An Island artist who died a century ago is having his first exhibition this winter at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, consisting almost entirely of works that have never been shown in public before.

A professional illustrator in the era before photojournalism, Percy Elton Cowen (1888-1923) created vivid images to accompany stories in Collier’s, Harper’s, Adventure and other magazines.

Mr. Cowen was also the maternal grandfather of Island painter Allen Whiting and siblings Daniel and Prudy, who have loaned most of the artwork on display at the museum — including paintings that hung in their parents’ home when they were growing up.

Percy Cowen would often draw illustrations on letters. — Courtesy of the Martha's Vineyard Museum

“Because he died when my mother was a baby, we obviously never knew him … except we had his work in our house, which I always loved,” Allen Whiting said Friday at a museum reception opening the show.

“We wanted to get these paintings out to be seen,” he said.

The Whitings also provided a treasury of illustrated letters Mr. Cowen wrote to their grandmother, Jane Look Cowen, both before and after the couple wed in 1918.

Three weeks after tying the knot, Mr. Cowen became a World War I draftee, training at Camp Devens (now Fort Devens) on his way to the trenches in France. He would not see his bride again for nearly a year, but he wrote — and drew — dozens of letters to her.

Mr. Cowen’s sketches for Jane, which were light-hearted in 1916 and 1917, seem to darken in tone after he was drafted, with whimsical cartoons of fishermen and farmers giving way to sketches of bombed-out buildings and deserted villages. 

“I'm sure it was horrific,” Mr. Whiting said. “Since it was the end of the war, he went through France and Germany.” Military censors kept letters home from going into too much detail, Mr. Whiting added.

Percy Cowen's illustrations made it into several magazines. — Courtesy of the Martha's Vineyard Museum

After 1919, Mr. Cowen returned to the Vineyard and resumed work as a commercial illustrator for Collier’s, Metropolitan and other magazines.

The museum show includes several examples of the periodicals that commissioned Mr. Cowen’s work, often for adventure stories with titles such as Another Man’s Poison and The Curious Tribe of McFee.

While the magazines themselves were ephemeral, museum curator Bonnie Stacy said their contents often have found a second life on the internet.

“Nowadays it’s easier to find some of the illustrations, because so many of the old magazines have been scanned,” Ms. Stacy said at Friday’s reception.

Mr. Cowen also designed the box and sign for Priscilla Hancock Candies of West Tisbury, hinting at a potential future in industrial design had he not developed cancer that took his life.

Mr. Cowen might also have reclaimed his career as a maritime artist, where he found early success before settling in as a magazine illustrator. 

Many of the pieces on display have never been shown before. — Ray Ewing

His painting Sperm Whale Upsetting a Whaleboat dramatically renders the chaos of foaming water, splintering and men leaping for dear life as the whale’s toothy jaw smashes down on the gunwale.

On loan from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, it’s one of the few works in the show that has not been provided by the Whitings.

Titled Percy E. Cowen: My Own Dear Jane, the exhibition is on view in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s Grain Gallery through May 26.