Ever wonder about the previous owners of works in WCMA’s collection? Grant Wood’s Death on the Ridge Road is a striking example. The painting was a gift to the museum by the illustrious songwriter and composer Cole Porter in 1947. Surprisingly, Porter’s connection to the museum had much more to do with his connection to Williamstown than it did with a link to Williams College. (Porter actually attended Yale University.)
Porter and his wife settled in Williamstown in their later years on a forty-acre country estate at 1425 Main Street. In all, the Porters gave forty-two works to WCMA. The objects range from a figural piece from the Palace of Ikhnaton at Tel-el-Amarna to Chinese polychromed terracotta figural sculpture, sixteenth-century Italian velvet panels, and paintings by Diego Rivera, Paul Cadmus, and other American painters who were contemporaries of Wood. Clearly, their taste was eclectic.
Porter bought Death on the Ridge Road straight out of Wood’s first large one-person exhibition at the Ferargil Galleries in New York in 1935. The New York show was accompanied by a small catalogue, in which the work was listed as being in the collection of the Ferargil Galleries. A preparatory drawing for the painting also appears in the catalogue as being from Ferargil’s collection. The previous version of the show earlier that year at the Lakeside Press Galleries in Chicago actually only included the drawing for the work and not the painting itself. The Ferargil presentation received a great deal of attention. Attendance was high at the gallery, and positive reviews appeared in Newsweek, Time, and The New York Times. Porter actually bought the work after only having seen it in a photograph, a bit like buying a work online today except with the limitations of black-and-white photography and the inability to zoom in on details! Twelve years later, Porter gave the work to Williams, where it has been a star of the collection ever since.
Porter was not alone among well-known figures of the period to latch onto the work of Grant Wood. In the Ferargil Galleries catalogue of 1935, two other works by Wood came from the collections of the department store magnate Marshall Field III and the great collector and newspaper publisher Stephen C. Clark. Hollywood and New York celebrities from the worlds of film and stage flocked to his work after Wood’s first agent Maynard Walker successfully promoted the paintings. Actor Edward G. Robinson was the first to take Walker’s bait. Others included actress Katherine Hepburn (who later sold her work to director George Cukor), movie director King Vidor, critic Alexander Woollcott, and writer John P. Marquand. These purchases all occurred in the mid-30s, like Porter’s. By 1935, the year of WCMA’s painting, Wood signed a contract for his biography with the major publisher Doubleday. Wood had found himself and his very Midwestern point-of-view in vogue among the starry set.
Wood, himself, explained this phenomenon in 1934 as a kind of “wistfulness and envy for what appeared to be a simple, elemental existence, free of complications” (as cited in James M. Dennis, Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture (New York, 1975), 135). Yet, in Death on the Ridge Road, that simple existence is threatened by a careening limousine of a more sophisticated urban world and an oncoming red truck hurtling down one of the newly paved byways of modern commerce. The painting artfully presents the clash of two cultures within the United States through the imminent collision of urban and rural vehicles. It is, perhaps, to this city-country conflict that the Midwesterner-turned-cosmopolitan Porter could most relate. Like the Iowan Wood, Porter was born in Peru, Indiana. Wood’s glorification of farming may well have been shared by Porter, even though Porter seemed to revel in urban sophistication (think of his Broadway musical Anything Goes, which debuted in 1934). After all, when it came to finding a place to unwind, Porter chose the rolling hills of the Berkshires.
—Jane Becker, WCMA blog writer