American Gothic by Grant Wood

American Gothic Painting

American Gothic by Grant Wood circa 1930, most famous painting in United States of America, depiction of a farmer family.
American Gothic by
Grant Wood (1930)
American Gothic by Grant Wood is an oil painting on beaverboard dated 1930. The painting hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago and the famous American Gothic House in Eldon was the inspiration source for the artist that is knows as a representative American painter of the Regionalism Movement. The Eldon City of Wapello County of Iowa, where the painting subject was built, is also the birthplace of Grant Wood. American Gothic, depicting a bored farming couple, would soon become the masterpiece of a new American art movement called Regionalism, invented and later promoted by an impressionist and art dealer from Kansas, named Maynard Walker. Although, American Gothic is one of the most famous paintings in the world, particularly best known painting in United States of America, many people think that the figures depicted belong to a couple. Yet, these two people as painting subjects, were a father and his daughter in front of their farmhouse. The little white cottage house with a large window seen behind them is called as Rural Gothic or Carpenter Gothic that refers to the North American architectural design, which derived from Gothic Revival architectures of England between early 17th and late 19th Centuries.

American Gothic by Grant Wood created in 1930, models as figures in painting, Nan Wood Graham and Doctor Byron McKeeby.
Nan Wood Graham and
Doctor Byron McKeeby
American artist and art teacher Nan Wood Graham, sister of Grant Wood has been model for the young woman figure, while his 62-year-old family dentist Dr. Byron McKeeby from Cedar Rapids of Iowa, had been depicted as the older farmer with a pitchfork that is indicating what occupation the family was engaged in. According to Nan Wood Graham’s comments on the painting, his brother imagined that the pair as a father and his grownup daughter instead of a married couple. The artist himself also mentioned in his 1941 post to Mrs. Nellie Sudduth says with own words “The prim lady with him is his grown-up daughter”. Nan, as the blonde woman is depicted in a red colonial print apron that reminds a sleeveless pullover. Her outfit points out the dressing styles of Americana families, who live in rural areas as country folk. The garments of the man are a dungaree, which also is known as bib-and-brace overalls designed for safety while dealing with dangerous jobs as sprotective clothing. His appearanca was completed with a suit jacket and a pitchfork evoking the wood farm behind them.

American Gothic Parodies and the Detail of Plants

American Gothic by Grant Wood reveals a piece of flower and plants under the window sill, snake plant, mother-in-law's tongue
American Gothic
Detail of the Snake Plant
(Mother-in-Law's Tongue)
American Gothic painting reveals two types of plants on the porch of their gothic house. The left one is a Saint George's sword, one of the species of flowering plants. Due to its shape and name echoes a long sword, the flower is also know as the snake plant, viper's bowstring hemp or mother-in-law's tongue in USA. The one on the right side is a beefsteak begonia with its pink and purple flowers reminding geraniums. Besides some species of snake plants require exotic climates, they both can be seen as ornamental houseplants for the North American region. The begonia flower is visually in the foreground and adds a difference to the environment with its stylish stance. In terms of meaning, it is included in the concept of dreamer, however they can symbolise the gratitude, individuality, impending misfortune, need for attention and dark thoughts in a pessimistic point of view. This flower grows easily in many parts of the world.

Woman with Plants, known as the Portrait of Hattie Weaver Wood by American painter Grant Wood, famous for American Gothic.
Woman with Plants
(Portrait of Hattie Weaver)
by Grant Wood (1929)
There are different types of patterns on some leaves of this flower, which is in different species. That makes it interesting. There are 900 known species of the begonia flower. 200 species are grown for commercial use. It is known for blooming in the summer period. When it is opened, a quality image appears. The variety of colors also fascinates people. There are yellow, white, pink, red, orange colors. Same plants can be seen in Woman with Plants painting of the Grant Wood, which was a portrait of his mother created in 1929. In other words, several details of the Portrait of Hattie Weaver Wood, were the primer sketches and subjects for American Gothic. Regarding the visual arts of United States in 20th Century, the American Gothic was the most familiar painting that highly adapted in different types of art and genres by being an popular culture image widely parodied.

The Scream by Edvard Munch c.1893, an expressionist painting, icon of modern art and popular culture with the Mona Lisa.
The Scream by
Edvard Munch (1893)
At first, with its inspiring nature during the Great Depression, it was the subject of a photograph taken by Gordon Parks in Washington, D.C. in 1942. Park’s photo also called as “American Gothic” after Grant, was an image of Ella Watson, who was not a celebrity or entertainer. Ella Watson was a cleaning worker and a mother. Some other famous names with their documentary photography works over the American Gothic, are Ben Shahn, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Wood's painting had become a symbol throughout whole America during the Great Depression, with a reproduction of original painting hanging on the walls of the most homes in United States. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the Mona Lisa of the Americans. American Gothic is a work that has been the material of many parodies of theatre and television too. The Broadway show The Music Man by Meredith Willson is an example of its adaption in theater stage, while 1975 musical horror movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was its another influence of the silver screen.

Among television programs, “A Town Without Pity” episode of the HBO drama “Oz”, “The Simpsons”, “Muppet Show” of Jim Henson, “The Masterpiece” episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, “FarmerBob” episode of the “SpongeBob SquarePants” cartoon series and the 1965 comedy series “Green Acres” include the referances and inpirations from American Gothic. The famous archaic image of the couple has become a subject for the “American Gothic” named mystery drama genre TV show of CBS, created by Corinne Brinkerhoff, the writer and producer. Through its influential nature, American Gothic has been widely used by common people, TV producers or even advertisers. It can be said that Wood’s masterpiece shares the same fate with expressionist Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

American Gothic Artist, Grant Wood

Self-Portrait of American regionalist painter Grant Wood's autoportrait, who is famous for American Gothic.
Self-Portrait by
Grant Wood (1932)
Grant Wood, the creator of the American Gothic also played a role in making stained glass, which is one of the most delicate branches of art. In 1927, when he was asked to make a monumental stained glass for the windows of the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building, he was accused of being unpatriotic by a group of people who defined themselves as the Daughters of the American Revolution because of the German masters he had brought from Munich. One of the reasons he worked with German masters was that he was influenced by the works of old Flemish masters during his visit to the city of Alte Pinakothek. The transition, called New Objectivity, contained more vivid and detailed descriptions instead of the blurry images of old Impressionism. Via his brave brushstrokes, he has become the Hans Memling of Iowa.

Daughters of Revolution painting of Grant Wood circa 1932, depicting a tea party in front of the Washington painting.
Daughters of Revolution
by Grant Wood (1932)
It is also possible to say that American Gothic, which is seen as the pioneer painting of the Regionalism Movement, faced similar reactions by including vulgar or terms of opprobrium at first with the romantic paintings of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, The Barque of Dante, The Entry of Crusaders in Constantinople, The Battle of Nancy etc. Likewise, Delacroix had changed the visual art trends all over the World by leaving Neoclassicism, Grant Wood has steered the fine arts to the Regionalism in the United States of America.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze circa 1851, depicting the First President of America during War.
Washington Crossing
the Delaware by
Emanuel Leutze (1851)
In his monumental stained glass window in Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building, it features standing soldiers carrying their fallen comrades on their arms from American Civil War to the First World War. Later, he answered the critics about himself in a painting dated 1932, “George Washington Crossing the Delaware: Daughters of Revolution”. He used a family member, possibly his mother as a painting model that keeps a willow-pattern teacup with her bonned fingers. Wood’s work evoking the “George Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River” by Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, was an irony over the famous idiom of patriotism requires sacrifice.

Depiction of the Stone City of Iowa by American artist Grant Wood circa 1930, who is famous for American Gothic painting.
Stone City, Iowa
by Grant Wood (1930)
Originally, Grant Wood and his work American Gothic, which started a transformation in American Art, was influenced by the backgrounds used by masters behind the proper painting subjects like Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, such as Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Rogier van der Weyden. During the 1930s Wood painted his own favorite Iowan landscapes, piecemeal mimicking these Old Master visions. His work in this vein is animated in a spirit of homage not only to the Flemish past, but also to an American rural present that he fears is in danger of slipping away, threatened by growing industrialization and the homogenization of the landscape shaped by the Great Agriculture Development in USA. 1930 oil painting on woodpanel, “Stone City, Iowa” is one of them that reveals fantastical curvy ways and brightly use of color to echo the inner world of the artist.

Arbor Day painting in Iowa City by American painter Grant Wood circa 1932, who is famous for American Gothic painting in USA.
Arbor Day by
Grant Wood (1932)
The designed world in Wood's painting of Iowan has been used the landscape behind the Dorothy and her companions in The Wizard of Oz movie while they were crossing the yellow brick road. Similarly, 1932 painting of the artist, “Arbor Day” contains the same features over its landscapes. This situation can also be defined as an artist's expression of himself in every work, as in every period of the written and visual arts. The art motto derived from the 15th Century Italian concetto “Ogni pittore dipinge se stesso” meaning “Every painter paints himself” can be see as an conceit or habit for the great masters of all. Italian painter Caravaggio's David and Goliath paintings (Madrid, Vienne, Rome) were the examples of it concerning Baroque Period. Grant Wood gave symbolic meanings to each of his figures he painted, just like in the Northern Renaissance, and gave messages to the society through them. Among his own period and region, Edward Hopper can be seen as a contemporary artist to Grant Wood with his landscape and genre paintings, such as “Nighthawks”, “Automat”, “Chop Suey”, “Lighthouse at Two Lights” and “Pennsylvania Coal Town”.

American Gothic Facts and Legacy

Artist with Palette painting by regionalist painter Grant Wood, depiction of the self-portrait, circa 1935.
Artist with Palette
(Self-Portrait) by
Grant Wood (1935)
American Gothic did not help Grant Wood to be an overnight celebrity. Wood joined the competition in the Art Institute of Chicago with his American Gothic. The famous painting earned a prize of a $300 and the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal due to that an art patron had the biggest impact on the jury to buy painting for the Institute, however its rendered as a “comic valentine” painting by a jury at first glance. The American Gothic has become a part of the collection of Chicago Museum. After the portrayal of American Gothic House published in best-selling newspapers like the Evening Posts of Chicago, Kansas City, New York, Indianapolis and Boston, the painting has found itself a place in the local press of Cedar Rapids Gazette. It is the first time the artist had a kickback from the inhabitants of Iowa, who were not pleased about their depictions that present them as suppressed faced and sullen people. Grant Wood stated that he had to go to the France to appreciate Iowa, and claimed he did not painted a caricature of the local people of Iowa by his own appreciation. With the own words of the artist he expressed in a letter dated in 1941, “In general, I have found, the people who resent the painting are those who feel that they themselves resemble the portrayal”. The one year period between 2016 and 2017, the American Gothic painting has been moved to Paris for the exhibition on the Musée de l'Orangerie and Royal Academy of Arts of London. The European tour was the first time that famous American painting being outside of the USA.

Creation Process of American Gothic and Regionalism

The Dibble House or the American Gothic House is built by Catherine and Charles couple in 1881, subject for American Gothic.
The Dibble House
(The American Gothic House)
Built by Catherine and Charles Dibble (1881)
American Gothic’s creation process started with the move of Grant Wood around Eldon of Iowa by the request of a local American painter from Midwest having regionalist training, called John Sharp. Wood noticed a tiny white house having Rural Gothic architecture, named Dibble House. This small house was built by Catherine and Charles Dibble in 1881 and donated to the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1991. The Dibble House is one of the most popular routes in USA that draw tourists from all around the World, people who are curious about where to see in the US. During a drive into Iowa in 1930, Wood’s brother was the first person, who noticed that he has been drawing a study sketch for the masterpiece on the backside of a letter paper.

Grant Wood's first study sketch on a letter paper has been done on a voyage to Iowa, depiction of American Gothic and Dipple.
First Study Sketch on Letter Paper
for the American Gothic
by Grant Wood (1930)
The first interpretation was similar to the designs of traveling photographers, who takes the photographes of people in front of their homes between late 19th and early 20th Centuries. As, one of them Solomon D. Butcher had took the photo of “Nebraska Gothic” in 1886, depicts the family of John Curry and his homestead near West Union of Custer County, Nebraska. The black and white photograph was possibly one of the inspiration sources for Grant Wood. Darrell Garwood, the first biographer also stated the thoughts of the artist as “He thought it a form of borrowed pretentiousness, a structural absurdity, to put a Gothic-style window in such a flimsy frame house”. Wood has found the painting subject as easily paintable due to its simple lines and details resembling a cardboard house around the farms of Iowa City. The Dibble House was a home for the family of Selma Jones-Johnston.

Self-portrait of Jean-Édouard Vuillard, circa 1889. The French painter influenced Grant Wood to create American Gothic.
Self-Portrait by
Jean-Édouard Vuillard
The first real portrayal with oil paints has been done on next day after Wood had the permission from the homeowner. This was the closer depiction with its realistic features that were hardly distinguished from the final painting, the American Gothic, however this study painting was containing more ogival architecture due to the depiction of longer window sill and sheerer roof. After created his oil painting copy, Wood decided to recruit two models as the people he fancied, who were her sister Nan Wood Graham and family dentist Byron McKeeby. Yet, it is known that both models did not pose together and Wood combined their interpretations through their images. Grant Wood visited Europe especially Paris during his youth. It is thought that while he was in France, he took lessons at the Académie Julien for a short time and acquired expressionist lines there. Unlike artists like Picasso, who were contemporary with him, he did not embrace an expressionist and Avant-Garde understanding of art, which can be seen in Blue Period paintings in Pablo Picasso, The Blue Room and The Old Guitarist. Grant Wood was influenced by illustrator Pierre Bonnard and the French painter and printmaker Jean-Édouard Vuillard.

American Gothic Analysis

Portrait of a Man is assumed as the self-portrait of flemish painter Jan van Eyck circa 1433, in High Renaissance.
Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait)
by Jan van Eyck (1433)
American Gothic is the leading work for Regionalism. The art movement, which can be defined as American Realist Modern Art Movement is considerably distinguishable from the European Art Movements of recent history, such as Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism and Romanticism. However, it shares a characteristic with High Renaissance by utilizing the vertical or horizontal lines to separate painting into pieces. The Arnolfini Portrait by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, including the distorted prolonging horizontal lines into the background of the painting, while Grant Wood availed himself of very straight vertical lines to create American Gothic. Both masterpieces belonging different ages, has a common visual detail that they present the main figures, which was a couple in a way that is very independent from the landscape of background painting in terms of artistic drawing.

Self-portrait of English painter John Steuart Curry, circa 1937, an artist of Regionalism Movement in America.
Self-Portrait by
John Steuart Curry (1937)
Grant Wood aimed to match the landscape and figures over details like facial features and elements including a pitchfork and garments. The trident pitchfork reaches to the edges of the stitches man’s white shirt under his light blue dungaree and the gothic windows behind the couple. Grant Wood did not apply his models to the gothic house painting until he was back to the art studio of Cedar Rapids. It’s known that he asked the homeowners to send him a photograph of the house to complete his painting at home. Some literary and art critics like Christopher Morley and Gertrude Stein have claimed the the favorable painting was in an aim to ridicule the small town life in rural areas. Over these thoughts, the painting was assumed as the supporter of some critical novels on the context of rural lives of Americans, such as “Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life” by Sherwood Anderson
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis and “The Tattooed Countess” by Carl Van Vechten.

Portrait of a Farmer regarded as self-portrait by English painter Arnold Lanch c.1936, Regionalism Movement, American Gothic.
Portrait of a Farmer
(Self-Portrait) by
Arnold Lanch (1936)
After a very short time, the Great Depression and poverty that affected the whole of America revealed a big difference in the interpretation of Wood’s American Gothic. The figures with frowning eyebrows and hard facial expressions in the painting were called as a reflection of the definition of stubborn, decided and hardworking American citizens. The artist Grant Wood also helped with this interpretive transition by abandoning his bohemian style of Parisian and assembling himself with sensationalist painters such as Thomas Hart Benton, Paul Meltsner, Romare Bearden, John Steuart Curry, Jacob Lawrence, Arnold Blanch, Will Barnet, John Steuart Curry, Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Reginald Marsh, Aaron Douglas and Soyer Brothers, Rafael, Isaac and Moses Soyer, who rebelled against the domination of East Coast art circles in Midwestern terratories. According to the art historian Wanda M. Corn, Grant Wood’s painting was not a depiction of a contemporary subject due to its elements.

Boy Milking a Cow painting by American painter Grant Wood c.1932, famous for American Gothic painting in Regionalist Movement
Boy Milking a Cow
by Grant Wood (1932)
The posture of the couple in painting as, a father and daughter reminds the long-exposure photographs of American families of Midwest region before World War I. Corn also stated that artist must have found the details of the old fashioned clothes from the photos in the old family albums, however Wood stated that “All the good ideas I've ever had came to me while I was milking a cow”. In 2005, another art historian Sue Taylor commented about the most famous American painting some interesting insights. According to Taylor, the American couple stand for the parent of Wood, who lost his father in his childhood, while the young woman represent his mother that he had very close relationship. Taylor also states the artist might have an Oedipus complex due to the lack of chumminess between characters because of that Wood did not want to face off his fears.

Grant Woos's most famous painting American Gothic and his mother's portrait Woman with Flowers share the details of brooches.
American Gothic and
Woman with Flowers
Details of Brooches
Via this approach, the lack of confidence of the artist may be the reason of he indicated the pair as a farmer father and his young daughter instead of a married couple. Portrait of Hattie Weaver, the Grant Wood’s mother also reveals similar garments, facial features and a brooch that prop this idea. In 2010, Tripp Evans claimed that the famous painting was a portrait of mourning. The fact that the curtains hanging both downstairs and upstairs during the daytime are completely closed and the sullen and elongated faces of the characters make us think that this is a Victorian tradition for mourning times. It should be noted that similar comparisons were made for the Arnolfini Portrait of Jan van Eyck, that it might be about Giovanni Arnolfini and his beloved wife, who lost her life.

The Arnolfini Portrait by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck created in 1434, reveals a couple similar to American Gothic of Wood.
The Arnolfini Portrait
by Jan van Eyck (1434)
Although the Arnolfini Wedding is a controversial topic, a visible piece of black dress under the woman’s apron, underlines the idea of Evans. Another American poet, historian and art critic Kelly Grovier, describes the gothic painting as Roman God and Goddess of the underworld, Proserpina and Pluto in 2019. He interpreted the small orb on the weather vane at the top of the painting to represent the then recent discovery of the dwarf planet Pluto, who uses a trident spear as the guardian of the gates of Hell. The woman's miniature brooch, contains a classical representation of the mythological goddess and a strand of hair hanging from the woman's right ear, representing the enchantment of the goddess myth. The dull facial expression of the old farmer he paints, combined with the rake in his hand, makes him a protector and punisher of Christianity, while the bright appearance of his tool and the age of the man, prevent us from defining this figure as a magnificent and powerful character as before. The male figure was probably a reference to the Hades of Greek Mythology or his equal of Roman Mythes, Pluton or Dis Pater. The reasons being a work that blends mythical assumptions, current life conditions and the inner world of the artist, are why is American Gothic so famous.

American Gothic Meaning of Windows and Wood’s Signature

The signature of American painter Grant Wood, on the garment of farmer in the American Gothic painting.
American Gothic
Detail of the Signature
of Grant Wood
American Gothic is both reality and allegory, in a unsual way for the American Scene painting. The United States was in a serious economic crisis during 1930s. The tiny house, long faces and old fashioned but clean clothes are the descriptions evoking the working class in America, who had not joyful lives during the period. One of the most meaningful compositions in painting is windows. There are two arch structures that unite the lines of the window above both on the right and on the left. On a more subtle level, the windows are copies of two human figures standing side by side. The history of windows is based on the English Gothic Architecture. This structural approach, which existed between the 12th and 16th centuries, later left its place to the stained glass windows and wall paints that filled the long and wide window areas. The signature of the artist is added at the right side bottom of the painting on a garment part of the man depiction with pale blue colors. It says the name of the Grant Wood in capital letters with the date he completed American Gothic.

American Gothic Literature of Cameo Brooch and Face Expressions

Grant Wood's American Gothic painting reveals a detail of trident rake or pitchfork, that symbolizes the Hades or Pluton.
American Gothic
Detail of Trident Rake
American Gothic reveals a cameo brooch on the neck of young woman figure modelled by Nan, the sister of Grant Wood. The same jewel could be observed in the Portrait of Hattie Weaver Wood. Cameo is a method of carving an object such as an engraved jewel, gem, or vessel. It almost always has a relief image and symbolizes a person in historical context in terms of bohemian style. Over this detail, it can be claimed that the artist had painted or influenced by his parents to create American Gothic, however he replied that he described a father and daughter in front of their farmhouse. The fact that the famous painter never explained what exactly he aimed for in American Gothic painting, before his early death from pancreatic cancer in 1942, led to many speculations about his masterpiece. Some, referring to the facial expressions and the rake in the painting, thought that it was seen as a kind of divine duty for the strong male figure to maintain the virtue of women in a world where moral virtues were collapsing. Same idea goes for the Dibble House behind them. The fork alike garden rake is echoing the different points of the home. From another point of view, the painting is the painter's commemoration of the past by making use of some nostalgic elements concerning melancholy, his weak ties with his father and his fondness for his mother. According to mithic point of view, while the miniature brooch on the woman's neck associates her with the mythical character Persephone, her facial expression tells that the place she lives in is not a home but a prison, and the man she submits to resembles Hades.
American Gothic by Grant Wood American Gothic by Grant Wood Reviewed by Articonog on February 05, 2022 Rating: 5

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