This work by John Rogers Cox depicts a field under a night sky

"Wheat Field Landscape": An exemplary Work from John Rogers Cox’s Critical Period

Learn why and explore the artist's life

By Valerie G. Stanos

John Rogers Cox was born in 1915 in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was the free spirit amongst four boys growing up in a prominent local banking family. Cox went on to study business and eventually art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he graduated in 1938. After graduation, Cox spent some time in New York City. In 1941, Cox became the first Director at the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute. Cox was responsible for forming the core of the museum’s collection including major works by Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, Zoltan Sepeshy and Edward Hopper.

In 1943, Cox left the museum and enlisted in the Army. After two years, he left the Army and decided to dedicate himself full-time to painting. Cox moved to Chicago in 1948 and taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago until 1965. Prior to his time in the Army, Cox had already achieved status as an important painter. His painting Gray and Gold (1942, oil on canvas, 455⁄8 x 5913⁄16 inches, Cleveland Museum of Art) won the Popular Prize at the Carnegie Institute. It was purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Art from the traveling exhibition Artists for Victory, a show of works by artists who wanted to help in the war effort. That show opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Gray and Gold won the Second Medal. Cox’s works were exhibited and illustrated in nearly all of the Carnegie Institute’s annual shows of painting in the United States in the 1940s. In both 1944 and 1946, the visitors at the Carnegie exhibition chose his paintings as the best in the show and voted him the annual Popular Prize.

Cox produced approximately twenty oil paintings during his most important period of the 1940s. Considered one of the great American Scene/Magic Realist painters, his powerful works from this period are extremely rare. The Swope Museum states that Cox “portrayed the Midwest through a fantastical lens focused on the minutia of the American landscape. Often called a magic realist, Cox was interested in the tiniest details of his world, from the seeds on a shock of wheat to the lettering on the side of a building,” (Brian Lee Whisenhunt, Swope Art Museum, “J.R. Cox’s White Cloud Included in Iowa and Pennsylvania Exhibitions,” June 2, 2009). Wheat fields were the artist’s favorite subject and one he knew well from his Terre Haute surroundings. In Cox’s own words: “A wheat field has a whispering sound and an awe-inspiring quality like drifting music and, like an ocean, it gives you a lonely feeling,” (Life Magazine, “John Rogers Cox, Bank Clerk Wins Fame Painting Wheat Fields,” July 12, 1948).

The present work shows the same abandoned plow as seen in the Swope Art Museum’s White Cloud (1943, oil and acrylic on canvas, 37 x 451⁄2 inches) and the Sinquefield Collection’s Grain Farm (1959, oil on canvas, 34 x 47 inches). A barn and silo are hidden behind a wheat-covered hill; two barren trees stand in the foreground. The moon and cloud set against the midnight blue sky depict the eeriness seen in Cox’s best pictures. As such, Wheat Field Landscape is an exemplary work from Cox’s critical 1940s period. Several of the wheat field works from this period are in museums, such as Gray and Gold, Cleveland Museum of Art; White Cloud, Swope Art Museum; Cloud Trails, St. Louis Museum of Art (1944, oil on canvas, 201⁄4 x 271⁄8 inches); The Meadow, Butler Institute of American Art (1947, oil on board, 191⁄2 x 261⁄2 inches); and Wheat Field, Norton Museum of Art (1949, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches).

Cover image: John Rogers Cox, 1915–1990. Wheat Field Landscape, c. late 1940s. Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches. Signed lower right