John Rogers Cox and the Case for the Buxom Nude

John Rogers Cox was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1915.  He studied art with William T. Turman at State High, the model high school of Indiana State Teacher’s College, but was encouraged to go into the banking business when he graduated.  While he initially attended the University of Pennsylvania for business, Cox ultimately received a degree in fine arts from a collaborative program between the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  

Upon graduation in 1938, he left for New York City, hoping to find a job as a commercial artist, but was unsuccessful.  Cox returned to Terre Haute to work at a bank until 1941, when he was approached by his former teacher, William T. Turman, who was now the first president of the Board of Managers of the Sheldon Swope Art Gallery.  Turman asked Cox to run the newly formed Swope Art Gallery (now the Swope Art Museum).  Cox was only 26 years old at the time, making him the youngest museum director in the United States. Under his direction, a world class collection of American regionalist art was assembled that was both wide in artistic scope, but economically sound for the developing institution.  Cox married a local woman, Mary Hermine Mayer, in 1939, and they had three children—two sons and a daughter. 

In 1943, Cox resigned his position at the Swope after a series of disagreements with the Board of Managers regarding acquisitions.  He left in 1944 to serve in the Army and when he returned from the war, decided to focus on painting full time.  By now, his paintings had already received critical acclaim, winning prestigious awards from the Carnegie Institute, and been exhibited in major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Cox experienced a tragic year in 1947, with the breakup of his marriage and the death of his daughter, Janet.  He left Terre Haute in 1948, and moved his studio to Chicago, where he began teaching at the Art Institute, specializing in figure drawing.

 In the late 1960s, he lived in the French Quarter of New Orleans with Donise and their new daughter, Sophie.  The Coxes moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1971, where they remained until 1986, when they returned to the Midwest to live in Louisville, Kentucky.  Cox died there in 1990.His work may be found in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art; Swope Art Museum; Butler Institute of Art, OH; Museum of Fine Art, Springfield, MA.

While he was known primarily for his surrealist landscapes, in the 1950's Cox completed several paintings of nude women, typically juxtaposed against cold, intricately-constructed machinery and set in an urban environment.  Many of these works depicted his (future) second wife, Donise Kibby, who was a nude model for the Art Institute.  In an article written for American Artist in 1951 titled, The Case for the Buxom Nude Cox explained his personal artistic philosophy regarding this point while relating it back to several examples in art history.  


Excerpt from Recent Acquisitions 1996, Robert Henry Adams Fine Art:

Seated Nude demonstrates the peculiar and idiosyncratic manner of painting practiced by John Rogers Cox in the 1940s and early ‘50s.  Cox experimented with the aesthetic principles of Surrealism throughout his career, often creating images derived from dreams and the subconscious.  A compactly arranged vertical composition, Cox’s personal symbolism in Seated Nude remains largely enigmatic to the viewer.  The painting depicts a monumental seated female nude, juxtaposed against various machine components, biomorphic rock formations and abandoned city tenement houses.  The woman sits quietly combing her long hair, oblivious to her peculiar surroundings.  Seated Nude’s austere palette and meticulous brushwork evokes the pictorial techniques of the American realist painter Ivan Albright.  The wealth of miniscule detail seen in Cox’s painting, from the carefully rendered flesh tones to the clean arrangement of mechanical forms, clearly reveals the impressive technical abilities of the artist.  Each aspect of his canvas appears crisp, alive, and shimmering in focus.

Seated Nude,   1952; oil/canvas

Seated Nude, 1952; oil/canvas

Plate 82,   Three Love Birds  ; 1930, oil and charcoal on canvas; Art Institute of Chicago

Plate 82, Three Love Birds; 1930, oil and charcoal on canvas; Art Institute of Chicago

Plate 73,   Portrait of Mary Block  , c. 1955-57; oil on canvas; Art Institute of Chicago

Plate 73, Portrait of Mary Block, c. 1955-57; oil on canvas; Art Institute of Chicago

Images from the book Ivan Albright by Michael Croydon