When Terre Haute native John Rogers Cox was an elementary school student, he sketched cartoon figures of a Scottish terrier on test papers.
If he knew the answer to the test question, the dog rejoiced; if he didn’t, it cried. Often the pup was sitting in a puddle of water before the examination was over.
Despite his early artistic pencil skills, it was remarkable that the second oil painting he ever made, “Grey and Gold,” won Second Medal in the 1942 Artists for Victory Show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Other awards followed. Despite an erratic lifestyle, John Rogers carved out an extraordinary career. Once considered one of America’s best known painters, Cox and his work continue to be recognized and the value of his paintings skyrocket.
Even as a youth, John Rogers was a free spirit. He and his scholarly twin brother Ben were the youngest of Wilson Naylor and Lassie (Gardenhire) Cox’s four sons.
Their father — the product of a merger of two prominent Vigo County families – was president of the Terre Haute National Bank, later Terre Haute First National Bank. His childhood was spent at 501 S. Fifth St.
Wilson Naylor “W.N.” Cox, Jr., the oldest boy, was born March 12, 1909. The next oldest — Francis “Fritz” Gardenhire Cox — came along two years later. Twins Benjamin Guille and John Rogers were born March 24, 1915.
W.N., an outstanding golfer, and Ben became lawyers. Fritz was the best golfer of the bunch, winning the Country Club of Terre Haute championship and finishing as a finalist in the Indiana Amateur on at least two occasions.
Though not a celebrated golfer, John Rogers seemingly emulated Uncle Newton Cox, 1904 Indiana Amateur Golf champion, who joined a circus.
His parents sent him to the University of Pennsylvania to study business but pool halls became his favorite classrooms. He finally earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1938 from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Unable to land a job in his chosen profession, Cox returned to Terre Haute to work as a bank clerk. On Dec. 27, 1939, he wed Terre Haute native Mary Hermine Mayer, daughter of Herman and Antoinette (Brinkman) Mayer. They had three children.
One person who recognized Cox’s talent was William Thomas Turman, chairman of the art department at Indiana State Teachers College. A recognized artist, Turman offered John the job as first director of new Sheldon Swope Art Gallery in Terre Haute.
He accepted immediately.
It was a momentous decision. Director Cox amassed a superb collection of American Regional art for the museum, which opened March 21, 1942, before Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper and Grant Wood were household names.
During a dispute with Turman during 1943, Cox resigned from the Swope. Before he joined the U.S. Army in 1944, “Grey and Gold” captured the Popular Prize at the Carnegie Institute. It was purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Art, where it has been reproduced in color many times.
“White Cloud,” a colorful oil of a white mushroom-shaped cloud over a plowed field, won the Carnegie Prize in 1943. It was acquired by the Swope in 2000. “Tall Grass,” which also secured recognition from Carnegie, was sold in 1945 to a Washington, D.C., collector.
“Cloud Trails” (1944), which depicts a landscape of precisely pained where stalks under an expanse of blue sky, was acquired by the St. Louis Art Museum in 2006.
Upon his discharge from the service, “Wheat” won the 1946 Carnegie Popular Prize and was purchased by the National Bank of New York City.
Other early Cox paintings, such as “Landscape,” “The Hill,” “The Cooling House,” “Self Portrait,” “Edge of Town,” “Nude of Meleny”and “Stairway” were quickly sold to collectors. “Self Portrait,” drawn in pencil, is now owned by the Swope Art Museum.
Disheartened by the death of his daughter and the break-up of his marriage in 1947, Cox relocated to Chicago and prowled its seediest streets in search of subjects to draw.
In its July 12, 1948 issue, Life magazine did a special feature on Cox, introducing several of his paintings in color. From 1948 to 1965, he was on the faculty at the Chicago Art Institute, specializing in figure drawings. He was not prolific as an oil painter after 1950, focusing on pen and pencil sketches.
On its 40th anniversary, the Swope held a retrospective exhibition of his work.
In October 1951, “American Artist” magazine asked Cox a number of questions about his work. Reluctantly, he offered some comments. Here are a few:
“What artists say they do, what they think they do and what they actually do are three different things.
“Certainly no one ever painted what a painter said and hung it on the wall. Yet almost everyone is concerned at one time or another has wasted his time and energy trying to explain something for which there is no real answer in words.
“Still we can’t put the screws on thinking and talking about pictures with an arbitrary wave of the hand. If you do not talk about art, you’re going to think about it; and, if you think about it, then you are going to talk about it; and sooner or later, your ego takes over and you write it down and that’s the cure.”
“I hardly ever paint a picture the same way twice. Sometime 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.
“The chemistry of the paint must be sound and I refer to several books for this as well as drawing upon my own experience … I have never done anything quickly and I envy those who claim they ‘dashed of’ a painting.”
Cox ultimately remarried and moved successively from Chicago to New Orleans, Wenatchee, Wash., and Louisville, where he died at age 74 on Jan. 30, 1990. He is survived by sons John and Henry. His art is popular and continues to increase in value.