A few days ago I wrote a little history about Gothic architecture and art. Today, I want to re-visit the Gothic world, but in a very different way, one that’s much closer to home.
We’ve all seen the painting:
It’s been called “…the most recognizable painting in 20th century American art”, referred to as “an indelible icon of Americana,” and without doubt it is Grant Wood’s most famous painting.
Despite having developed a familiarity with this most famous painting in my childhood, I never really did get to know much about its artist.
I think all I ever really did know about Grant Wood was that he was an American painter.
Wood was born in Iowa, which isn’t all that far from Missouri. It’s just north of our state, and I’ve traveled to — and through — Iowa many times.
He was an extremely active artist who worked in many different media. He’s best known for his paintings, but he also worked in ink, charcoal, lithography, ceramics, metal, wood, and found objects — a term which can describe just about anything.
In reading about his life, I get the feeling that Grant Wood was not an especially happy man. As a young man he taught school in Iowa for a short time, and throughout his life he used his talents in practical ways to provide a steady income. He painted advertisements for businesses, sketched the rooms of a funeral home for a promotional flyer, and designed a corn-themed (Iowa is known for its corn) dining room for a hotel. During his time in the military, he worked as a camouflage painter.
Having been born and raised in a rural area, Wood is sometimes referred to as the “farmer painter”, and he once quipped that he got all his inspiration while milking cows. But, to be honest, I don’t think he was enamored of life on the farm. While reading about his life, I was reminded of a little song my grandfather used to sing.
“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree…?”
Wood felt that Europe was culturally superior to America, and between 1922 and 1928 he made several trips to Europe. He studied the works of French impressionists as well as works by Jan van Eyck. Gradually, though, he realized that American art needed to break away from European forms and define itself.
He became a leading proponent of what is now called regionalism, art that reflects the character and culture of a specific place, such as the Midwest. He looked at the midwestern traditions and the people around him, and he began to build an artistic narrative around them.
While visiting the little town of Eldon, Iowa, in 1930, he noticed a little white cottage with a single oversized window, created in a style known as Carpenter Gothic. He quickly sketched the house out on an envelope, knowing that he would use it as a background for a painting.
The couple we see standing before that little white cottage were both very real people. He dressed his sister Nan in an old apron and painted her. In separate sessions he painted Byron McKeeby — his dentist — as the stern-faced farmer. Wood did elongate his sister’s face a bit, saying, “I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house.”
The couple are intended to be a farmer and his daughter, although many viewers have thought the painting depicted an old married couple. This didn’t go over well with Nan. Here is a photo showing the couple with the painting. This was taken in 1942, twelve years after the painting was made.
The painting immediately made Wood famous. At the same time, it made a lot of Iowans angry. They didn’t like being portrayed as dour, humorless people. Supposedly one farm wife was so mad that she threated to bite Wood’s ear off, and another suggested he should have his head bashed in. Wood insisted that he was a loyal Iowan and that he meant no offense. His intention, he explained, was to show his appreciation for the hard-working people and to provide a positive statement about rural America. American Gothic was intended to be a reassuring image at a time of great hardship and disenchantment brought by the Great Depression.
Other viewers saw it differently. Writer Gertrude Stein interpreted it as a satire of provincial small-town values. I’m still puzzling over Wood’s reply:
There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life.
– Grant Wood on American Gothic
If you can figure out what that means, please let me know.
A good discussion about the meaning — or possible meanings — can be found here: