La démocratie américaine s’est construite sur le labeur d’hommes et de femmes aux coeurs vaillants et aux mâchoires fermes, des hommes et des femmes tels que ceux-ci. Légende d’une reproduction de 1935
Les Allemands peuvent bien massacrer mille Danois aujourd’hui, mais l’homme à la fourche sait qu’il aura du foin à faire quand les vaches rentreront ce soir. Brochure (Illinois, 1944)
I’m going home for good. And I’m going to paint those damn cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses and all those pinched faces and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and store suits and the look of a field or a street in the heat of summer or when it’s ten below and the snow piled six feet high. Damn it, isn’t that what Sinclair Lewis has done in his writing— in Main Street and Babbitt? Damn it, you can do it in painting too! Grant Wood
Nous devrions avoir peur de Grant Wood. Chauqe artiste et chaque école artisitque devrait avoir peur de lui à cause de sa satire dévastatrice. Gertrude Stein
La famille qui tue ensemble reste ensemble. American gothic (accroche du film, 1988)
Toutes les bonnes idées que j’ai jamais eues me sont venues sous les pis d’une vache. Grant Wood
Il y a bien satire, mais seulement dans le sens qu’il y a satire dans toute œuvre réaliste. Ce sont des types de personnes que j’ai cotoyées toute ma vie. J’ai essayé de les représenter honnêtement – de les rendre plus eux-mêmes qu’ils ne l’étaient dans la vie réelle. Grant Wood
Mais la clé de la force d’attraction toujours renouvelée de ce tableau n’est pas son sujet ou son intrinsèque ambiguïté, mais sa forme – à savoir la pure frontalité des figures. Que l’on pense aux autres images iconiques de l’histoire de l’art: la Joconde, le cri de Munch, la Marilyn de Warhol, la mère de famille migrante de Dorothea Lange. Toutes dépeignent des figures humaines faisant directement face au spectateur – tout comme les images platement frontales des saints des icônes chrétiennes médiévales. Représenter ainsi des personnages les imprime dans nos mémoires et leur confère une certaine autorité et immédiateté. Les premiers chrétiens croyaient que les icônes étaient des portes donnant directement accès à la figure sacrée représentée. Les icônes séculaires modernes comme American gothic ont conservé une certaine part de sacré, dans le sens qu’elles relient à quelque chose de plus grand – non avec le divin, mais avec la mémoire collective de notre culture si friande d’images. Mia Fineman
Prix de consolation, longue obscurité d’une salle de musée, objet de malentendu puis de mépris, icône vénérée, objet de parodie, objet publicitaire ou télévisuel, sujet de films, série télé ou télé-réalité …
Où comment la redécouverte, par un peintre régionaliste américain (Grant Wood alors âgé de 39 ans) fraichement rentré d’Europe et confronté à l’abstraction continentale qui gagnait alors l’Amérique, de l’austérité sacrée de la Renaissance allemande dans la façade néo-gothique d’une maison de son Iowa natal …
Elle-même d’ailleurs inspirée (grâce à l’invention de la scie à chantourner à vapeur et l’apparition des moulures en bois produites en série – on parle ainsi de « gothique du charpentier » ou gothique rural) de l’engouement de l’architecture anglo-saxonne d’alors pour les formes médiévales tant des temples protestants que des campus universitaires ou des édifices publics …
Finit, après une petite médaille de bronze, une acquisition pour le moins peu enthousiaste et pas moins de trente ans d’obscurité dans une salle de musée et par la seule magie ambigüe du climat anti-provincial des années 30 des Sherwood Anderson et des Sinclair Lewis puis de la contestation des années 60 …
En véritable icône, systématiquement et continument parodiée depuis, de la dénonciation de la culture censément bornée et répressive de la « Bible Belt » américaine (la menaçante fourche du puritain rural censée défendre tant la pruderie supposée de sa fille que le sacré emprunté de sa propriété) …
Mais aussi, par un curieux retour des choses et en réaction de la part des provinces ainsi stigmatisées (l’artiste se gardant bien lui-même de lever l’ambiguité de sa ruralité reconstituée – « le genre de personnes que j’imaginais vivre dans cette maison » – sa soeur et son dentiste jouant les fermiers américains) …
En véritable étendard et célébration des vertus et valeurs les plus sacrées, de détermination pionnière et de liberté individuelle, de l’Amérique profonde …
Mais également, comme en témoignera le choix chez nous pour la couverture du célèbre « De la démocratie en Amérique » de Tocqueville, de l’Amérique tout court …
The most Famous Farm Couple in the World
Why American Gothic still fascinates.
June 8, 2005
Of all the famous images in the history of art, only a handful have risen (or some might say sunk) to the status of cultural icons. At the top of this list are Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. These images have been relentlessly copied, parodied, and reproduced in every conceivable form—from posters to neckties to life-sized inflatable dolls. The variations are endless: In a museum shop not long ago I came across a little flip-book in which American Gothic gradually morphs into The Scream—two for the price of one!
But how and why does an image become an icon? In his new book, American Gothic, published to coincide with the painting’s 75th anniversary, Harvard historian Steven Biel traces the cultural history of Wood’s famous portrait of a dour Iowa farmer and his stiff-necked wife (or daughter). Nearly everyone knows the image through copies and parodies, though few know much about the original painting. When Biel showed the picture to 59 Harvard sophomores, they all recognized it, but only 31 knew the title and only five could name the artist.
The story of American Gothic begins with a trim white cottage in Eldon, Iowa, that Wood, an Iowa-born artist with European training, spotted from a car window in August 1930.* He decided to paint the house—built in the « carpenter Gothic » style, which applied the lofty architecture of European cathedrals to flimsy American frame houses—along with « the kind of people I fancied should live in that house. » He recruited his sister Nan as a model for the woman, dressing her in a prim, colonial-print apron trimmed with rickrack (already out of date in 1930). He based the man on his stern-looking Cedar Rapids dentist, Byron McKeeby, whom he posed in a black jacket, collarless shirt, and clean denim overalls. In one hand, McKeeby holds a three-pronged pitchfork, which is visually echoed in the stitching of his overalls and in the Gothic window in the gable. In fact, Wood modeled each element separately—Graham and McKeeby never actually stood together in front of the house.
In the fall of 1930, Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The judges dismissed it as a trifling « comic valentine, » but a powerful museum patron urged them to reconsider, and they awarded Wood a third-place bronze medal and $300. The patron also convinced the Art Institute to acquire the painting for its collection, where it remains today. The image quickly became famous through newspaper reproductions, first appearing in the Chicago Evening Post, and then in the rotogravure sections of newspapers in New York, Boston, Kansas City, and Indianapolis, often with the caption, An Iowa Farmer and His Wife.
When the picture finally appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, real Iowa farmers and their wives were not amused. To them, the painting looked like a nasty caricature, portraying Midwestern farmers as pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers. One Iowa farmwife told Wood he should have his « head bashed in. » Another threatened to bite off his ear. Stung by the criticism, Wood declared himself a « loyal Iowan » and insisted that the figures were not intended to be farmers but small-town folk, not Iowans but generic Americans. His sister Nan, perhaps embarrassed about being depicted as the wife of a man twice her age, started telling people that Wood had envisioned the couple as father and daughter, not husband and wife. (Wood himself remained vague on this point.)
The critics who admired the painting in the early ’30s—including Gertrude Stein and Christopher Morley—also assumed it was a satire about the rigidity of American rural or small-town life, lampooning the people H. L. Mencken called the « booboisie » of the « Bible Belt. » As Biel explains, « American Gothic appeared to its first viewers as the visual equivalent of the revolt-against-the-provinces genre in 1910s and 1920s American literature »—a critique of provincialism akin to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, and Carl Van Vechten’s The Tattooed Countess.
But a few years later, as the nation sank into the Great Depression, people started to see Wood’s painting in a different light. American Gothic was no longer understood as satirical, but as a celebratory expression of populist nationalism. Critics extolled the farmer and his wife as steadfast embodiments of American virtue and the pioneer spirit. « American democracy was built upon the labors of men and women of stout hearts and firm jaws, such people as those above, » read one caption in 1935.
Wood helped along this revisionist reading by repudiating the Paris-influenced bohemianism of his youth, refashioning himself as America’s « artist-in-overalls. » He allied himself with other regionalist painters like John Steuart Curry and the virulently jingoistic Thomas Hart Benton, who railed against the « control » of the East Coast art world by « precious fairies. » Wood echoed Benton’s anti-intellectual sentiments, announcing: « All the good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. »
The Depression-era understanding of American Gothic as an image of authentic American identity gave rise to its first known parody: In 1942, the photographer Gordon Parks posed a black cleaning woman with an upright broom in front of a large American flag and called it American Gothic. Since then, variants of Wood’s image have appeared in Broadway shows (The Music Man), movies (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), marketing campaigns (Saks Fifth Avenue, Country Corn Flakes, and Newman’s Own Organics, to name a few), television shows (Green Acres, The Simple Life), pornography (Playboy and Hustler), and in millions of jokey snapshots of two people facing front, one of them holding a vaguely pitchforklike object.
So, what is it about American Gothic that it makes such an indelible impression? Biel stops short of drawing any real conclusions, explaining how American Gothic became an icon, but not why. Of course, part of the answer lies in the built-in ambiguity of the image. Is the painting a satire or a celebration of the American heartland? Even Grant Wood seemed uncertain about this. (« There is satire in it, » he said, « but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life. »)
But the key to this painting’s enduring appeal is not its subject or its inherent ambiguity, but its form—specifically, the stark frontality of the figures. Think about the other iconic images from art history: the Mona Lisa, Munch’s Scream, Warhol’s Marilyn, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. All of them depict human figures directly facing the viewer—just like the flatly frontal images of saints in medieval Christian icons. Rendering figures in this way imprints them on our memories and endows them with both authority and immediacy. Early Christians believed icons were like portals that allowed the viewer to communicate directly with the sacred figure represented. Modern secular icons like American Gothic still retain some vestige of sacredness, in the sense that they connect with something larger—not with the divine, but with the collective memory of our image-loving culture.
‘American Gothic’ has become a cultural icon. But why? And what is it really about?
The Boston Globe
May 21, 2005
CAMBRIDGE — It’s the most familiar American painting, even more than Emanuel Leuztze’s »Washington Crossing the Delaware » or Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. It’s instantly recognizable.
This year, Grant Wood’s »American Gothic » turns 75, and in his forthcoming book of the same name, Harvard historian Steven Biel tells its history and raises questions so simple that no one seems to have asked them before: What does this literal icon mean to America, and why is it the most parodied image since the Mona Lisa?
There are no simple answers, because the image has been interpreted in various ways by various people — with anger, celebration, satire, even horror — for 75 years. »It is randomly adapted to almost anything now, » said Biel, director of Harvard’s program in history and literature, »but if you look at it and try to get beyond the blandness that comes from having seen it so many times, it can be unsettling. »
Biel’s 1996 book, »Down With the Old Canoe, » was a similar treatment — in that case of the various cultural understandings of the Titanic disaster. »I seem to be attracted to things that have been flattened, reduced to cliché, over time, » he said, »and to recovering some of the richness of their meaning. »
In advertisements for corn flakes, Saks Fifth Avenue, Paul Newman’s organic produce, and even colleges, in political cartoons or television promotions (Paris Hilton’s »The Simple Life »), we continually see versions of the famous image of a woman and dour man holding a pitchfork, in front of a house with a Gothic window. Many of us, as a joke, have struck that pose for a camera, holding a rake, a broom, or a snow shovel. But what is the joke? That we consider ourselves heartlanders, or just the opposite? Or are we poking fun at the idea of a heartland? Or are we merely imitating a famous painting?
The story begins with a mystery. No one knows what Grant Wood, an Iowa painter with European training, was thinking in 1930 when he put together his sister, Nan Wood Graham, his Cedar Rapids dentist, Byron H. McKeeby, and a lonely little house in Eldon, Iowa. (Built in 1881, the house is owned by the state historical society.) Each element was modeled separately (Graham and McKeeby never stood in front of the house), then combined in Wood’s mind and painting.
In later years, when the work was famous, Wood gave different explanations. It was merely a composition of forms, such as »Whistler’s Mother. » The couple were a married farm family. Or they were father and daughter. Later still, he said that the man was a local banker or a businessman who liked to dress up in farmer duds at home. They were »basically solid and good people, » or they were »prim » and »self-righteous. » But there is no record of his thinking before or during the painting’s creation.
Its fame was a fluke. Wood entered it in the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual painting contest, where it was dismissed as cloying. But a museum trustee implored the judges to reconsider. They did and gave it the third-place bronze medal, with a $300 prize. It became part of the museum’s collection, where it remains. But fame rushed in with a reproduction in the Chicago Evening Post in October 1930, followed by appearances in rotogravure sections nationwide, including in Boston, New York, and eventually Cedar Rapids.
When Iowa farmers saw the painting, they were outraged, seeing it as another lampoon of small-town America, the sort of sneering at the »booboisie » famously practiced by H.L. Mencken. Many critics, including an admiring Gertrude Stein, also assumed it was a satire. But Wood, stung by his neighbors’ anger, called himself »a loyal Iowan » who would never make fun of his state’s people.
As times changed, so did understandings of the painting. In the Depression, some critics admired it as a celebration of authentic values, akin to the works funded by the Federal Arts Project. During World War II, some saw the farmer and his wife or daughter as symbols of triumphal strength. »The Germans may today slay a thousand Danes, » an Illinois pamphleteer wrote in 1944, »but the man with the pitchfork knows that . . . he will have hay to pitch when the cows come home. »
In the 1960s and since, critics have offered various understandings of »American Gothic. » One pointed out that »gothic » also means horrifying, that dark and shameful deeds might lie behind the subjects’ faces and veiled window. Robert Hughes wrote that Wood was obviously a deeply closeted homosexual, while Hilton Kramer attacked the work as kitsch that has no place in the canon of great 20th-century painting. John Seery saw »Oedipal, generational, incestual » themes.
The image appeared in Meredith Willson’s »The Music Man, » but the age of parody really got going in the late 1960s, when Nan Wood Graham (Grant had died in 1942) sued Johnny Carson and Playboy magazine for defamation. Carson had held up an image showing the man in bathing trunks and the woman in a bikini, while Playboy had showed her, of course, bare-breasted. Graham settled out of court but lost a similar 1988 suit against Hustler magazine. She died in 1990, and by then the flood of parodies was unstoppable.
»American Gothic » is fixed in the nation’s collective brain, but perhaps mainly as parody. As an experiment, Biel showed »American Gothic » to 59 Harvard sophomores and asked them to name the title and painter. Most of them recognized it, but only 31 knew the title, and only five could name the painter.
Uses of the image often stretch far beyond the original scene. »There was a billboard I used to pass every day on Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge, » Biel said. »It showed two college kids advertising Quincy College in the ‘American Gothic’ pose. Maybe somebody can tell me what that has to do with Quincy College. There are parodies that use it in thoughtful ways, but it also tends to get used in an automatic, ‘Oh well, everybody will recognize this’ fashion. » (A spokeswoman for Quincy College said the billboard promoted the fine arts department.)
»American Gothic » may work so well as parody because it’s a kind of broad template. It shows middle-age, middle-class white people in the Midwest, apparently a family, before their middling house (neither imposing nor a hovel), an odd splice of agrarian and suburban elements, half home and half church. It may be that »American Gothic » is the archetypal theme that we crave to vary. Possibly the earliest variation was Gordon Parks’s 1942 photograph of Ella Watson, an African-American charwoman in Washington, holding a broom in front of an American flag.
Growing up in suburban Cleveland, Biel, 44, says he was immersed in television and popular culture, and is clearly sensitive to cultural imagery. His book, which will be published June 6, has authoritative analyses of »American Gothic » in the 1960s sitcoms »Beverly Hillbillies » and »Green Acres. » In addition to a large framed print of »American Gothic, » Biel’s Harvard office is full of parody items, including a flip-book in which the painting gradually morphs into Edvard Munch’s »The Scream. » He turns on his laptop computer to show the 1963 Country Corn Flakes ad, in which the painting’s familiar duo sings, amid clucking chickens, »It won’t wilt/ when you pour on milk! »
Like »The Scream, » »American Gothic » could not work as parody if the original did not have power of its own. Biel is not an art critic, and he hesitated to comment on the painting, apart from the myriad understandings others have had. But when pressed to do so, he gazed up at it over his desk and mused, »It’s haunting — creepy in a lot of ways. Look at those faces. They’re disturbing. Why isn’t she looking at us? He is — why isn’t she? What does he want, peering into our souls? He is holding a pitchfork, but there’s no dirt on it. Is he posing with it because this is Sunday afternoon and this is one of the tools of his trade? Or is there something — more sinister? »
Jul 24, 2005(1)
(4) In 1968, Nan Wood Graham launches a $9 million defamation suit against Johnny Carson and Playboy, prompted by a “Make Fun of the Classics” segment in which Carson shows the couple clad in skimpy bathing suits. Wood Graham wins a small settlement. Later, in 1977, she loses a similar $10 million suit against Hustler.
(5) In 1975, the cult painting makes a cameo in a soon-to-be cult film, when the American Gothic couple open the church doors for Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
(6) The painting, which Life magazine once used to illustrate the concept of middlebrow, hits its cultural nadir in 1988, when it lends its title to the slasher flick American Gothic, starring Rod Steiger and Yvonne De Carlo. (Tagline: “Families that slay together stay together!”)
(7) In 1997, critic Robert Hughes tries to “out” Wood in his book American Visions, calling the painting “an exercise in sly camp, the expression of a gay sensibility so cautious that it can hardly bring itself to mock its objects openly.” Gothic becomes not-so-sly camp when, in 2003, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie strike the pose for a Simple Life publicity photo. This year, the painting marks its 75th anniversary by returning to Iowa for a Grant Wood retrospective at the Cedar Rapids museum in September.
October 1930, Grant Wood’s American Gothic comes in third at a Chicago Art Institute exhibit
by Sarah Vowell
Going Home for Good
Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930). Oil on beaver board. The Art Institute of Chicago®.
In August 1930, President Herbert Hoover appointed representatives from the Federal Reserve, the Federal Farm Board, the Red Cross, banks, and the railroads to form the National Drought Relief Committee in order to at least pretend to address what Secretary of Agriculture Arthur M. Hyde called “the worst drought ever recorded in this country.” Meanwhile, back in Iowa, painter Grant Wood went for a ride. At the moment Hyde’s department worried that dwindling stores of feed, including hay, in Southern and Midwestern states were in “critical condition,” Wood spotted an old white home in the town of Eldon and thought of painting its imaginary owners out front, with the man of the house gripping a hay fork. The pair’s outdated clothes would give them a nostalgic air. Or maybe as the 1930s wore on, they would come to appear nostalgic for a time when there was actually hay around to pitch.
By October, Wood’s painting, American Gothic, would come in third at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Forty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture. Museum boosters purchased the work for $300 for the Art Institute’s permanent collection, where it remains in the company of Caillebotte and Matisse— real artists from France. A week after the exhibition’s opening, Wood’s hero and fellow Midwesterner, Sinclair Lewis of Minnesota, would become the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Take that, France.) “They had labored, these solid citizens,” Lewis wrote in Babbitt. Not a stretch to describe Wood’s subjects that way too.
Wood, like Lewis (and F. Scott Fitzgerald of St. Paul and Ernest Hemingway of Oak Park), would ditch his hometown for Paris in the 1920s, where he would dab out the sort of blurry paintings of cathedrals he thought he was supposed to like. According to his friend there, the journalist William L. Shirer, one day Wood up and declared:
I’m going home for good. And I’m going to paint those damn cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses and all those pinched faces and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and store suits and the look of a field or a street in the heat of summer or when it’s ten below and the snow piled six feet high. Damn it, isn’t that what Sinclair Lewis has done in his writing— in Main Street and Babbitt? Damn it, you can do it in painting too!
Thus Wood gave up on painting dappled French Gothic doors and hightailed it back to Iowa to start painting his famous flat, Gothic Revival window, hung with what Lewis called “curtains of starched cheap lace” probably ordered from the same mail-order catalog as those in Gopher Prairie, the town in Main Street. (Insert obligatory mention of the word “regionalism” here, along with legally required passing reference to painters John Steuart Curry of Kansas and the swirling pictorial narratives of Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton.)
If Shirer’s memory of Wood’s Parisian outburst is to be believed, the painter made good on his pledge to depict “the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls” in American Gothic. There’s even a “damn barn” over the man’s shoulder, presumably to house a few “damn cows” he’s fixing to feed with his pitchfork. Though not if the aforementioned drought of 1930 has a say.
Let’s start with the apron. It’s a fake. The model for the farmer’s daughter in the painting is Wood’s sister, Nan. She later recalled that her brother requested that she sew an apron with rickrack, a “trim that was out of style and unavailable in stores. I ripped some off Mother’s old dresses, and after the painting made its debut, rickrack made a comeback.”
Nan’s point? This is a history painting. Three years later Wood made Portrait of Nan. In it, his sister lets her hair down. She wears makeup and a kicky, sleeveless polka-dot blouse. Compared to the fictional plain Jane in American Gothic, actual Nan verges on Veronica Lake. So that rickrack is literally a dead giveaway—that woman, and flinty women like her, according to Wood, are dead and gone so let us now praise famous whatever.
In a 1941 letter, Wood claimed he wanted the painting’s daughter to be “very self-righteous, like her father.” Her defiant cleanliness, however, is betrayed by a curl breaking free of her tight bun. Wood goes on to say that he “let the lock of hair escape to show that she was, after all, human.”
If self-righteousness was Wood’s intention, he failed. Trust the painting, not the painter. What we see here is self-doubt. All the starch in Iowa cannot stiffen the look on that woman’s face. Her sidelong glance betrays something more interesting than pain—ambivalence. Mixed feelings about her lot in life is the most modern feeling a woman can have. Just ask Carrie Kennicott: “That one word— home—it terrified her.”
Kennicott, Lewis’s protagonist in Main Street, turns down her college sweetheart Stewart’s marriage proposal because “I want to do something with life.” He rebuts, “What’s better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids and knowing nice homey people?” Corny, but a fair point. This, Lewis deadpans, is the “immemorial male reply to a restless woman.”
Though Carrie turns down Stewart, she eventually gives up her career as a librarian to marry a doctor from Gopher Prairie, a place that is about as lively as it sounds. Mid-marriage, she abandons him too for Washington, D.C., for a while, to live and work among the suffragettes. Eventually, she gives up and goes back to her husband and Gopher Prairie, though not without screeching, “I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women!” So there!
The woman in American Gothic might even have such a backstory, if not an actual inner life. To see her, however, requires actually looking at the painting. This is harder than it sounds. There’s a lot of buildup that needs to be cleaned off. Scrape away that postcard of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in rickrack and overalls. As well as Paul Newman and his daughter on a package of Newman’s Own organic cookies. Along with the couple singing backup on “Dammit Janet” in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. And the opening credits of Green Acres—go ahead and sing along while you scrub: “The Chores! The Stores!” The only thing more American than turning American Gothic into a sight gag is the way the deep, dark, Norwegian anguish of Edvard Munch’s The Scream is turned into a fun backdrop for dark chocolate M&Ms. (In America, stores almost always win out over chores.)
After she saw American Gothic, august American-in- Paris Gertrude Stein said, “We should fear Grant Wood. Every artist and every school of artists should be afraid of him, for his devastating satire.” Certain ladies of Iowa concurred. Historian Steven Biel notes, “An Iowa farmwife, irate over American Gothic, told Grant Wood, by one account, that he should have his ‘head bashed in.’”
Wood’s upstanding, folksy couple are usually the sort of characters urbanites only care about when Truman Capote writes a pretty book about how they got gunned down. To his more rural fellow Iowans, Wood was a city slicker from Cedar Rapids. So was he making fun of farmers?
Wood claimed he didn’t mean to. In that 1941 letter, the artist argues:
The persons in the painting, as I imagined them, are small town folks, rather than farmers. Papa runs the local bank or perhaps the lumber yard. He is prominent in the church and possibly preaches occasionally. In the evening, he comes home from work, takes off his collar, slips on overalls and an old coat, and goes out to the barn to hay the cow.
In fact, the model for the man in overalls was not a farmer but Wood’s dentist, Byron McKeeby. In the letter, Wood goes on to say that he “did not intend this painting as satire.” He adds, “It seems to me that they are basically solid and good people. But I don’t feel that one gets at this fact better by denying their faults and fanaticism.”
As a D.C. suffragette tells Carrie Kennicott in Main Street, “Your Middlewest is double-Puritan— prairie Puritan on top of New England Puritan; bluff frontiersman on the surface, but in its heart it still has the ideal of Plymouth Rock in a sleet-storm.” Wood’s pair lives up to that assessment—they’re a tad too churchy but they won’t give up. There are worse sentiments for a painting made in the first year of the Great Depression to have.
American Gothic asks the same question of the country it asks of its prim couple staring down the viewer: is the basic, earthy goodness and potted-plants- on- the- porch cheer of the United States weakened by its preachy, confrontational zeal? Answer: yep. But that doesn’t mean the painting—or the country—is all that funny.
Steven Biel, American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting (New York, 2005). Wanda M. Corn, “The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic,” in Reading American Art, ed. Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy (New Haven, CT, 1998). Thomas Hoving, American Gothic: The Biography of Grant Wood’s American Masterpiece (New York, 2005). Jane C. Milosch, ed., Grant Wood’s Studio: Birthplace of American Gothic (Cedar Rapids, IA, 2005).