A large colorful original oil on canvas by the Saint Paul, Minnesota artist and illustrator Edward Vincent Brewer; titled “Passed by the Board.” This painting, along with other selections from the rich original Cream of Wheat collection, was loaned out in the late 1980s for a touring gallery exhibition. None of the original paintings commissioned for Cream of Wheat advertising have ever been available for sale. Each original piece of artwork used in Cream of Wheat advertising was carefully stored and archived at the Cream of Wheat headquarters in northeast Minneapolis.
The unusual care taken to protect this thorough, well-maintained archive is testament to the foresight of Emery Mapes, who presided over the Cream of Wheat advertising campaign. Most advertising illustration in the early 20th century was considered expendable, and was quickly destroyed, lost or thrown away. Mapes insisted upon treating the art as art, and employed the finest talents working as illustrators to help developed Cream of Wheat’s folksy nostalgic iconography. Counted among the artists Mapes recruited are N.C. Wyeth, Jessie Willcox Smith, Phillip Goodwin, J.C. Leyendecker, James Montgomery Flagg and Edward V. Brewer. With the help of this stable of talent, the Cream of Wheat advertising campaign came to define some of the most enduring visions of American hearth and home.
The advertising also created one of the most recognizable, storied, and controversial fictional personalities in American history; Rastus the Chef. Based upon a photograph of African American chef Frank White, Rastus presided over Cream of Wheat boxes and appeared in the company’s color advertising campaign from much of the 20th century. His face was often presented as a photo element within the artwork so as to brand a single image of the iconic character. This photo element would be applied to the canvas and painted over and colored as needed by the artist. After the urging of the NAACP Cream of Wheat abandoned the name Rastus (one of many derogatory names used as racial slurs in the late 19th/early 20th century), but the chef remained an integral part of the brand. Always shown smiling, benevolent, and offering comfort, the chef presents an idyllic view of traditional America. This America holds a pre-industrial sense of the bounty of the heartland and also many of the racial tensions inherent to this agrarian image of America. The tension between the sometimes uncomfortable depictions of the Chef and the incredibly poignant nostalgic visions of a timeless America only adds to the historic significance of this uniquely American art.
Between 1911 and 1926 Edward Brewer created 102 original paintings for the Cream of Wheat Company. We will be unveiling 12 of these works in the coming weeks. Passed By the Board is an exceptionally well-handled and touching Americana scene. The color palette here is extrordinary as is the use of drapery to contain and frame the composition. Like many of Cream of Wheat advertisements it presents an intergenerational moment, subtly reinforcing the product with traditional values and welcoming families. Brewer, in particular, had a gift for such scenes. The artist often posed his own children for his idyllic family views. Brewer’s style is often compared to that of Norman Rockwell; both artists relied on familiar surroundings, family and friends and captured the innocence of childhood and the traditional values of family life. This painting is featured as a full page insert on page 76 of Dave Stiver’s book “The Nabisco Brands Collection of Cream of Wheat Advertising Art.”