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The Ann Cullen Collection: The Woman Herself

Untitled Paintings, 1989-1992
Ann Cullen (American, 1928 - 2018); California
Watercolor on paper
Ann and Bill Cullen Memorial Collection

Renaissance Woman

This Women’s History Month the Bowers Blog has focused on some of the great women that have been associated with the Bowers Museum. Today’s post looks at a donor and artist responsible for creating some of the works in a landmark August 2018 donation, Ann Cullen. Though biographical accounts of her life all too often focus on her husband, Bill Cullen, Ann earned herself a reputation on her own accord for having several talents, not the least of which was watercolor painting. Though her initial bequest humbly only included works by other artists, Bowers staff and the executor of her estate felt that the collection would not be complete without a sampling of her paintings. This post looks at Ann Cullen’s life through the lens of five of her artworks.

Untitled, 1994
Ann Cullen (American, 1928 - 2018); California
Ink and pencil on paper; 10 × 8 in.
Ann and Bill Cullen Memorial Collection

Heinz 28

Ann’s relationship to celebrity status began at birth. She entered the world in Washington, D.C. in 1928 as the daughter of Emeline and Heinz Roemheld, the latter of which was a famous composer. In the early 1930s the family moved out to California so that her father could be closer to the film industry. The stress of the move and other factors led to the breakup of the couple, and Ann and her sister grew up mostly around her father’s apartment complex swimming pool. In junior high school Ann made a submission to a contest and won free art lessons as a prize. Her somewhat coincidental foray into the world of art would become a driving force throughout much of her life. After graduating from high school, Ann attended USC and ended up majoring in art. She continued her studies even further after college, following in the footsteps of the great regionalist painters she would come to collect and attending Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.

Photograph and still of the Cullens in their New York CIty apartments, 1960s

Meet the Cullens

Feeling that supporting herself through painting alone was out of the realm of possibility, she began looking for work elsewhere. A strong desire to travel moved her to apply for a job as a flight attendant, but she was told that she was too tall to work on planes. Taking advantage of that fact, her father helped her find some work as a model, and her natural talent quickly launched her fashion career. Ann first met Bill Cullen at the home of her sister, Mary Lou Narz, who had married the man who introduced Bill on several gameshows. The two of them hit it off, marrying a little over a year after meeting each other. Bill Cullen was based in New York, and though he had been flying out to Los Angeles almost every week to film gameshows, Ann made the decision to move back to the East Coast. The pair lived in two gorgeous apartments in New York in their time there.

Untitled (Still Life of Flowers), late 20th Century
Ann Cullen (American, 1928-2018); California
Watercolor on paper; 15 3/4 × 11 3/4 in.
Ann and Bill Cullen Memorial Collection

Art and Acquisition

Ann and Bill were never able to have children of their own. Instead their respective hobbies formed the foundation to their relationship. For Ann that was always painting. Ann’s continued painting led her to become an incredibly talented watercolorist and, less frequently, she worked in oils and other mediums. Just creating art was not enough for Ann, however. She was an avid collector of paintings done in the California Watercolor Style. In New York she befriended Dong Kingman, and a wonderful series of photographs in the Bowers’ archives shows Kingman at Ann’s apartment painting one of the works now in the Ann and Bill Cullen Memorial Collection. When her husband passed away in 1990, she moved back to Southern California to be closer to her sister’s family. Though the memories of Bill became too painful for her in his absence, she surrounded herself with the paintings that they had acquired throughout the years.

Untitled, late 20th Century
Ann Cullen (American, 1928 - 2018); California
Watercolor on paper; 19 × 24 in.
Ann and Bill Cullen Memorial Collection

An Avid Drawer

Ann’s painting style is largely defined by the same strokes as other California regionalist painters like Rex Brandt. Many of her watercolors take full advantage of the paper medium and use it to lend a natural brightness to her works. Four of the five works in the Bowers’ possession show propensity to painting flora. Trees and flowers burst with vivacity and in another of her untitled works she expertly captured the surface of a river. Add these to a beautiful portrait of her and Bill and you have a list of subjects that even the most talented watercolorists struggle with throughout their careers. Even demonstrating that she painted portraits, still lifes, and landscapes, these five works just scratch the surface of her oeuvre. She would proudly mention but rarely share the “drawer full of naked people” at her Corona Del Mar home—primarily charcoal sketches per one account.

Artistic Legacy: The Ann and Bill Cullen Collection, an exhibition of the paintings described in this post, opens at the Bowers Museum on August 28, 2021.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. References are available on request. Information subject to change upon further research.

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