The Gripes of Rats, c. 1939, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches, verso has label from Exhibition of Works by California Artists, Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, California from May 25 through September 29, 1940, #2021, with Artist’s name (G. Hawthorne Cove), Address (Lomita Park P.O.), Title (Gripes of Rats) and Medium (oil)
About the Painting
In The Gripes of Rats, Grace Hawthorne Cove introduces the beloved American author, John Steinbeck, to the famous Spanish master Francisco Goya in a most unflattering way. The title of Cove’s painting is a not-so-veiled satire of Steinbeck’s Depression Era novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which tells the story of the Joad family’s escape from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the hoped for promised land of California’s Central Valley. In Cove’s painting, we see the Joad clan. Tom Joad is to the left holding the club which by the novel’s end Tom will use to take another man’s life, while Ma and Pa Joad try to hold their son back. Granpa Joad reaches across the painting to Tom as well. Pipe-smoking Grandma Joad looks away from Tom and towards his eldest sister, Rose of Sharon, whose pregnancy is covered by her overcoat. Winfield and Ruthie Joad, Tom’s younger siblings sit at the bottom right, contemplating a rat sitting on Ruthie’s lap. Uncle John is there too in the background next to the Christ-like former preacher, Jim Casy, who has his hands outstretched as if giving a sermon. And rounding out the background is Noah Joad, Tom’s older brother who feels less than loved by his parents. In the center of the Joad clan, Cove places Steinbeck himself with his characteristic pipe in one hand and a whiskey tumbler in the other. Steinbeck was a heavy drinker. With his head on the table, Steinbeck is asleep, conjuring the characters from his novel. Cove’s composition takes its inspiration from Francisco Goya’s most famous aquatint, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (El Sueno de la Razon Produce Monstruos) , which itself was a satire of Spanish society in the late 1790s. Goya’s composition contains a self-portrait, with the artist’s head resting on a table. As Goya sleeps and reason fades, monsters, in the form of owls, bats and black cats, emerge around him from the darkness and the fears and dangers of the irrational world take hold. In Cove’s composition, however, the Joad clan takes the place of Goya’s bestiary. What is going on here? Is Cove really equating the Joad family to Goya’s irrational monsters? Yes, she is.
From our 21st century point of view, we think of the novel and movie, The Grapes of Wrath, as American classics. Afterall, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize and sold over 400,000 copies in its first year, the movie won several Academy Awards, and Steinbeck later went on to become one of a very small number of Americans to win the Nobel Prize for literature largely on the back of The Grapes of Wrath. And, of course, we all had to read the novel in high school. It must be really good, right? Yes, but in Depression Era America, Steinbeck and his most famous novel and movie were as controversial as they were impactful. For many Republicans on the Right of the political spectrum, Steinbeck was a communist and the novel was mere propaganda for advancing an international Leftist conspiracy, or at minimum, advancing what was perceived as the meddlesome big-government interventions of New Deal Democrats under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leadership. When Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, many in the United States continued to debate the role of the federal government and they were not at all happy that the New Dealers seemed to have the upper hand with an alphabet soup of social and work programs which made the federal government the largest employer in the country. On a local level, farmers, bankers, and small-town politicians were not pleased with the way Steinbeck presented them either. These sentiments led to the novel being banned in communities across the country from Kern County, California to Kansas City, Missouri and Buffalo, New York. Cove was a Republican and judging from The Gripes of Rats, she too shared the concerns of the political Right. This likely made Cove an outlier in artistic circles, particularly in Northern California, which then, as now, were progressive and Left leaning. Although The Gripes of Rats bares a label from the Golden Gate International Exposition, it does not appear on the final lists of works accepted by the jury raising the question whether the work’s overtly anti-Steinbeck and Right leaning political messages were not in keeping with the late 1930s Northern California’s art establishment.
About the Artist
Grace Hawthorne Cove was a northern California artist who lived in San Mateo and San Bruno. Little is known about her education or career. From at least 1928 through the 1950s, public records list Cove as an artist or commercial artist. She exhibited in 1934 at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco with a who’s who of Northern California artists, including Rinaldo Cuneo, Lucien Labaudt, and Nils Green. Her painting, Naked Ladies, was favorably reviewed by H.L. Dungan of the Oakland Tribune, who described her entry as a “well arranged group of amaryllis.” In 1939, Cove submitted the present work, The Gripes of Rats, to the Exhibition of Works by California Artists, Golden Gate International Exposition, an important world’s fair which took place in San Francisco in 1939 and 1940.