“Train Crossing at Great Falls, Lewiston, Maine” was painted by D.D. Coombs in 1914. Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers (Milford, Conn.)

Nobody thinks much about Delbert Dana Coombs anymore. 

And when they do, it’s typically to dismiss him. 

When The New York Times sent someone out two decades ago to seek out art in Maine, which has its share of legendary figures, the reporter stumbled upon some of Coombs’ work. 

But Coombs didn’t even rate a full sentence, tossed aside merely as “a painter in the Romantic tradition who turned out boring landscapes.” 

Artist D.D. Coombs Lewiston Daily Sun

That summary, while fair, missed a great deal about the artist who is best known for paintings of cattle. He also churned out paintings of scenery in Maine and New Hampshire, a pile of political cartoons, illustrations of all sorts and portraits of luminaries that still hang in government buildings and museums throughout the region. 

A dozen of his portraits hang in the Maine State House alone, including ones of long-remembered Lewiston dignitaries such as Nelson Dingley Jr., William Frye and Alonzo Garcelon. A painting Coombs made of Ricker Hill in Turner is also on display.

Christopher Huntington, who wrote an essay for a 1965 exhibit at the Colby College Art Museum and Portland Museum of Art, called Coombs “an admirable artist and a sensitive recorder of life about him,” especially capturing inland Maine, “an area that had all too few devoted interpreters.”

Born in 1850, the artist – who signed his work D.D. Coombs – lived mostly in Auburn in his adult years. After his death in 1938, he was buried in a family plot in the Mount Auburn Cemetery alongside his parents and his wife. 

The Lewiston Daily Sun, noting his death at age 88, called him a “widely known artist” with works scattered across the country. They still are, popping up on occasion at auction houses in many states. 

They don’t, however, attract many bidders, sometimes selling for less than $1,000 apiece. 

It doesn’t take a keen eye for art to see that Coombs is never going to be a truly renowned figure. 

After all, with so many illustrious painters through the years — including Winslow Homer, N.C. Wyeth and Marsden Hartley – Maine has never suffered a shortage of artists trying to capture its beauty. 

Still, for a time in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Coombs rated among a handful of the most esteemed painters who caught the attention of art-minded Mainers. 

Huntington said many of his oil paintings “had considerable charm” and occasionally reached high quality art, particularly those he did in the 1880s and 1890s.

D.D. Coombs painted “Mt. David, 1860” years later, capturing the appearance of the hill near Bates College before the area’s transformation. Bates Museum of Art

Ever since, Coombs has lingered on the margins of memory. 

Half a century ago, an exhibit sponsored by the Maine Federation of Women’s Clubs toured the state showing off the best landscape paintings of the state’s first 150 years. 

For that show, art historian James M. Carpenter noted that during the late 1800s, Maine’s “native painters came into their own,” citing five in particular: Harrison Brown, Charles Kimball, John Hudson and George McConnell, all based mostly in Portland, and Coombs in Lewiston. 

“They supplied an active market for landscape paintings with pictures whose quality is being appreciated today after a half-century of relative neglect,” Carpenter said at the time. 

After another half-century of relative neglect, perhaps it’s time to take another look at Coombs, who once led the illustrations department at the Lewiston Evening Journal. 

D.D. Coombs’ 1894 painting “Shady Nook.” Bates Museum of Art

FROM LISBON TO LEWISTON 

Fortunately for the curious, George Thomas Little’s 1909 “Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine” provided a detailed enough account of Coombs’ life to fill in many of the gaps beyond mere dates and titles. 

A sketch of former Maine Gov. David Dunn by D.D. Coombs, published in the 1884 book “Inside the Bar” by John W. May.

Born in 1850 in Lisbon Falls to William and Clarinda Coombs, he moved with his family two years later to New Gloucester, where he grew up and attended school. His father ran a blacksmith shop there. 

Little recorded that when still a toddler, Coombs “would spend hours at his mother’s side cutting out all kinds of figures” with scissors that even then “showed remarkable skill in some of his work.” 

At the common school he attended “his pencil often brought him trouble,” apparently from doodling when he should have been paying attention, “but the corner grocery store was the place where it found encouragement” by drawing sketches on rough wrapping paper, according to Little. 

His father’s shop became “a picture gallery for the young artist, where the boy’s father proudly exhibited to his customers his son’s skill in chalk on blackened wall of the old shop,” Little recounted. 

The Lewiston Daily Sun later said the cartoons he drew as a youngster made Coombs “a town celebrity” in New Gloucester. 

At age 12, rheumatic fever hit Coombs, leaving him weakened and “unfitted him for the broader education his ambition craved,” as Little described it. He could, however, work on his art. 

As a teenager, Coombs took some lessons from Scott Leighton, an Auburn native who gained renown in Boston for his equine paintings. 

By age 20, Coombs had a studio in Lewiston, which failed in short order. He moved on to work for a photographer in Portland before returning to Lewiston to take up sign painting and teaching. 

The Lewiston Evening Journal as depicted in a sketch by D.D. Coombs late in the 1800s. Androscoggin Historical Society

His career began to take off when his caricatures caught the attention of James Blaine, a powerful politician from Maine who almost won the presidency in 1884. Blaine had Coombs draw cartoons to help his campaign. 

With his reputation growing, Coombs moved to Boston to work for an engraving firm. He had a studio there “for several winters,” according to an undated newspaper clipping in a Lewiston Public Library scrapbook. 

Coombs moved back to Maine again, though, when his father fell ill, setting up a home in Auburn. 

The Lewiston Evening Journal, spotting an opportunity, hired Coombs to run a new illustrating department at the paper, providing artwork for the newspaper and for its advertisers. 

“Here Coombs found free course for his pencil and an opportunity to express himself in caricature, and his success in that line was most marked, his subjects always being appropriately chosen and his tastes inclining to the higher order of portrayals,” Little said.

Between the newspaper and his private work, Coombs began making a steady, decent income as an artist. 

He did have his irritable moments even so. 

During the winter of 1880, he sent a postcard from his home in Auburn to the proprietors at Poland Spring, telling them, “I have been trying to get some water for three or four weeks. Last Saturday A.M. saw your driver and he said he would leave me some water in the P.M.

but did not. 

Sketches of Lewiston residents on the Fourth of July 1895 that D.D. Coombs drew for the Lewiston Evening Journal. Lewiston Evening Journal

“Can I get some without going to Poland — I think if your man attended to business a little better it would please your customers,” Coombs wrote on the card now

possessed by the Poland Spring Preservation Society. 

COOMBS BECOMES TRUE ARTIST 

The Lewiston Daily Sun said that Coombs created his first oil painting in a blacksmith shop that his father operated in Auburn in an old brick building on Mill Street. 

Little said that with a comfortable income at hand, Coombs’ “old love for color finally overpowered all other considerations and drew him back into the domain of legitimate art.” 

With broader study, Little said, Coombs had “the intuition and native genius” to become “one of our most famous American artists,” but that opportunity never arose. 

Coombs “never graduated from an art school, never belonged to an art club and has lived and worked in a community far removed from art and artists,” Little said, though he did have some Boston connections and managed to attend exhibitions in New York City and in Boston on occasion. 

He began churning out paintings.

“Near the Lewiston Fairgrounds,” a painting by D.D. Coombs Bates Museum of Art

Frank Dingley, the editor of the Lewiston Evening Journal, mentioned in July 1887 in his paper that he ran into Coombs on a Maine Central train heading for Small Point in Phippsburg.

“He had in his portfolio” on the train “a lovely sketch of Kidd’s Cave, Squirrel Island, with minor sketches of South Shore and Spring Cove” as well. Coombs told Dingley that “he was contemplating a sketch” from Gov. Joseph Bodwell’s cottage at Small, “which is a pleasant drive below Bath.”

“Coombs thinks the rock scenery and play of color about Kidd’s Cave, at Squirrel, are of wonderful beauty,” said Dingley, who kept a cottage on the island for many years. 

One of his cattle paintings, “In Green Pastures,” was the first picture sold at the Poland Springs art gallery, Little said, purchased by someone in Philadelphia. Poland Spring Resort’s Hill-Top magazine called Coombs “an excellent painter of the pastoral.”

“Wagg Bridge, Auburn,” a painting by D.D. Coombs Bates Museum of Art

Historian David Richards, writing about Poland Springs in 1994, speculated about why Coombs’ paintings of agricultural landscapes mostly left out the farm laborers he obviously knew well.

Richards said that Coombs’ work “reflected his understanding of how urban audiences viewed the landscape” at places like Poland Spring – a view shared by others like a Hill-Top magazine editor who said that visitors to the resort “may lap all the cream of country life and do none of the milking.” 

Huntington said Coombs was the most literal of Maine’s best landscape painters of his era.

“Railroad Trestle,” by D.D. Coombs Bates Museum of Art

“One can almost imagine Coombs straining his eyes to see every detail of nature and painting it as well as he could,” Huntington said. “There is a control evident in the way he worked and the outcome is almost predictable.” 

While Coombs could produce excellent art, Huntington said, “some of his works suffer from rather clumsy figures and animals, though his ‘cow pieces’ were his most popular paintings.” 

By 1900, his paintings were often found “in the finer Lewiston-Auburn homes as well as scattered across the country due to his popularity with summer visitors to Androscoggin County,” according to the program for the 1965 show “The Land and The Sea of Five Maine Artists.”

D.D. Coombs’ portrait of his mother, Clarinda Ann Kinsley Coombs. Bates Museum of Art

An 1899 portrait of Nelson Dingley Jr. of Lewiston by artist D.D. Coombs. Morphy Auctions

COOMBS NEVER LET UP 

Coombs, who married the former Martha Lufkin in 1902, produced many portraits as his fame grew.

One thing the newspaper gig provided was ready access to the powerful men in the state, many of whom hired him to paint their likenesses. In some cases, the state Legislature hired him for the job.

Coombs painted two of the five existing portraits of Gov. William King, Maine’s first governor, one in 1901 and another, for the Kingsfield Historical Society about 15 years later. 

New Gloucester’s town seal was created in 1921 by artist D.D. Coombs, who grew up in the town. He got $10 for the rendering he made for the seal. Town of New Gloucester

The state paid him to do the first one for the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York — and it must have been a last-minute effort. On the frame, even now, there is a note from Coombs that says, “Please be careful about getting dust on the picture as the surface is not hard and everything will stick to it,” according to a 2008 piece for Maine History magazine about portraits of King.

He also taught painting and drawing for at least 25 years out of a studio that existed for a time above J.M. Fernald’s bookstore on Lisbon Street. 

Local companies contracted with him to create illustrations for calendars and advertising. 

New Gloucester paid him to create a town seal in 1921. 

He kept up a steady stream of sketches, paintings and more, month after month, year after year. 

At least once, in 1925, he pulled together a large batch of his work and sold it in the course of a few days at a store in downtown Lewiston. 

Coombs may have slowed down in his later years, but he never ceased working. 

He is said to have painted one last picture on the day he died. 

D.D. Coombs drawing on the last page of Dexter Carlton Washburn’s 1886 “The Songs of the Seasons, Christmas Edition,” published in Lewiston by The International Art Publishing Co.

 

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