J.R. Cox’s White Cloud Included in Iowa and Pennsylvannia Exhibitions


John Rogers Cox
White Cloud
Oil and acrylic on canvas
37 x 45 ½ inches
Swope Art Museum Collection, 2000.07

John Rogers Cox (1915-1990), a Terre Haute artist and the first director of the Swope Art Museum, portrayed the Midwest through a fantastical lens focused on the minutia of the American landscape. Often called a magical 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. His paintings were exhibited at major museums around the country and his work is represented in the collection of the St. Louis Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and numerous others. The Swope Art Museum holds five works by Cox, including a self-portrait executed in pencil and his portrait of the local art educator William T. Turman.

“White Cloud,” painted in 1943 with some details added by the artist in 1946, is probably the best-known work by the artist to the Terre Haute community. The large canvas depicts a dry and desolate landscape, with two trees and a barren field that seem to physically yearn for moisture. In the foreground, Cox has placed an abandoned plow, useless without the assistance of water. A large house in the distance seems to recall a more prosperous moment and clings to the long, low horizon with a solid resolve in the face of tragedy. Despite the weathered and desolate scene, hope remains: a white cloud, voluptuous and full of promised rain, floats above the dry and parched landscape connoting a potentially better future.

In 2008, the Westmoreland Museum of Art in Greenburg, PA requested to borrow “White Cloud for inclusion in its exhibition “Painting in the United States,” which ran from June 29 through October 19. The Westmoreland sought to bring together artists and works of art that had been represented in the exhibitions of the same title organized by the Carnegie Institute (now the Carnegie Museum of Art) between 1943 and 1949, a time when the Institute had discontinued its international exhibition due to WWII and the recovery effort that followed. In the Westmoreland exhibition, the Cox painting was hung amongst his contemporaries including Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Philip Evergood and Arthur Dove. The exhibition provided a wide range of styles explored by artists in the 1940s, from American scene painting to the earliest examples of American abstraction.

This year, the Des Moines Art Center also asked to borrow “White Cloud for its exhibition, “After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism, and the Midwest,” which ran from January 30 to May 17 and took its title from a painting by Thomas Hart Benton. The works selected explored the influence of Modernism on regional painters and included canvases by Jackson Pollock, John Steuart Curry and Ben Shahn as well as photographs by Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange. Over 100,000 people visited the Des Moines Art Center during the exhibition to see works loaned by major institutions across the United States including the Chicago Art Institute, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the St. Louis Art Museum, which loaned “Cloud Trails,” 1944, another painting by Cox. A catalogue of the exhibition written by Deborah Bricker Balken, the curator of the exhibition, with an introduction by Jeff Fleming was published by Yale University Press.

It is always an honor for the Swope Art Museum, and in turn Terre Haute, to have works from this community requested by sister institutions. Both exhibitions provided different and interesting contexts for John Rogers Cox and his work. The Swope Art Museum is pleased to announce that “White Cloud has returned to its galleries and can be viewed on the second floor of the Museum. The Swope is also planning an exhibition that will explore the dual legacies of John Rogers Cox through the work he produced as an artist and the seminal works by Grand Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and Edward Hopper he acquired for this community as the director of the Swope.