I find it interesting when two artists, half a world a part, make similar paintings at pretty much the same time. That tells us something about art as a shared, international visual language — and it tells us something about that particular time in human history.
This is Chaim Soutine’s Return from School After the Storm, from the Phillips Collection. Soutine painted Return in 1939, after two of the wildest years of his life. (And this is Windy Day, Auxerre, painted at about the same time.) In 1937 Soutine experienced a professional triumph: By virtue of his participation in a show for non-French artists at the Jeu de Paume, life-long outsider Soutine was finally hailed as a master. By 1939, Nazi atrocities against Jews were well underway. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Soutine was forced to run and hide wherever he could. He died in 1943 from a perforated ulcer. He was 50 years old. The optimism of this painting’s title has always amazed me.
This is John Rogers Cox’s Gray and Gold, from 1942, the year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the year in which America fully joined the war. It’s in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Cox was an American regionalist from Terre Haute, Ind., about as far as you can get from Paris. In 1943 he joined the Army. After the war Life magazine published a feature story on Cox titled, “JOHN ROGERS COX: Bank clerk wins fame painting wheat fields.”