion of the newly-converted.

Cummings's first significant acquisition was made in Paris in 1945, immediately after the Second World War, when he purchased Camille Pissarro's Bountiful harvest 1893 which he noticed in the window of an art dealer. He knew nothing of Pissarro, but he was confident in what he liked. The painting, which can be seen in this exhibition, is bright, cheerful and direct in its appeal, much like Cummings himself. He collected with a verve and aggressive optimism that characterised his career. He responded to art intuitively, judging a painting the way he would assess a company he wished to acquire, 'by the smell'.

Cummings had a voracious appetite for living. He surrounded himself with people, making friends from all walks of life. He was at ease as much with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as with his good friend Bob Hope, who appeared out of a cake at Cummings's eightieth birthday. His social circle also included many of the artists whose work he collected - for example, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, Giacomo Manzù and Alberto Giacometti

Henri Matisse's Lemons on a pewter plate 1926 and Camille Pissarros' Vase of flowers 1877-78 in the Chairman's Office, Sara Lee Corporation, Chicago.

Cummings did not confine himself to the acquisition of blue-chip impressionist and 20th-century master paintings. He enjoyed contemporary art and delighted in new discoveries. He often acquired whole series of works by artists he liked, later distributing the works to friends or scattering them around the workplace. At one time he owned a fishing fleet and ensured that each of the fifteen boats was equipped with its own work of art. He bought and sold without expecting to keep the works forever, allowing old favourites to be replaced by new enthusiasms. Cummings expected that everyone would share his passion for art: as well as giving away works of art as presents, he displayed parts of his collection in the offices of his companies for the enjoyment of the staff.

He shared his good fortune, making contributions to hospitals and universities, and naturally extending his philanthropy to the arts.
His endowment created the Nathan Cummings Arts Center at Stanford University and the Joanne and Nathan Cummings Art Center at Connecticut College in New London. He made major contributions to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and to the Art institute of Chicago.

In 1970, when his collection was shown at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Cummings remarked at the opening that: 'The arts have meant a great deal to me and continue to be a source of tremendous satisfaction and thrilling experiences. And like so many who have come to know and love the fine arts, I feel their beauty and meaningfulness must be shared. If you ask me what is my plan, my philosophy, believe me, I can't explain it. I get some electrifying impulse when I see a picture I like. And when I come home in the evening, I revisit every picture in our living room, in my study, in our gallery... And I can always find something new and beautiful in every one of the pictures hanging on our walls.'