An important exponent of Magic Realism during the mid-20th century, John Rogers Cox is best known for his carefully rendered portrayals of the wheatfields of western Indiana. Indeed, Cox’s style went beyond mere representation: his dream-like and highly idiosyncratic compositions have been described as a form of “realism stylized almost to the point of surrealism, meticulously executed, deep in perspective and oddly prophetic” (Jo Gibbs, “Brittanica Inaugurates a Rotating Annual,” Art Digest [October 1, 1946]). Recognized for his discerning eye and keen interest in the work of living American artists, Cox also played a seminal role in developing the permanent collection of the Sheldon Swope Art Museum (known today as the Swope Art Museum) in Terre Haute, Indiana, where, during his brief but influential tenure as director during the early 1940s, he brought national attention to that institution by assembling a first-rate collection of paintings by Regionalists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.
Born in Terre Haute in 1915, Cox was a son of Wilson Naylor Cox, then president of the Terre Haute National Bank. He made his first drawing while recuperating from a broken leg at the age of five, and went on to study art with the painter William T. Turman at State High, the model high school of Indiana State Teachers College. In 1933, Cox’s parents enrolled him at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he was supposed to study business. However, the independent-minded Cox later switched to a Bachelor of Fine Arts program given by the university in association with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Following his graduation in 1938, Cox went to New York City to work as a commercial artist. Unable to find a job, he returned to Terre Haute after his father’s death, initially working as a bank messenger and later, as a teller.
A pivotal moment in Cox’s career occurred in 1941 when Turman, in his capacity as President of the Board of Managers of the recently established Sheldon Swope Art Gallery, invited him to become the director. Cox readily accepted and at the age of 26 he became the youngest museum director in the country. He was the perfect choice for the job: in addition to overseeing the remodeling of the new facility, Cox created an important legacy by acquiring thirteen paintings by Benton, Wood, Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, and other major Regionalists for the permanent collection. This act constituted the largest single purchase of work by living American artists by an American museum and its significance was duly noted by members of the national art press, among them Peyton Boswell, Jr., the influential editor of Art Digest, who described Cox as a man of “excellent taste ... [with] a good knowledge of art, definite opinions, and young enough to be alert to the changes taking place in American art” (quoted in Eileen Jensen, “Swope Art Gallery Has Had Five Men as Its Directors,” Terre Haute Tribune, April 25, 1972, p. 9).
During the early 1940s, Cox began painting in his spare time, focusing primarily on carefully delineated views of local wheatfields; it was said that he “loved to wander around the big wheatfields of Indiana,”gathering inspiration for the forceful landscapes he would paint later, from memory, back in his home-studio (see “John Roger Cox: Bank Clerk Wins Fame Painting Wheat Fields,” Life, July 12, 1948). Certainly, for Cox, the fertile farmlands around Terre Haute were more than topographical emblems of his home state: to him, their stark beauty evoked and emotional response. As he put it: “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” (as quoted in ibid.). Cox expressed his affinity for the lush wheatfields of the rural Midwest in what has become his best known work, Gray and Gold (1942, The Cleveland Museum of Art), a powerful rendering of rippling meadowlands at harvest time. Employing a pictorial formula that would become a hallmark of his style, he devoted approximately half of the composition to a large expanse of sky replete with storm clouds, their billowing shapes forming a contrast with the perpendicular and horizontal lines of the planar landscape. This now-iconic painting established Cox’s reputation in the art world, and through subsequent reproduction in national publications, led to his identification as an artist associated with the “super-real school” (“John Rogers Cox’s Painting Stirs Art Discussion,” Terre Haute Sunday Tribune, 1944).
Cox remained in his position at the Sheldon Swope Art Gallery until 1943, when he resigned after he and Turman began to disagree over acquisition policies. He then joined the U.S. Army and went on to serve in the 22nd Medical Battalion. Following his discharge in 1945, Cox became a full-time artist, exhibiting his work at venues such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where he was the recipient of the annual Popular Prize in 1946. In 1948—the year in which he was the subject of an article in Life magazine—Cox left Indiana and moved to Chicago, where he taught figure drawing and painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago until 1965.