For many people the name Grant Wood is synonymous with the painting American Gothic but in fact he completed many more superb works of art and in this blog I will look at some of my favourites.
In 1930, the same year he painted American Gothic, he entered two of his works in to the Iowa State Fair Art Exhibition and was awarded first prize for the best picture of the exhibition and first prize in the oil portrait category for his Portrait of Arnold Pyle (see Grant Wood, Part 2) and first prize in the oil landscape category for his painting entitled Stone City. Stone City was Grant Wood’s first major landscape painting. It is a tranquil, idealized scene of life in harmony with nature. Stone City which is located on the Wapsipinicon River, twenty-six miles from Cedar Rapids, was once a boomtown but it went bust. The boomtown came to fruition because of its limestone quarries and laid to rest by the development of Portland cement. Wood, through his painting, would like us to believe that the town has since reverted to a purer purpose of grazing animals and growing crops. In his 1995 book Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed, James Homs wrote about this painting:
“…Although Stone City, Iowa was based on a direct study of a place with which he was thoroughly acquainted, he turned this village and its river valley site into a fantasy of curving contours, ornamental trees and brightly patterned surfaces. Wood considered the “decorative adventures” of his commonplace rural surroundings – their inherent elements of abstraction – as the true origin of the most lasting qualities in his work…”
In 1931, a year after American Gothic, Wood finished another of his well-loved paintings entitled The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Wanda Corn, a biographer of Wood, wrote that as a child, Wood had been captivated by the tale of Revere’s journey through the night from Boston to Lexington to warn the patriots of the British advance. Like most Americans of his day, Wood would have learned about the American legend from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which was published in 1863:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
Like many young boys, Wood was captivated by the idea of a local hero carrying vital news, raising the alarm, and through this brave deed, achieving immortality. Wood probably liked to imagine himself on just such an assignment galloping from farm to farm to warn his neighbours of an approaching tornado and then being held aloft as the local hero having saved so many lives.
Grant Wood’s depiction is viewed from above. We see a vast sweep of countryside and a village with houses depicted as simple geometric shapes, which resembles a “toy town” where the houses are made with wooden blocks. The painting portrays the hero on horseback as he gallops through a small village which is nestled among the trees which are painted in Wood’s favoured “sponge-like” representation. Ahead of this American hero, as he rides out of town, is darkness, behind the horse and rider are houses with lights on and some of the occupants, woken by Revere’s warning calls, stand in their night clothes on their front steps and in the street. Woods intention in depicting this piece of American folklore was, as he put it, to save those bits of American folklore that are too good to lose. His intention was, during the Great Depression, to remind people of historic times of the past, to remind people of the greatness of their country. However, his work had many detractors who said that his child-like depiction made fun of this American legend.
By 1932, Wood’s reputation as an artist had risen significantly and he became co-founder of the Stone City Colony and Art School in Iowa. along with Edward Rowan, the director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids, Adrian Dornbush, the former director of the Flint Institute of Art who was an art instructor at the Little Gallery. The Stone City Art Colony was a home and a place to paint for artists in the Midwest. As a teacher at the colony Grant Wood was able to spread the message of Regionalism to aspiring artists. Unfortunately, the art colony was always plagued by financial difficulties and closed in the autumn of 1933.
In 1934 Grant took on a position with the art department at the University of Iowa, and also in that year, he was named director of the Public Works of Art Project in Iowa. Grant Wood later took on many of the artists at the artist colony in that project, a programme which employed artists, as part of the New Deal, during the Great Depression, and which he administered for the state of Iowa. The programme produced a large number of Depression Era murals that can still be viewed on the walls of rural post offices and public buildings in Iowa. In her book Wall To Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression by Professor Karal Ann Marling, she explains that the concept for nine years, from 1934 to 1943 She said that the Federal Government, under the Public Buildings Administration, commissioned murals for a variety of newly constructed post-offices around the United States. Life magazine, named it “Mural America for Rural America.” It was a programme designed to get starving artists out of the garrets and into suitable work that would decorate bare walls, edify the public, and put some spare change in their pockets.
In 1935 Grant Wood published the essay “Revolt Against the City,” in which he laid out the tenets of the Regionalism movement. For him Regionalism was a movement to which artists all over the United States must dedicate themselves in order to avoid a colonial dependency on European tradition. He felt that the rural Midwest, (the farmer’s life, dress and setting) would provide the richest kind of material for a truly indigenous regionalist style.
Joseph Chamberlain Furnas was an American freelance writer. He is best known for his article, commissioned for the Reader’s Digest, “—And Sudden Death!” This article brought national attention to the problem of automobile safety and is the most-reprinted article in the Digest’s history. In it he wrote:
“…An enterprising judge now and again sentences reckless drivers to tour the accident end of a city morgue. But even a mangled body on a slab, waxily portraying the consequences of bad motoring judgment, isn’t a patch on the scene of the accident itself. No artist working on a safety poster would dare depict that in full detail…”
It could be that Grant Wood read the whole article in the August 1935 edition of the Reader’s Digest and it was that, that made him paint Death on the Ridge Road in 1935. It is a painting all about movement but with a bleak message about death on the roads. The painting vividly depicts the bends of the road, the shapes and positions on the road of the vehicles careering towards one another. It is a bleak and stormy night. Even the telegraph pole at the top of the hill seems to be bending over due to the ferocity of the wind and, in the background, we sense that the storm clouds are scuttling across the sky depositing rain which will moisten the road surface. The tarmacked road bends are bordered by barbed-wire fences as it cuts through green hills. The large red truck rushes headlong over the crest of the hill towards an on-coming black car which has skidded across the road into its oncoming path. We know what is going to happen next. We know there will be deaths and the arms of the telegraph poles now seem to symbolise crosses on a grave. Maybe Wood was warning us about the dangers of technological progress.
Grant Wood painted a very hypnotic work in 1936 entitled Spring Turning. This type of work by Wood is often referred to as Magic Realism. The term magical realism, was first expressed in a discussion of the visual arts. The German art critic Franz Roh, in his 1925 book, Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (After expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the newest European painting). In it he described a group of painters whom we now categorize generally as Post-Expressionists, and he used the term Magischer Realismus to both highlight and rejoice at their return to figural representation after a decade or more of abstract art.
With its bird’s-eye view of smooth, swelling hills and nearly abstract banded squares of green grass and ploughed earth, Wood’s depiction is probably from his own memory as a child on the family farm in Anamosa. There is no evidence in the depiction of cars, farm machinery, paved roads, or electric wires. Wanda Corn in her 1983 book, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, describes the work as a tale about:
“…man living in complete harmony with nature; he is the earth’s caretaker, coaxing her into abundance, bringing coherence and beauty to her surfaces…”
Despite the successes Wood achieved with his paintings in the 1930’s his life was becoming stressful with the IRS chasing him for unpaid taxes and he began finding some solace in liquor. To add to his problems, on March 2nd, 1935, he, without warning, married a divorced woman, Sara Sherman Maxon, the former head of Michigan City’s School of Fine Arts and a former light opera singer The marriage took place in a small ceremony in Minneapolis, the town in which Sara was living, far from Grant’s home, and with none of his friends or family in attendance, as one report put it:
“…Wood’s neighbours read with astonishment that he was to be married that night in a small ceremony in Minneapolis. The fact that Cedar Rapids’ “bachelor artist” had a secret fiancée was nearly as dumbfounding as the circumstances of the wedding itself – a ceremony conducted with little warning, far from home, and with no friends or family in attendance…”
It was not a “marriage made in heaven” and many of Grant’s friends thought they were ill-matched, as Sara seemed flamboyant and overpowering whilst Grant was a socially awkward and reticent bachelor. Shortly after the couple were married, they moved to Iowa City where Grant was teaching at the University of Iowa.
Wood bought an eighty-year-old house for $3,500 and spent almost $35,000 renovating and refurbishing it, which financially crippled him. The pair found it difficult to survive as a happily married couple. The marriage was a platonic affair and never consummated. Did Sara know that her husband was homosexual? It seemed to have been common knowledge of his friends and some of his students.
In the same year Grant and Sara married, Wood hired a handsome, athletic, young man, Park Rinard, as his personal secretary. Rinard, who lived in Falls Church, was born in Montana and grew up in Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa, where he also received a master’s degree in creative writing. It was while he was in graduate school that he became secretary to Grant Wood. Although not a homosexual himself, Rinard clearly understood Wood’s attraction to him. Rinard was the ghost writer for Grant Wood’s unfinished autobiography, Return from Bohemia. But Rinard’s presence only further pushed Sara to the side, which made her woefully unhappy.
The relationship between Wood and his wife was so bad at the end that, according to one account, he enlisted his housekeeper as proxy to deliver his desire for a divorce to Sara. Another account tells of Sara going to hospital because of a suspected heart attack (she was a notorious hypochondriac) and Grant sent a note to her telling her not to bother to return! The inevitable divorce came in September 1939.
Another American folktale was the subject for a satirical work depicted in Grant Wood’s 1939 painting Parson Weems Fable. Mason Locke Weems usually referred to as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography of George Washington, entitled The Life of Washington in 1800, immediately after the first President’s death in December 1799 . The tale of the cherry tree and Washington appeared in the fifth imprint of this bestseller book in 1805. The tale of the cherry tree (I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet) was to highlight George Washington’s virtues, even as a six-year-old child, and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation. Grant Wood created his work in celebration of historian Parson Weems and the first President George Washington. Weems’ anecdote told the story of the six-year-old future President chopping down his father’s favourite cherry tree and then owning up to it. Grant Wood’s regionalism style painting, this satirical work predicts the revolutionary spirit coming to colonial America. His contrast of colours conjures up a sense of impending change, particularly in the storm clouds we see gathering on the horizon.
Washington’s father Augustine is depicted as a red coat holding the fallen cherry tree with an outreached hand, while the unruly youth, painted with the adult head and face of Washington, as it appears on the $1 bill, on a child’s body, The child points at the offending hatchet. In the right-hand foreground, we see Weems, with a wry smile on his face, pulling a drape aside to reveal this iconic encounter. In the background we catch sight of two slaves picking cherries from another tree, and this could be a reference to another historic and revolution that was to come.
Grant Wood in his studio in1931
Grant Wood was a complex character. He constantly wanted to be known a “farmer-painter” and in many of the photographs of him we see him dressed in overalls which was bizarre as he hated farming. It is more than likely that his showy rural character was part of the style that he, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry promoted in the 1930’s as champions of American Regionalist painting. There is no doubt that they were nostalgic about the past and believed that the healthy values of the Midwest should be maintained as an antidote to their perceived view of the decadence and degenerate European lifestyle and the corruption which they believed sullied life in the American East Coast cities.
Unfortunately for Grant Wood, his artistic legacy, which only lasted eleven years, was damaged, firstly by critics’ ridiculing his work, saying it was merely “regionalistic” and light-weight and secondly by wide spread rumours about his sexuality. The final part of the title of this blog mentioned “rumours” and I thought long and hard whether to even include the rumours about Grant Wood’s life. The rumours were about Grant Wood’s sexuality and I was not sure whether it had any bearings on his ability as a painter. A 1944 biography hinted at Wood’s homosexuality, as did the catalogue written by Wanda Corn that accompanied the travelling exhibition of Grant Wood’s work. However, she and other art historians had to be very careful what they wrote about Wood as his sister, Nan, was quick to litigate against any slurs about her brother. There were rumours of an attachment Wood had with his wife’s son, Sherman, from her first marriage who occasionally lived with them. Lester Longman, a modernist-minded colleague in the University of Iowa art department, where Wood had taught since 1935, tried to have him fired, in part on explicit moral grounds. However, the university ignored the charge and retained Wood. It was only after his sister’s death in 1990 that historians could write with more openness and impunity. In a 2010 biography, by R Tripp Evans, Grant Wood: A Life, he unequivocally states that Wood was a closeted gay man and someone who was terrified of having his sexual orientation uncovered.
Probably another work by Wood which made people question his sexuality came about in 1939 when he produced a controversial lithograph, entitled Sultry Night. In it he depicts the farmhand pouring a pail of bathwater over his head in the empty dark of a field. We see water dripping from his mouth, along his chest, and down to his penis. The problem for Wood was that the depiction of the naked man is not posed in the academic postures of the classical nude, which may have made it more acceptable, but instead we see this splay-footed individual with his face upturned to receive the stream of water. Wood created the lithograph for Associated American Artists, a distributor of low-cost reproductions for the masses, but the print was quickly banned by the US Postal Service. Wood maintained that the depiction of the naked man was just a normal scene from his childhood memories of farm life, but despite his protestations that the image was not pornographic, the Postal Service upheld the ban.
Wood’s Regionalism was falling out of favour and that put him at variance with many of the university faculties and he became so frustrated that, in 1940, Grant Wood took a leave of absence from academia although he carried on with his paintings, which continued to show his faithful adherence to American Regionalism, the American art movement he was primarily responsible for founding. During his sabbatical period from lecturing and teaching he still carried on painting. His last works were a pendant pair entitled Spring in Town and Spring in the Country which he completed in 1941. They both illustrate his steadfast devotion to American Regionalism.
In his sister’s 1993 autobiography, My Brother, Grant Wood, written by her with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald. Grant’s thoughts about the paintings are quoted:
“…In making these paintings, I had in mind something which I hope to convey to a fairly wide audience in America—the picture of a country rich in the arts of peace; a homely, lovable nation, infinitely worthy of any sacrifice necessary to its preservation…”
In 1941, shortly after taking his sabbatical, Grant Wood was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the doctors told him that he was terminally ill. On February 12th, 1942, just a day before his 51st birthday, he died. Park Rinard was at his bedside. Grant Wood was buried on his family’s plot in Anamosa. Reportedly, on his deathbed, he repeated over and over again that he wanted to paint his dead father, whom he had “lost” at the age of ten. Thomas Hart Benton, a fellow Regionalist, who visited Wood before his death, later remarked:
“…It was if he wanted to destroy what was in him, and become an empty soul before he went into the emptiness of death…”
He died in debt and his contribution to American art was mostly forgotten by the late 1930’s with international political concerns overshadowing domestic ones. His beloved Regionalist art was condemned for being too parochial, too much of Midwestern chauvinism and a genre which failed to change despite the onset of American Abstract Expressionism which was about to dominate in the post-war years. If remembered at all, it was for one work which has always been judged, as not his finest or most interesting, but one which has now become an iconic work, famous all around the world.
After Wood’s death in 1942, Nan inherited his estate and devoted the rest of her life to maintaining and promoting his legacy. Nan, who had married a real estate investor, Edward Graham, died in 1990, aged 91.
I could have attached many more of Grant Wood’s paintings but I am sure if you like what you have seen in these three blogs about his life you will search out more of his work.
Most of the information I gleaned for these three blogs on Grant Wood came from the usual sources such as Wikipedia and the following websites:
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
Sullivan Goss an American Gallery
Nan Wood’s scrapbook
The Beacher Weekly newspaper