Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Rustic Prints 4

To the back of this rustic print my father, Joseph Rhode, taped a quotation he typed on a slip of paper and illustrated with colored pencils: “I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” The words are those of William Jennings Bryan, a populist who lost his bids for President of the United States three times. My generation remembers Bryan as a character in the movie (and play) Inherit the Wind (1960). The quotation that my father chose as a caption for the rural scene is from Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech.

Farm Horses and Wagon in Green Frame

The print depicts a team of horses pulling a wagon along a road beside a river in spectacular scenery reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The young couple in front of the house and stone wall includes the man wearing the straw hat while driving the team and the woman feeding the chickens while drying the laundry. The trees are as fluffy as the clouds of the prismatic day. A lilac bush is in full bloom. The illustration exudes peace, contentment, and love.

My father “Joe” loved farming with horses, all of them spoiled pets. When he was a boy, he happily harnessed Togo and Maud on his grandfather’s farm. Later, when he had a farm of his own, my father proudly drove Queen and Babe. Shire horses assisted many of his farming tasks until about the time my brother was born. At that time, he felt that he must modernize by using gasoline tractors exclusively, and he reluctantly sold his last horses. It must have broken his heart to do so.

Togo, Maud, and Joseph C. Rhode in April 1930
Photo by Mrs. Allen

When my father passed away at a ripe old age, I discovered in his desk drawers numerous pamphlets, brochures, and books on horses. Joe grew up with the family tradition of Dan Patch, arguably the first sports celebrity in the U.S. (His mother’s uncle invented a shoe that helped the young sulky horse become a champion and go on to fame and fortune.) I have the impression that my father liked horses even more than he liked dogs, and he always had a loving dog around!

Queen, Babe, and Joseph C. Rhode in March 1942

Whenever I look upon this rustic print, I think of my father and of my upbringing on his farm. It was in the flat lands of Indiana, not the mountains, but the farm held charms that I distinctly remember to this day. Often, I return to the farm in my dreams.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rustic Prints 3

With this rustic print, we delve deeply into Halloween—or I think we do. The orange sunset and the ghoulish shadows give an immediate impression of the ghostly season. The shocks of corn lean to the right as if they might be capable of motion; if so, they are marching forward to cross the stream and to haunt the two lonely farmhouses in the valley.

Framed Print of Shocks of Corn in a Scene Reminiscent of Halloween

I am not old enough to remember corn planted in checked rows so that a field could be cultivated at right angles without uprooting the young stalks, but I do recall cornstalks that were farther apart in the row and rows that were relatively far apart. When I was young, the corn stood in the field later in the season before it was harvested, and it was not arranged in shocks. I have a distinct recollection of coming home from college for Thanksgiving and finding my father still picking corn. From my vantage point in time, the shocks in this rural print date back a long way. The corn appears to have been planted amid the trees of the hill. I am thinking that the location of the shocks provides evidence of a crop that demanded a great deal of hands-on labor. No big tractor danced around those trees to plant the corn in such a narrow field along a hill above a creek! Accordingly, the scene takes us back a few generations.

The faux wood grain of the paper matting contrasts oddly with the real wood grain of the frame, but the generation when the art was produced may have had an aesthetic that permitted appreciation of the faux and the real side-by-side. To my eye, the dark mat lends mystery to the illustration.

As in the previous print in this series of blogs, the trees have retained their leaves: a fact suggesting that they are oaks. Hints of low-lying fog imply the possibility of frost in the morning to come.

Unlike the previous two prints in these blogs, no congenial smoke curls from a chimney. The artist has avoided any indication of conviviality or familial warmth.

From the oaks, through the marching skeletons of corn, to the dismal gray clouds approaching in the last light of the setting sun, the illustration expresses the Celtic Samhain transplanted in American soil. Am I reading too much into the art, or did the artist deliberately provide for such impressions?    

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Rustic Prints 2

The odd shape of the frame is the first feature of this rustic print that appeals to me. The sloping upper corners remind me of objects considered sacred.

The print itself is admittedly inexpensively produced. Even so, the illustration does a marvelous job of evoking the autumn! The pumpkins and the shocks of corn are straight from Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley’s nostalgic poem “When the Frost Is on the Punkin.” The humble cottage in the background makes me think of my many Irish ancestors, who undoubtedly knew similar cottages. The smoke arising from the chimney suggests the presence of happy inhabitants of the warm kitchen on a fall day. As the trees have held onto their leaves while the season has advanced, they might be sturdy oaks.

Framed Rustic Print of Shocks of Corn and Pumpkins

To the left is a house or barn where the road bends, and to the right is a dwelling beyond a fence. Our friends in the cottage need not feel lonely, for neighbors surround them at respectful rural distances. The country road is raised above the field and curves merrily amid green grass. I find the highway inviting; I want to walk along it to see where it leads. Penetrating the thin layer of cloud, sunlight imparts a glow to the scene. Crows in the sky are taking advantage of the good weather to discover kernels of corn dropped by the farmers.

I remain an admirer of such antique prints of rural settings. Having worked as an illustrator, I am aware of the challenges of capturing viewers’ attention and helping shape their response. The artist who combined these homes, oaks, crows, shocks, and clouds was adept at assembling elements implying autumn in the way that it is experienced throughout much of rural America. Whoever owned this framed print long ago must surely have been proud to hang it on the wall of a parlor where the scene was admired year ‘round. I recall a similar print in the waiting room of the small-town dentist that my parents took me to see when I was in junior high school.

Vintage rustic illustrations range from exuberant, through spiritual, through mysterious, to sorrowful. This print belongs toward the joyful end of the spectrum, although virtually any fall scene can hint at the possibility of a bitter winter not far off. I see this art as conveying the happiness inherent in the harvest. Food is abundant, the pantry is full, nature is glorious, and joy is ubiquitous. The scene is, then, a celebration!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Rustic Prints 1

I am a sucker for rustic prints. They remind me of my youth on a farm in Indiana. They often tell stories.

In the one I am featuring here, the season is autumn. The colors make me think it is late afternoon. Many of the trees have lost their leaves. A pile of straw could provide bedding or maybe shelter for a cow or two out of view. Tracks in the gravel road could imply dust but more likely suggest that rain has recently dampened the surface. A two-wheel cart has been abandoned, as if inclement weather might have interrupted a chore.

Framed Rustic Print of Barn and Cart in Late Autumn

The stream is so narrow that it may form only during wet seasons. I suspect that the water is fairly cold. I am unable to determine whether another house might have stood—or be standing off to the right—near the barn and shed or whether the resident of the house down the road keeps the barn and outbuilding. The distance between the barn and the house is somewhat greater than is customary.

The scene could be depressing. As there are no human beings to be seen, the viewer cannot safely conclude that a happy family lives in the house. As there are no farm animals visible, the viewer cannot confidently decide that the farm is generating a good income. As the fall of the year is advancing, the viewer senses that a bitter winter could lie ahead.

Three elements contradict despair. First, the cheerful shades of green, orange, and yellow lend the scene an aura of enchantment. Next, the cart and the straw imply only a temporary halt in what is otherwise an active farm. Finally—and most importantly—a wisp of smoke curls above the chimney of the house. Even though the air has an autumnal chill, whoever lives in the house is enjoying a warm fire! As I burn wood throughout the cold months, I can attest that a wood fire warms my bones better than any other form of heat. Ultimately, the picture implies comfort: a respite from labor or a rest from the work of the hot summer months.

After studying the picture, I love it all the more. Even though I have invested much of my lifetime in examining fine art, I do not scorn the illustrators who, two or three generations ago, produced popular prints such as this one; in fact, I appreciate their artistic endeavors. Perhaps such scenes appeal to the illustrator in me, but I think it is more likely that they capture places that are generally familiar to me. I do not think that the scene in this print is intended to be nostalgic; there are too many contradictory details, several of which could be read as discouraging or even melancholy. To me, the print is faithful to a past reality and evocative of a way of life deeply imprinted on my psyche.