Gray and Gold by John Rogers Cox

Fascinating insights about the Gray and Gold Painting lie ahead, including:

  • John Rogers Cox: Bank Teller-Painter-Soldier-Painter
  • Fences and distance in Gray and Gold
  • Magic mixed with Realism
  • A meticulous method

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Paintings like Gray and Gold by Cox aren’t what one might think of as art about war. It lacks literal soldiers and arms. But that’s because this painting portrays war through analogy. This natural landscape might not contain any people. But human emotion permeates the picture. Cox wields fury and frustration in a controlled chaos of weather. The clouds loom with foreboding grey peaks and an ominous black sky behind. This represents human nature’s shadow side. That’s why we go to war.

Of course, humans have a brighter side. John Rogers Cox represents this in golden grain rows. Man-made and meticulous, the farm field contrasts with the wild sky. But even with this imbued humanity, the scene holds viewers at a distance. We know people planted the grain. They will harvest and eat it too. It’s kept at a distance from us, though. Barbed wire keeps us off the grass and the corn remains remote. It’s closed off tight and seems bound together in perfect order.

Between the violent sky and placid wheatfield we find those marching telephone poles. They strut up the hill and into the beyond. Cox chose not to connect them with telephone wire. That may be because soldiers train to separate heart and mind from action. War often does this to civilians too. This isolated feeling haunts Gray and Gold like battle scars inherited through generations.

There’s also a cross splitting the painting down the middle. The rocks in the road emphasize its importance. These make it hard to walk down the middle. War does this as well. It forces us to take a side. Sometimes those choices are challenging. In fact, Gray and Gold shows many tough decisions. How can one pick which road to travel when they all look the same and we can’t see where they lead? Even with all the order in the amber crops… this painting speaks more to chaos than control.

Painting Magic from Memory

When Cox painted Gray and Gold he was only twenty seven years old. It was a smashing start for the young American painter. He painted this in 1942. The United States had just entered World War II. The Cleveland Museum of Art bought this popular piece. It was part of a traveling exhibition of painting about war. The Artists for Victory exhibition was all artists who sought to help with the war effort. Cox won an exhibition prize for this painting. This was impressive not only because he was so young. It was also just his second oil painting. Only a year before he painted this, Cox was working as a bank teller in Indiana. Art changed his life. Soon after that transition, he became a World War II soldier from 1943 until 1945. His life reversed course once again.

Back from his soldier stint, Cox returned to painting. He went on to win the Carnegie Popular Prize for best paintings at an exhibition in 1946. But Cox remained a humble boy next door. In an interview for Life Magazine John Rogers Cox says he has to be a painter because he’s “too dumb to do anything else”. He showed humility in more than just his self image. As a painter, he produced a modest group of paintings – fewer than twenty. Cox also dedicated his art to mainly farmland landscapes.

My favorite aspect of Cox’s paintings, and Gray and Gold in particular, is the way he boosts realism into another realm. His landscapes are all imaginary places crammed with familiar elements. Everything in this painting feels both real and unreal. It’s obvious why on the one hand it seems real. We’ve all seen an ominous sky, a line of light poles, and a field of grain. Even if only in media – we know these things exist. So, what makes this painting feel unreal?

Although viewers can’t know from looking, this isn’t an actual place. Trust that gut instinct about its unreality. Cox painted this from memory. With this method he imbues a magical feeling to his work. This place exists only in Cox’s imagination. With that in mind, his realistic scene seems all the more impressive. So, viewers shift back and forth between a sense of both the tangible and intangible in the painting. It has an uncanny quality that stays with viewers. This piece imprints on people. The Cleveland Museum of Art put it into storage at one point. But they had to dig it out to show it again soon after. So many people missed it and protested, writing to the museum that Gray and Gold was their favorite. Nobody would call this painting pleasant or even easy to look at. Still, its beloved. That’s the mystery and magic of this masterpiece.

Gray and Gold – FAQs

What kind of painting is Gray and Gold by John Rogers Cox?

The answer depends on how literal and by-the-book you get. It’s important not to get too creative with definitions. But Gray and Gold crosses boundaries between painting categories. So, it invites a bit of room for interpretation. The accurate representations in Cox’s painting suit Realism in many ways. This is how a wheatfield under gray skies might appear. Still, there’s nothing real here. Cox created this out of imagination and memories of many wheatfields and gray skies. That’s why many put his paintings into the Magical Realism category. There seems to be magic at work in this portrayal, after all.

What is Magical Realism in painting?

Magical Realism works as a realistic narrative and naturalistic technique mixed with surreal elements. So, Gray and Gold fits that definition. Still, viewers would need to know that it’s not a real place for this to make sense. That was my initial reaction to the piece. I saw that it was labeled as Magical Realism and didn’t understand why. Even though it felt a bit ominous and unreal, everything in the painting looks realistic. That’s unusual for a Magical Realist painting.

Is Gray and Gold an example of Regionalism in painting? What is Regionalism?

Regionalism marks another suitable category for Gray and Gold. That’s an American Modern Art painting sub-category. This movement depicts rural areas of the United States. It arose in response to the Great Depression and then fizzled after World War II. Although Cox’s painting slips in right under that deadline, it’s still not a perfect fit. That’s because Regionalism served a specific purpose. The Regionalists wanted to create a uniquely American form of art. Many artists at the time thought Depression era America needed to get back to its rural roots. With this goal in mind, artists like Grant Wood depicted an idealized version of rural life. John Rogers Cox doesn’t fit that mold with his remote wheatfields, barbed wire fences, and stormy skies.

How did Cox create such realistic scenes without real-life reference in his landscape paintings?

Gray and Gold musters mental contradictions with its combination of reality and otherworldliness. This grips viewers with an eerie sense of enigma and dread. But the real wonder is how he infuses that feeling into otherwise ordinary portrayals. Asked about his techniques, Cox helps us see a bit behind the mysterious curtain.

I hardly ever paint a picture the same way twice. Sometimes I make sketches before starting, sometimes I draw directly on the canvas or panel and then paint, and sometimes I just begin to paint directly. Other times I make detailed sketches of parts of my idea in oil on little panels and pieces of cardboard … Hours are consumed rearranging these oil sketches in various compositions to find what shape of picture I want.

McCormick, Mike (November 7, 2010). “Historical Perspective: John Rogers Cox’s art remains popular 20 years after his death”. The Tribune Star


Check out these other essays on landscapes.

“Gray and Gold, John Rogers Cox (American, 1915 – 1990) 1942”. The Cleveland Museum of Art. 2008

Stephanie Salter (2012). “Dual Visions: John Rogers Cox, Artist and Curator”. Spectrum Magazine. Arts Illiana – Arts Council of the Wabash Valley

American Federation Of Art (1996). Still life: the object in American art, 1915-1995 : selections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 30

John Rogers Cox retrospective: exhibition , the Sheldon Swope Gallery, May 14 through June 13, 1982. Sheldon Swope Art Gallery

John Rogers Cox – Bank clerk wins fame painting wheat fields. LIFE magazine. July 12, 1948. p. 86

“American Scene Painting – American Regionalism and Social Realism”