American Gothic by Grant Wood

American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930)

My Daily Art Display offering today is the oil on beaverboard painting by American artist Grant Wood entitled American Gothic which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.  This is said to be one of the most famous paintings in the history of American art.

Grant Wood was born in small town America, in Anamosa, Iowa in 1892.  During his early artistic life his works of art showed no one distinguishable style but he enjoyed painting the “niceties” of American Midwestern life with all its small villages and their white-painted churches.  That all changed in 1927 after he spent some time in Munich on a commission supervising the putting together of stained glass windows for the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building.  Whilst in Munich he visited the large art gallery, Alte Pinakothek and was introduced to the Early Netherlandish works of art and witnessed first hand the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement in German paintings which reflected the resignation and cynicism of the post-war period.  In all he made four trips to Europe and after each journey he returned home with a much greater appreciation of the Midwest lifestyle, culture and its traditions and this love of Midwest America was transformed into his paintings.

On his return home his painting style changed and his paintings took on a more painstaking and sharply detailed style.  As is the case in today’s painting Wood liked to paint ordinary every day people and their commonplace lifestyle in the Midwest of America.  His style of painting was often termed Regionalism and exuded a sense of patriotism and nostalgia and in some ways was an artistic record of the history of small town America.  He hoped that this style of his art and the subjects he displayed would, in some way, act as  a boost to the morale of people who were suffering badly during the Great Depression, reminding them that they should retain their self belief and steadfast American pioneer spirit.  American Regionalism opposed the European abstract art and the art which was very popular at the time on the East Coast of America and California and preferred depictions of homely rural America and its people

In American Gothic we see a farmer and his spinster daughter standing in front of their late nineteenth century Gothic Revival styled house with its distinctive upper window.  The actual building in Eldon, Iowa, is still standing and is a popular tourist attraction.  The figures were modelled by the artist’s dentist, Doctor Byron McKeeby and Wood’s sister, Nan.  They are both dressed in clothes dating from the 1890’s.  The man, because of the way he is dressed, and the fact he is holding a three-pronged pitchfork , one believes him to be a farmer but he also has the studious look of a banker’s clerk.  Maybe the pitchfork is there to signify man’s traditional role as hard working but it also gives him a slight air of hostility and someone who has a bad temper.   There is something puritanical in his look.  In contrast, the woman exhibiting a side-long glance seems more prim and dowdy with her colonial-print apron with its white collar.  She conveys an air of domesticity.   The precise realism of the rigid frontal arrangement of the man and woman was probably inspired by the Northern Renaissance Art Wood saw when he was in Europe.  There is a definite similarity with van Eyck’s double portrait, The Arnolfini Portrait, (see Nov 27th) and also the way mystery surrounds the symbolic meaning and interpretation of both works.

However with regards symbolism and interpretation maybe we should leave the last word to the artist for when asked about the satirical nature of his painting and the two characters he merely replied that “they were the kind of people I fancied should live in that house”.

Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago and although it was not liked by all the judges, it achieved a bronze medal and the Institute bought the work of art.  Copies of the painting were published nationwide in many newspapers and all was well until the local newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa published it.   The locals were up in arms at the depiction of the couple as “pinched, grim-faced Bible-thumpers”.   Woods’ sister was embarrassed and horrified as being portrayed as the wife of somebody old enough to be her father and was quick to state that the couple were indeed father and daughter.

It is a strange painting but one, like the Arnolfini Portrait, which may hold symbolic messages and is open to many interpretations despite the artist himself denying any hidden meaning to his famous work of art.