Death on a Ridge Road by Grant Woods looks more like a still from an artistic animated movie made in our time than a painting created with oil on canvas in the year 1935 by the same artist who made American Gothic. Wood’s understanding of perspective and his mastery of light is the reason for this brilliant effect. But this painting has more than visual awe. The meaning behind this painting and the possible interpretation is just as interesting.
We’ll be analyzing this painting both in visual aspects and in terms of the meaning it holds. This scene that the painting depicts holds more than what meets the eyes, and that’s astonishing because there is a lot that meets the eye. Let’s start the analysis. But before that, here’s some general information about the painting.
About Death on a Ridge Road
Title of the painting: Death on a Ridge Road
Painter: Grant DeVolson Wood
Year of completion: 1935
Medium: Oil on canvas
Location: Williams College Museum of Art, Massachusetts
Price: Sold at $3,000 in 1935. In 2021, the same amount would be around $57,000.
Genre: Genre painting
Visual analysis of the painting
The painting uses lighting to bring out the subject of the painting, giving it a dramatic effect. The Ridge road sits at the center of the canvas, making it the subject of the painting. Right above the road, there are parted clouds, bringing in the light. The edges are filled with darkness, creating a spotlight effect on the vehicles on the road. The use of light and darkness creates a claustrophobic, tunneling effect.
The scene is a very volatile one. A storm is approaching with dark clouds covering most of the sky. Then we see two cars going in one direction and a large semi-trailer approaching from the bend in the opposite direction. This is where the scene has been stopped. And with the approaching storm, we know that an accident is about to happen. But there’s more.
It isn’t about the road that is leading the vehicles to a crash, but it’s also about the vehicles. Notice how the black car is slanted, covering the entire width of the road. Now notice how the semi-trailer is flying above the road, indicating the high-speed approach. Sadly, the car behind in the darkness would also be the victim of the collateral.
Visual symbolism and the role of colors
Death on a Ridge Road depicts a paused scene of a very chaotic and fatal event. But some visual elements work as symbolism for the theme of the painting. Remember that this is not a photograph. Everything that’s in the painting was painted by the painter with some purpose. And this is where we get to see the symbolism.
The two cars are coming from the darkness of the road since it is a stormy day. The direction is towards the light, and not just any light but a divine sort of light. The clouds have parted on the road ahead as some sort of heavenly gates have opened. And from this divine light comes a red semi-trailer. This is where we start seeing the use of Christian symbolism.
Notice how the electric poles are slanted? They almost depict the Cross. Then there’s the red truck coming from the light. In Christianity, the color red represents martyrs and the death of Christ on the Cross. It also represents sacrifice, the love of God. The imminent death of the people in the black car is leading them towards the light. But there’s more.
The color of the black car also represents something. In Christianity, the color black represents multiple things, all in concordance with what this painting shows. Black represents deceit (Job 6:16), God’s Judgment (Zechariah 6:2, 6), adversity, and pain for one’s sins (Revelations 16:10, Isaiah 5:30). The black car is about to suffer for its ignorance, deceit, and sins.
This is what’s so great about Grant Wood’s paintings. All of his paintings had vague meaning, open to so many interpretations that even today people are finding new meaning in his paintings.
The meaning of the painting
There can be no single and definite meaning of a painting extracted by any viewer. Different people see different interpretations of a painting. And the more interpretation, the greater the painting. But the foundations of the painting Death on a Ridge Road can be found by looking at the painter’s life.
The scene is inspired by a real-life incident that happened to one of Wood’s friends, Jay Sigmund. Sigmund was in a car accident when his son, trying to dodge a truck, crashed the car. This accident had a huge impact on the painter. Sigmund referenced this event in his collection of short stories and poems termed The Ridge Road.
But when it comes to finding interpretations for this painting, it is like digging the earth for soil, the more you dig, the more you get. While it can be said that the accident had an impact on the painter for this painting, he used this canvas to show more than just an unfortunate event. Let’s look at the cultural interpretations of this painting.
Cultural interpretations of the painting
Grant did not like the urbanization and modernization of the rural landscape. He did not like machines taking over and the conversion of green lands into dull, dark stone buildings. This painting is often said to be the representation of that notion.
The black car represents the culture of cities and towns. A long black car that drives haphazardly, unaware of the rural roads resulting in the collision with the farmer who is driving the truck, perhaps carrying his produce. The truck is also driving very fast and uncontrollably. This is because the farmer has to start adopting modern ways to survive. But this adoption and amalgamation of urban and rural life are leading to naught but disaster.
The third car that slowly drives towards this fatal accident is the village. While they are living their lives peacefully, they cannot help but get into the collateral damage resulting from this amalgamation. While it is not their fault, they have to suffer for this. This is what the painting is said to mean culturally. But what does this painting mean from a personal perspective?
Personal interpretation of the painting
Liking digging for soil, we again find another interpretation of the painting, and it has to do with the sexual orientation of the painter, Grant Wood. Wood was criticized by his father for being “too feminine” and we are aware that he was a closeted gay man. The perception of society towards homosexuality was not very gentle in the 1930s.
With this in mind, the personal interpretation of the painting shows that the black car represents Wood and other gay men who find themselves on an uphill road, driving on a different lane but always facing the harsh crash of society. The red semi-trailer represents the large and strong society. The other car represents the straight people for whom the roads are pleasant and easy.
Perhaps this painting is about being different, perhaps it is about the clash of urban and rural life. This “perhaps” is what makes Wood’s paintings so interesting to look at. The unbound meanings it offers through such a unique and beautiful artistic medium make this painting, along with other of his works, a true representation of American arts to the world.
This concludes the article. But there are so many more great paintings with great stories. Take a look at these articles and read more interesting stuff: