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Samuel Johnson Woolf (American, 1880-1948), ‘Brown the Wheats,’ 1913. Oil on canvas. Purchase through funds provided by patrons of Collectors Evening 2022, 2022.75. Image courtesy of the High Museum of Art

High Museum acquires Samuel Johnson Woolf’s ‘Brown the Wheats’

Samuel Johnson Woolf (American, 1880-1948), ‘Brown the Wheats,’ 1913. Oil on canvas. Purchase through funds provided by patrons of Collectors Evening 2022, 2022.75. Image courtesy of the High Museum of Art
Samuel Johnson Woolf (American, 1880-1948), ‘Brown the Wheats,’ 1913. Oil on canvas. Purchase through funds provided by patrons of Collectors Evening 2022, 2022.75. Image courtesy of the High Museum of Art

ATLANTA — Samuel Johnson Woolf’s Brown the Wheats, recently acquired by the High Museum of Art, is big on color and chock-full of concept. Painted in 1913, the charged scene is executed in a range of tones that distinguish the haves from the have-nots. As for sentimental appeal, it is neither an idealized scene nor a picturesque vision of tenement life. It is instead discomfiting in its directness and at the same time captivating for its unresolved drama — and a welcome addition to the High’s collection. The work was purchased in May 2022 with funds provided by patrons of that year’s Collectors Evening.

In Brown the Wheats Woolf does away with the picturesque by setting the scene not in a charming eatery but in a standardized and sterilized chain restaurant. The painting shows a young boy, recognizably of the less-fortunate set, gazing through the glass into the interior of a restaurant where a chef pours pancake batter on a griddle and white-clad waitresses serve a well-dressed clientele. The dark tones of the street, and the boy’s silhouette, contrast sharply with the white tiles and tropical fruit inside. The overall feeling of the painting is one of stark divisions: light and dark, abundance and absence, cleanliness and filth.

The few letters of a logo emblazoned on the glass make it clear that the eatery in question is Childs, one of the nation’s first restaurant chains, boasting multiple Manhattan locations by the 1910s. Reacting to the city’s growing concern about sanitation, Childs prided itself on the cleanliness of its interiors and the hygiene of its staff. The tiling and the uniforms were assiduously washed, and the menus were the same across the country — the first step toward what scholars have called the “McDonaldsization” of America. With relatively affordable prices and an unpretentious atmosphere, the restaurants were frequented by much of American society and were instantly recognizable. Just months before Woolf completed his painting, the chain even made its debut on Broadway. For the epilogue of the play The Governor’s Lady, the stage of the Republic Theatre was transformed into a fully functional Childs restaurant, griddle and all.

With new eateries came new ways to order, and at a place like Childs, it was decidedly uncool to order in a standard fashion. Instead of saying “pancakes please,” you would exclaim, “brown the wheats.” This jargon was more than a fun and snappy way to order a meal — it served as a kind of shibboleth for a disparate community of diners and chefs. Get it wrong, and you were marked — a bit like ordering a large at Starbucks instead of a venti. Taken as the title of Woolf’s painting, the phrase suggests the literal melting pot of American society. In the mouth of the hungry boy on the street, however, it is an empty pronouncement gone unheard by the genteel society encased in glass.