Grant Wood

American Gothic, 1930, Oil on board, 62.4 x 74.3cm, the Art Institute of Chicago

Is there a more iconic image in American art? I think not. America’s love for and fascination with this image has endured since it first won its $300 prize back in 1930. Wood always insisted it is an ordinary picture of a farmer and his spinster daughter outside the front of their home. The pitchfork symbolizes a simple work ethic. The title comes from the gabled window which seems strangely elaborate in such a plain home. The house was real, and there is a famous sketch from Wood of the house alone. Wood used his dentist and his sister for models. The picture became a sensation almost right away, and speculation ran wild as to its meaning. Most critics and deep thinkers found it to be satirical and judgmental of the American rural lifestyle, and found all sorts of sub-texts which reportedly drove Wood crazy. It is easy looking back to imagine that this was a case of the “experts” showing off their ignorance in the face of an artist’s honest dismay. But…

Artists are ultimately responsible for their art. Every artist is conscious—both during creation and after—that a given piece lives and works on many different levels, or at least it should. Without that complexity, without that promise of “discovery” then you have little beyond a deft image and a paycheck. Wood was far better than “average” and in my opinion this isn’t even his best work. But this is where the story is. And he damned well knew it. The word “gothic” evokes more than a fillip of architectural style thrown at a farmhouse; it carries extra weight from its connotations of darkness and secrets. A gothic story hints of evil and monsters and men and women who are twisted by their circumstances. It is melodrama writ large and is phony besides, relying as it does on childish manipulative technique and bathos, its images stereotypical and empty. Wood had to know the feelings symbols like pitchforks stir in the public’s imagination. He had to smile privately at the implications of her face, the gaze that looks away toward something beyond her, something she cannot have. I see her face and imagine that her bottom lip is about to tremble.  There is no insight into the man at all. He is closed as a box. He is rigid and straight as the fork’s tine that runs in parallel with the material of his coat. It is a picture that seems to insist on a puritan American image even as it mocks that notion as patronizing and untrue. For better or worse, it will be with us Americans—and will label us—forever.

Death on the Ridge Road, 1935

For all American Gothic is the piece he is known for, this is the work I prefer. Anyone who wants to send me a print of this is welcome to do so. I find it stunning. Here, too, is a story and it is a common one, but we are made to write it in an instant from this image. The painting seems pushed into our face. The colors are unnatural, almost CGI in their impact. People are creating this kind of thing now on computers and being hailed for their visual artistry. Wood was doing this in oils in the thirties. Not bad for some corn-hick from Iowa.

January, 1940, 67 x 82.5cm, Cleveland Museum of Art

Here is a deceptively plain picture of haystacks in snow that I could happily look at every day for the rest of my life. Again, there is an almost digital quality to this image.

Grant Wood was an artist of great style and polished visual taste. He is worth a careful look. His work is classified as “regionalism” which could mean any damned thing, but so far as I am concerned it transcends region altogether.

And time as well.

The Painting on the Fireplace

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11 Responses to Grant Wood

  1. You hit it out of the park, another American idiom, but it’s apt.

  2. CMStewart says:

    “American Gothic” is one of my favorites of any medium. And I love the title as much as I love the painting. I hadn’t even made to connection to the window until now. I had interpreted “Gothic” to mean a wealth of horror hidden behind the metalwork of the pitchfork. Pitchforks, to me, fit very well into a Gothic setting and mindset.

    I hadn’t seen the other Wood paintings until now. Love “Death on the Ridge Road.” In 2012, the only clue to its era is the style of the cars. Otherwise, I would’ve guessed it was a more recent painting. The animal tracks in “January” puzzle me.

    Thanks for posting these.

    • foxpudding says:

      Visit here to see them in real life. Rabbit tracks.

      • CMStewart says:

        Just now searched for images, and was surprised to find rabbit tracks really do look like that, with one front paw in front of the other. I might end up moving to rabbit track country by the end of this summer, but at this point, I’m betting it will be alligator country.

  3. Pat Snyder says:

    I have never had a feeling of evil in this American gothic, rather a very puritan, joyless atmosphere. I can see him at night reading his bible, then turning out the light and going to an iron bed. Her, I can believe she might escape to her room and pour over the latest movie magazines which she sneaked into the house and hides them under the matress in the daytime. I have thought the pitchfork represented a hard-rock existance. The window is like a church window, hence the gothic. I think it is a great work, but I would not want to live with it. I guess I am not fond of stark.

  4. marksackler says:

    I’m not sure it is “more iconic” but Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks sure comes close. And last time I looked, bot paintings were in the SAME gallery at the Chicago Art Institute.

    • foxpudding says:

      If you visit around here very much you will come to know that I take a back seat to no one in my admiration and love for Hopper. The name of the blog itself is from Hopper, and all the interludes feature Nighthawks. And you are right. Nighthawks is certainly the iconic standard for urban America, and urban America is, I think, the more widely recognized part of American culture worldwide. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Jill says:

    I’ve never really ventured past American Gothic, but his other work especially the haystack is really amazing. So why did American Gothic more than any other become so ingrained as an image over say his other work. Is it because it is “stereotypical and empty” for viewers? Hmmm.

    • foxpudding says:

      I hope not. I prefer to think it was just a perfect storm of subject, title, and talent. And I think a lot of different media at the time enjoyed reprinting it, using it to imbue their own products and points of view with a stolid, sedate, mother-my-god-puritan-heartland sensibility which manages to be earnest and sarcastic all at the same time. The other possibility is that it’s just “one of them damned things.”

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