It does require a bit of inspiration to gain a full perspective on how Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” evolved from iconoclasm to icon and then off the edge into parody. Some have even asserted that ”American Gothic” ranks in importance as a recognizable national emblem alongside the flag, the eagle and the Statue of Liberty. The painting endures.Why? The painting doesn’t reveal just ”something” about American life. It apparently can reveal almost anything.because it is both itself and a parody of itself. Its meaning has more to do with the viewer’s perception than Wood’s intention. It’s ambiguous and thus can evoke the ambivalent; we are never quite sure what the painting is about and this unknown and vaguely implied is the source of its tension; and in this sense the work conveys an intention of keeping the viewer out and excluded rather than showing something off…. Wood’s choice of clothing, hairstyle, color and sober posture denies specifics, yet suggests a time, a place and an attitude.
”American Gothic” was born in August 1930, , when Grant Wood, a native Iowan, spotted the house he would make famous and decided to use it in a pencil sketch for a painting he planned to enter in the Art Institute of Chicago’s 43rd annual exhibition. The small structure was a perfect example of Midwestern steamboat Gothic architecture, and Wood thought it would be a suitable background for a portrait of two people, a woman and a man holding a rake. He recruited his sister to be the woman and the local dentist to play the man- He painted them separately. They never posed side by side-. He sent to Chicago for the man’s overalls and woman’s apron, decided a pitchfork would look better than a rake, added his mother’s cameo to the woman’s outfit and finished his painting.
After he sent it to Chicago, history was almost not made. Narrowly escaping preliminary elimination, Wood’s painting was eventually awarded third prize and $300. At that point, ”American Gothic,” with its bronze medal, could logically have been expected to disappear. Instead it began the journey , from potential cliché to national symbol.
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( Steven ) 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.
The parallel narrative is how it became many things to many people, almost right from the beginning. Viewers either loved it or hated it, but they all agreed on one issue: its attitude was satiric. Iowans were offended. A local woman told Wood he should have his head bashed in; another threatened to bite off his ear. Non-Iowans, especially the Eastern elite, felt the painting was a perfect comment on what they took to be sour Midwestern narrowness.
As the 1930′s unfolded and the Depression deepened, views of ”American Gothic” changed.There is no way to date precisely when the Midwest came to represent ‘America, the heartland,but the rhetoric and iconography of the Depression — and”American Gothic” as the epitomy of salt of the earth honest, slow talking and deliberate manners; became established.Irony gave way to a form of identification. By August 1941, with the threat of American involvement in World War II looming, Fortune magazine editors proposed a series of patriotic posters. Their first candidate was ”American Gothic,” to be framed against a black background, a quotation from Lincoln printed in white underneath. Accepted as definitely pro-America, the painting was on its way to its ultimate position on the back of a cereal box and as the central plot device in an episode of ”The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
When his painting first became famous, Wood tried to clarify his intentions: ”I do not claim the two people painted are farmers. I hate to be misunderstood as I am a loyal Iowan and love my native state.” Shortly before he died in February 1942, however, Wood wrote a letter in which he also embraced the vi
’s need to construct stories: ”Papa runs the local bank or perhaps the lumber yard. He is prominent in the church and possibly preaches occasionally.” There is, of course, nothing to indicate any of this in his painting. Wood himself demonstrated what has made his painting endure — he stood apart from his own creation and told a story.
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.” ( Mia Fineman)
The farmer is at once genteelly studious, like a clerk, and aggressive, as if he has a serious temper. He looks at us in a no-nonsense way, and that pitchfork he holds is extremely phallic and sharp: it could do you a nasty injury. Her gaze is anxiously sidelong. She might be watching some boys, wondering if they are about to steal apples, or seeing a man she had feelings for ride past with his new city wife. She wears an ornate brooch that suggests another, distant world of passion and desire, at odds with her neat white collar and tightly tied hair. Behind her ear hangs a wisp of loose, curling golden hair that suggests suppressed sensuality.
People have argued about where this painting stands on midwestern, American heartland values ever since it was first exhibited. Wood denied that it was satirical. He proclaimed his sincere belief in the values of hearth and home. And yet it is impossible to deny the strangeness of this American masterpiece, in which nothing is quite as stable as a first glance might suggest.
It is fictive in multiple ways. It is a 19th-century picture painted in the 20th century. It is an apparently naive painting by a sophisticated artist. Even the title is ambiguous. American Gothic refers to the architecture of the house, but also unavoidably has associations with Edgar Allan Poe and big-city prejudices about in-marrying, psychopathic country folk.