American Gothic: Grant Wood’s Midwestern mystery

Grant Wood’s double portrait is arguably the USA’s most famous painting, but what does it mean? Andrew Graham-Dixon serves up some theories

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930

Grant Wood (1891-1942), American Gothic, 1930 (detail). Oil on Beaver Board. The Art Institute of Chicago, IL, USA / Friends of American Art Collection / Bridgeman Images. Nan Wood Graham and Dr. Byron McKeeby, at the memorial exhibition, Gallery at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, September 1942. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Figge Art Museum, City of Davenport Art Collection, Grant Wood Archive, Friends of Art Acquisition Fund, SB‐8

In 1930, an unknown American painter named Grant Wood decided to send one of his pictures to the juried annual open exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Much to his delight, he won a prize, the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal, and with it $300 in cash: no mean sum for a struggling artist in his late twenties, born and raised on a remote farm in Iowa, trying to make his way in the provincial wilds of the American Midwest at the outset of the Great Depression.

Little did he know, but that bronze medal marked the beginning of one of the unlikeliest stories in the history of art. Wood’s prizewinning picture, portraying a hard-bitten farming couple and entitled American Gothic, was soon to be championed as the masterpiece of a new American art movement called ‘Regionalism’, first invented, and then promoted, by an impresario and art dealer from Kansas named Maynard Walker.

According to Walker, whose words carried influence, such work represented a robust all-American riposte to the ‘shiploads of rubbish that had been imported from the School of Paris’ by the effete and gullible art collectors of New York. In American Gothic  he saw a picture that dared to present real Americans, in all their true grit, to American eyes.

Grant Wood (1891-1942), American Gothic, 1930. Oil on Beaver Board. The Art Institute of Chicago

Grant Wood (1891-1942), American Gothic, 1930. Oil on Beaver Board. The Art Institute of Chicago, IL, USA/Friends of American Art Collection/Bridgeman Images

By the mid-1930s, reproductions of Wood’s suddenly famous little picture were to be found hanging in homes from Long Island to Los Angeles and everywhere in between. During the years that followed, it would be ceaselessly pastiched by the newspaper cartoonists of the day and just as often appropriated by advertisers, in America’s first great age of advertising, who found it had the power to sell anything from electrical goods to bottles of bourbon.

The only other modern painting to rival its weird multiplicity of afterlives in the fields of homage, parody, cartoon and caricature is Edvard Munch’s The Scream. As my friend the late Robert Hughes once pointed out, in an affectionately wry tribute to Grant Wood and the disappearing world of the rural Midwest, ‘The couple in front of the house have become preppies, yuppies, hippies, Weathermen, pot growers, Ku Klux Klaners, jocks, operagoers, the Johnsons, the Reagans, the Carters, the Fords, the Nixons, the Clintons...’

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that American Gothic  has become the USA’s answer to the Mona Lisa: the one picture that every American recognises, without necessarily knowing anything about its maker, his motives, or the mystery that still clings to it.

Like many an image of apparently unvarnished reality, American Gothic was carefully contrived

It all looks so straightforward. A man and a woman stand and stare with unblinking and unselfconscious hostility. They have the snapshot look of truth about them, calling to mind the tintype photographs of ancestors once kept in albums by families of modest means — including the artist’s own — across the Midwest. But, like many an image of apparently unvarnished reality, American Gothic  was carefully contrived.

Its creator himself admitted as much, recalling its origins in a visit to the small town of Eldon in southern Iowa: ‘I saw a trim white cottage, with a trim white porch — a cottage built on severe Gothic lines. This gave me an idea. That idea was to find two people who, by their severely strait-laced characters, would fit into such a home. I looked about among the folks I knew around my home town, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but could find none among the farmers — for the cottage was to be a farmer’s home.

‘I finally induced my own maiden sister to pose and had her comb her hair straight down her ears, with a severely plain part in the middle. The next job was to find a man to represent the husband. My quest finally narrowed down to the local dentist, who reluctantly consented to pose. I sent to a Chicago mail-order house for the prim, colonial print apron my sister wears and for the trim, spotless overalls the dentist has on.’

Nan Wood Graham and Dr. Byron McKeeby, at the memorial exhibition, Gallery at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. September 1942

Nan Wood Graham and Dr. Byron McKeeby, at the memorial exhibition, Gallery at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. September 1942. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Figge Art Museum, City of Davenport Art Collection, Grant Wood Archive, Friends of Art Acquisition Fund, SB‐8

Wood subsequently backtracked and said that the couple in the painting were actually father and daughter rather than husband and wife. Rumour has it that he was pressured by his sister into changing his story: apparently she disliked the idea of being married — albeit only in a painting — to a man so much older than herself. Wife or daughter, whichever you choose to believe, the subject remains essentially the same: a man guarding the virtue of a woman, as jealously as he guards his home.

That wooden-framed house still exists in Eldon today. It is arguably the most famous house in America after the White House, although no one will ever live there again: it is now a shrine for tourists, who visit annually in numbers greatly in excess of the local population. It is hard to imagine Wood’s invented proprietors being too pleased about such a state of affairs. Visitors? No thank you.

The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa

The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa. Photo: Shutterstock

Pressed up close to the picture plane, man and woman form together a human wall, keeping us forever at a distance from their sacred home. Their body language spells out the most laconic of telegrams: ‘KEEP OUT STOP STAY AWAY’.

After the unforeseen success of American Gothic, Wood for the most part happily played along with the role of a stay-at-home Iowan rustic prescribed for him by the propaganda of the Regionalist movement. He even posed for photographs in his studio wearing overalls identical to those of his reluctantly disguised dentist. But the truth about him was more complicated. He may have been wedded to his rural origins, but he was no provincial hick.

Wood was an alumnus of the Minneapolis School of Design, where he had studied under Ernest Batchelder, an American advocate of the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, from whom he absorbed, among other things, a lifelong respect for local traditions of handicraft and architecture. A few years after attending Batchelder’s course, he built a wooden-frame house, by hand and from scratch, in Cedar Rapids, for himself, his sister and mother (his father having passed away when he was 10).

During his early adult years, he scratched out a living by teaching art, but also managed frequent trips to Europe, Paris in particular, where he studied life drawing at the Académie Julien and developed a painting style indebted in equal measure to Impressionism and the Intimism of Bonnard and Vuillard. He was not inclined to seek out the work of Picasso or other, more avant-garde artists: they were not to his taste.

Grant Wood (1891-1942), Veterans Memorial Window, 1929. Cedar Rapids

Grant Wood (1891-1942), Veterans Memorial Window, 1929. Cedar Rapids. Photo: Courtesy of Cedar Rapids Tourism Office

In 1927, he was commissioned to make a monumental stained-glass window for the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building, which is still in situ and deserves to be better known. It is one of the most poignant offshoots of the American branch of Arts and Crafts: another kind of American Gothic, or so it always seems to me, with its monumental female embodiment of Peace, forever standing watch over six soldiers who collectively embody the fallen from conflicts ranging from the American Civil War to the First World War.

To realise his designs, Wood employed an expert team of stained-glass makers in Munich, which caused a brief storm of protest in Cedar Rapids: a group of self-righteous ladies calling themselves the Daughters of the American Revolution declared that it was shockingly unpatriotic of him to employ German craftsmen on a memorial for US veterans.

Wood later took his revenge on them with his memorable portrait of three sour-faced dowagers drinking tea in front of a painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware: Daughters of Revolution, painted in 1932. As was his wont, he used a family member as one of his models: his mother posed for the figure pinching a willow-pattern teacup in her bony fingers.

Grant Wood (1891-1942), Daughters of Revolution, 1932. Oil on Masonite. Cincinnati Art Museum

Grant Wood (1891-1942), Daughters of Revolution, 1932. Oil on Masonite. Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio, USA/The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial Fund/Bridgeman Images

It was while he was in Munich overseeing the creation of his stained-glass windows that Wood may be said to have found himself as a painter. In the city’s Alte Pinakothek he discovered the art of the Flemish Old Masters; and in its more modern galleries he was impressed by the painters of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. Almost at once he abandoned the muddy late-Impressionist style of his earlier years and worked in an entirely new mode, at once heavily stylised and hyperreal in the details. He became the Hans Memling of the Midwest.

American Gothic  was the most famous result of this self-transformation, but it was by no means the only one. Wood was enthralled by the landscape backgrounds of Flemish altarpieces: those tantalising slivers of verdant landscape, dotted with buildings and through which sinuous tracks twist, so often glimpsed behind Christ, the Virgin and other sacred figures in the works of Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Memling and their followers.

Grant Wood (1891-1942), Stone City, Iowa, 1930. Oil on wood panel. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha

Grant Wood (1891-1942), Stone City, Iowa, 1930. Oil on wood panel. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Gift of the Art Institute of Omaha, 1930

Throughout the 1930s, Wood painted his own favourite Iowan landscapes in imitation of those fragmentary Old Master visions. His work in this vein was animated by a spirit of homage, not only to the Flemish past but also to an American rural present that he feared was itself in danger of slipping away, threatened by growing industrialisation and the homogenisation of the landscape wrought by the advent of Big Agriculture. 

He did so most memorably in pictures of a miniaturistic and almost Surrealist intensity, like Stone City, Iowa  (1930, above) or Arbor Day  (1932), in which farmhouses and barns nestle in the rolling landscape: nursery visions of the world, where everything seems as safe, as unthreatened and as unthreatening as a toy.

Those paintings are not very well known nowadays, but they are worth hunting out. With them, as with American Gothic, Wood left his mark on popular culture: when the set designers for the film of The Wizard of Oz  created the landscape through which Dorothy and her companions pass as they travel the yellow brick road, they used Wood’s Iowan idylls as their template.

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But American Gothic  was destined to remain both his monument and his memorial — following his early death, from pancreatic cancer, in 1942 — although exactly what he intended by the picture is still open to question. From one perspective, it is simply an exercise in nostalgia: an elegy to a disappearing world of reassuring probity and moral solidity, where god-fearing sharecroppers will forever safeguard the virtue of their women.

But there are levels of irony at play in the painting, and undercurrents of disquiet that necessarily complicate such a view. Such slender biographical evidence as there is suggests that Wood himself was a deeply closeted homosexual who never felt comfortable with the puritanical ethics of rural Iowa. Perhaps there are more than a few traces of that discomfort in American Gothic.

As in the portraits of the Northern Renaissance, which the artist so admired, each figure has been supplied with symbolic attributes. The farmer brandishes a pitchfork, both weapon and emblem of Christian militancy (it is with pitchforks that damned souls are to be cast into hell). But its potency is undermined by its mirror image in the forked seams of his overalls, faded and softened with age. He is not the firebrand he once was.

And what of his wife (or should that be daughter)? She has been given a cameo brooch on which may be discerned the image of a goddess: Persephone, who in Greek myth was the queen of the underworld, having been abducted by Hades. Are we meant to sense that she feels more like a prisoner than a woman preserved, thanks be to God, from all moral danger? Would we be wrong to suspect that she regards that home behind her not as a church of the virtuous life, but as a jail? 

The faraway look in her eyes and the furrows of sadness that line her mouth leave space for doubt.

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