Back in the day, when people did not have movies all the time, visual art had a different feel. It usually came in the form of paintings. Unlike a movie, though, the story of a painting is not fed to you. You have to dig and ponder, figuring out the art for yourself. We have lost a bit of that nowadays.

The whole process of having a picture talk to you is itself an art form. Too bad that with Google at our fingertips, we have a hard time thinking out answers for ourselves. Yet people didn’t have a choice back then – everybody had to be an amateur art critic. But what does this all have to do with the automotive niche? Well, you’d be surprised. Paintings used to be a huge part of the car world. For example, virtually all vehicle advertisements were hand-drawn.

However, those are not so difficult to figure out. The trick is to find a painting that weaves vehicles into a story. That is why today we have something striking. Have you heard of “American Gothic” by Grant Wood? We find the same unsettling feeling in another work of his – “Death on the Ridge Road.” It displays an interesting tale but also carries a peculiar history of its own. So, wake up your inner art critic, and let’s contemplate this artwork.

Grant D. Wood and his paintings

Most people in the States, let alone the world, don’t have a good idea of who G. Wood is. Many of us think of “American Gothic” as the painting of a long-faced couple with the pitchfork. And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that.

We cannot go about knowing every single thing about art or its history. So, this article is not an improvised school lesson. Nevertheless, if we want to consider Grant Wood’s work properly, we have to know a thing or two about him. It will help us get a better idea of where his work fits into American culture in general.

The most important aspect of Wood’s art is that he deliberately made his paintings vague. He wanted everyone to feel free to interpret them. On the one hand, this is a masterful approach that many now applaud. On the other hand, it did not help him much during his life.

Coming from rural Iowa, Wood mostly portrayed the State’s seemingly anti-urban setting. However, this earned him harsh remarks. Critics interpreted his work as overly conservative, and even similar to Fascist art. Obviously, that could not have been good before and during World War II. So, were critics right, or were they missing something?

Wood. Misunderstood

Both paintings I mentioned thus far stand out a little bit. “Death on the Ridge Road” is one of the few (if not the only) of his regionalist-style paintings without clear ties to rural life. Additionally, its message may not be as obvious as some would think. But more on that in a second.

If we look at his lesser-known paintings, they will likely not strike us as special at first. Yet, they point to something quite peculiar – Wood’s view on what is worth depicting. He had a formal art education, which he indirectly criticized through his work. In it, he points out how rural America is just as important to display as Paris, London, or any big city for that matter.

Unfortunately, people often failed to see the nuances. They thought Wood was trying to either glorify or deride rural life. To make matters worse, the artist himself never truly gave clear explanations. He wanted people to add their own stories to his portrayals.

With that said, he does not present the countryside as anything specific. Instead, his art depicts life as it happens. We are the ones to make whatever we want of it. For a taste of that, you can read an analysis of “American Gothic” and see just how many subtleties Wood implemented in it. But what can we say about “Death on the Ridge Road”?

How Grant Wood painted a story

Forget about the name of the painting for a second. Just look at it. What do you see there? Don’t think about what Wood intended for you to see, either. Simply observe.

Here is what I see. At first glance, I immediately think that the black car is speeding. Why? Can the driver not simply be passing the other vehicle? Yet the weird position of the car and the slight elongation make me feel like it is virtually drifting.

See how everything in the picture points towards the road? The fences are tilted as if the fields are closing in on the vehicles. The cross-shaped poles give us this uncanny feel that whatever happens will not end well. Even the sky has an ominous look. The truck is coming from the light, the driver – blissfully ignorant. The two cars, on the other hand, come out of the darkness. I will leave it up to you to figure out what that means.

Now, let’s get back to the title again: Death on the Ridge Road. As if the accident has already occurred. But you know what? Maybe it has. Perhaps death is not in the crash that is to come, but rather in every circumstance leading to it. Obviously, the more you look at the painting, the more you can take out of it. This is the true power of an artwork.

How “Death of the Ridge Road” ties into the American life

When I was a student, I always hated the question, “what does the author want to say with this?”. However, sometimes that question is worth wondering. The very act of trying to figure the meaning out helps us form our own opinion. Additionally, everyone says something, even if they think otherwise.

Grant Wood lived before the boom of America’s most iconic classic cars. Yet even then, he had a good grasp of what was to come – utter industrialization. Another notable fact is his witnessing of an actual car crash. Instead of the ugly scene, Wood chose to depict its prior tension.

The mid-’30s, when the painting was done, were difficult times. The geopolitical landscape was becoming more uncertain each day. The Great Depression loomed over the country, too. Heavy manufacturing, the supposed technological advancement, had to save the world… Yet, it did not. We had machines and transportation, yet people were hit with misery. And what about the rural areas? Crop prices fell, so farming communities also faced suffering.

In this setting, Wood’s regionalist style lent itself quite well to depicting the moments before a crash. Crash, in every sense of the word. First, we have the incidental tragedy of the moment. Then we are struck by the symbolism that goes beyond the car accident. Vehicles crash into each other, but so do lifestyles, cultures, and even entire nations.

I am by no means an art expert. I cannot spin countless paragraphs on analyzing everything I see in the painting. However, we can all learn to appreciate such art better, especially when its message about the world seems utterly timeless.

The place of art in the automotive world

Honestly, trying to find art with motor vehicles is not an easy task. People have painted tons of cars but rarely do these paintings tell a story. Looks like right now, we are more interested in objects, rather than tales.

Of all the pictures I managed to find, only a few were noteworthy. Among those, the most striking, in my opinion, was “Soapbox Racer” by Normal Rockwell. Painted in the same regionalist movement, this work also carries something uncomfortable with it.


Then an interesting thought hit me. Not only are there few such works, but for some reason, most seem to hint at criticism towards vehicles. Is that the place art has in the automotive world?

I hope not. There must be a few good stories to depict as well. Some positive messages to imbue the canvass with. Maybe they are just now being painted, and we have to wait a while to see them.

Of course, the medium may just not be a good fit for the car niche. There are more visually engaging ways to catch our attention today. Plus, depicting all the dynamism of a car in a single frame is a challenge, for sure. And yet, Grant Wood managed to do a good job!

How does “Death on the Ridge Road” affect you?

Enjoying and contemplating paintings doesn’t exactly come naturally to many people. I think that much like classical music, we have to train ourselves to catch the nuances. Nobody starts headbanging in rhythm to Bach, for example. Such art moves us differently.

So, if you don’t exactly get what is so great about paintings, that’s perfectly fine. Then again, if all of a sudden you have this great interest in them, that would be awesome! I have always believed that such art is vastly overrated. Suffice to say; I am not so sure about that anymore.

Do you like “Death on the Ridge Road” then? Or maybe it makes you feel too uncomfortable for you to enjoy it? In any case, if you are not indifferent to it, then it has done its job!


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