Grant Wood. Part 1. The early years of the American Regionalist painter

Self portrait by Grant Wood (1932)

During their lifetime most artists paint hundreds of works of art but often, as far as the public are concerned, may just be famous for one of their works. Examples of this are Edvard Munch, who is best known for his 1893 painting The Scream. Johannes Vermeer is best known for his 1665 work Girl with the Pearl Earring and Leonardo da Vinci is best known for his 1503 painting, Mona Lisa. The artist I am looking at today, Grant Wood, will always be remembered for the painting he completed in 1930 entitled American Gothic. Grant Wood is classified as an American Regionalist painter, which is an American term. Regionalism being the work of a number of rural artists, mostly from the Midwest, who came to prominence in the 1930s. The artists tagged with the label of Regionalism often had differing styles but what they shared was an unpretentious anti-modernist style, all of who wanted to simply depict everyday life and their rural conservatism was totally anathema to the left-wing Social Realist painters of that time. American Regionalism, sometimes referred to as American Scene painting, was a naturalist style of painting where typical American life and Mid-West landscapes were lovingly depicted. It was an art based on indigenous imagery from local surroundings.

The young Grant Wood during the time he lived on the family farm

Grant Wood was born on February 13th 1891. He was the second child born to Hattie DeVolson Weaver and her husband Francis Maryville Wood. He had an elder brother Francis Marion Wood and a younger sister and brother, Nanny (Nan) Rebecca Wood and John Clifford Wood. Grant was born on the family farm near the rural township of Anamosa, Iowa.

Grant Wood boyhood home, Cedar Rapids, Iowa,

Family life was seriously disrupted on March 13th 1901 when Grant’s father unexpectedly died at the age of forty-six, and Grant’s mother Hattie was left to bring up her four children between the ages ranging from eighteen months to ten years of age. She decided to leave the farm and go and live at her family’s home in Cedar Rapids. Life for the Grant family had suddenly changed from the rural idyll of Anamosa to the urban life of Cedar Rapids.

Grant Wood attended the local grammar school and it is said that one of his teachers, Emma Gratten, encouraged the boy’s interest in art. In 1905, aged fourteen, he entered a drawing of oak leaves into a drawing competition which was sponsored by Crayola and he won third prize. As a youth growing up in this small but expanding Midwestern city, his teachers and the community admired Wood’s talent for drawing. He even taught himself to make jewellery, copperware, ornamental light fixtures, and furniture. Once he began attending Washington High School his love of art continued and when he was fifteen, he began a lifelong friendship with a fellow pupil, Marvin Cone, who also had a love of art and the two of them designed sets for the school’s theatre department and provided illustrations for the school magazine. Grant and Marvin also helped with the installation of exhibitions at the Cedar Rapids Art Association, which had just been opened in the town’s Carnegie Library in 1905. In 1910 Grant graduated and immediately enrolled on a summer course at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft, taught by nationally known architect and designer Ernest Batchelder. It was here that he learnt how to work with metal and jewellery as well as building furniture, a skill that would later serve him well.

In 1913 Grant Wood moved to Chicago and spent much of his time working as a designer at Kalo Silversmiths Shop, which was the important arts and crafts silversmith and leading maker of Arts and Crafts movement silver in Chicago. Besides this day job Grant attended evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and took correspondence and summer school courses in the decorative arts. He remained in Chicago for three years but in 1916 he had to return home to Cedar Rapids when he heard the news that his mother had fallen ill and was having financial problems. Grant took a job as a grammar school teacher to support his mother and his sister, Nan. From 1917-1918 Wood served in the U.S. Army, where he was tasked to paint and design camouflage for the military vehicles.

Portrait of John B. Turner by Grant Wood (1929) A patron of Grant Wood

In 1919 he began as an art teacher for the Cedar Rapids Community Schools and at Jackson and McKinley Junior Highs. He also attended the life drawing class taught by Charles Atherton Cumming at the University of Iowa. His high school teaching did not disrupt his painting and, slowly but surely, his painting techniques improved and soon Wood became famous for his paintings in his local neighbourhood. In 1919, Killian, the local department store in Cedar Rapids, held an exhibition of Wood’s painting as well as work by his schoolfriend Marvin Cone. Out of this came many commissions for portraits of the local dignitaries as well as store window displays for the Armstrong department store and he was commissioned to paint murals for the Eppley Hotels in Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Waterloo, and Council Bluffs.

Cafe De Palais by Grant Wood (1926)

Like most aspiring American artists at the time, Grant Wood wanted to travel to Europe and visit the famous museums and study the many styles of painting, including Impressionism and post-Impressionism which he found fascinating and can be seen in his paintings of the 1920’s.   He also said that he had to go to France to appreciate Iowa! To travel to Europe cost money and Wood could not alone afford it but thanks to his long-time patrons, John B. Turner and his son David Turner who owned the city’s mortuary business they had underwritten the trips for Wood to study art in Europe in 1920 and 1923-1924, and in return he gave them a number of his paintings.

Greenish Bus in Street of Paris by Grant Wood (1926)

Grant made his first trip to Europe in the summer of 1920 when he and his friend from school, Marvin Cone, visited Paris. Grant returned to Paris for a longer stay in 1923 and did not return home until the following year.

The Bay of Naples’s View by Grant Wood (1925)

This longer stay allowed him time to study at the Académie Julian and journey to the Italian seaside town of Sorrento. His time in the French capital and surrounding countryside proved influential, resulting in a stunning series of impressionistic views of picturesque cityscapes and landscapes, Paris streets and gardens, and the French countryside.

The structure has been the home of John R. Turner and Son funeral homes since 1924. Iowa artist Grant Wood was paid to help decorate the mortuary at that time

In between his European trips Wood was still working in Cedar Rapids. David Turner of the Turner Mortuary business had bought the large elegant Douglas Mansion with the intention of converting it into a funeral home, they commissioned Wood to redesign the mansion’s interior for its new function. Wood carried out the major refurbishment of the house including doing some interior decorating and furnishing. Grant Wood also designed the iron gates at the front entrance.  Once the make-over had been completed it was opened to the public in 1924 and the Cedar Rapids newspaper, The Gazette, wrote about Grant Wood’s hard work which he had put into the refurbishment:

“… [Grant Wood] was responsible for the decorating and furnishing of the interior, and the landscaping of the grounds. He not only personally supervised the work, but also did much of it himself…”

Grant Wood’s studio was above the six-car garrage

At the rear of the house there was a brick barn which had been converted into a modern garage, which could house six cars. At the suggestion of the Turners, Wood began to build a studio and residence above the garage.

Grant Wood stands in his studio at No. 5 Turner Alley in Cedar Rapids.

Not having to pay rent for the studio and apartment meant that he could eventually give up teaching his job at McKinley High School.

The Spotted Man by Grant Wood (1924)

What is considered to be his most accomplished work during his time in Paris is his 1924 painting entitled, The Spotted Man, which he painted in the Académie Julian studio. The technique used by Wood in this painting is a kind of Seurat-like pointillism. During his stay in Paris he had probably seen the famous pointillism works by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.

The Little Chapel Chancelade by Grant Wood (1926)

According to his sister Nan, Grant, whilst studying at the Académie Julian, was invited by a fellow student to visit his home in Spain and from that trip he painted The Little Chapel Chancelade. However, the setting remains unknown. Before he went back to Cedar Rapids the Carmine Gallery agreed to exhibit some of his work and so he returned to the French capital in 1926 for the Gallerie Carmine exhibition but he came away very disappointed and slightly disheartened as it was only a moderate success.

Interior view of Grant Wood’s Turner Alley studio, courtesy of Figge Art Museum, Grant Wood archives, photo by John W. Barry

In between his European trips Wood was still working in Cedar Rapids and in 1924 Wood was doing some interior decorating for David Turner of Turner Mortuary and Turner offered Grant the use of the carriage house behind the mortuary as a studio for his artwork. This now renowned studio situated at No. 5 Turner Alley became home to Wood and his mother for eleven years as well as being Grant’s studio during the most creative period of his career.

Veterans Memorial Building, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

The Veteran’s Memorial Building in Grant’s home town of Cedar Rapids is located on May’s Island in the middle of the Cedar River, between the First and Second Avenue Bridges. A petition to construct a memorial building was filed with the City Clerk on March 4, 1925. To make the building financially viable, a new city hall was incorporated into the plans.

Cedar Rapid’s Veterans Memorial Building on Mays Island

The positioning of the building on an island made Cedar Rapids, one of only two cities, after Paris, France, which had their governments located on an island. The main portion of the building contains four stories, with an eight-story section in the front. A cenotaph tops the eight-story section. The auditorium contains seven banners from veterans’ organizations, and seven American flags were suspended from the ceiling. A Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located above the cenotaph. The architects and the Cedar Rapid’s planners decided to incorporate a large stained glass memorial window.

Stained glass window in the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building

In 1927 Grant accepted a nine-thousand dollar commission to design and build the stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial building. Despite not having experience with the medium of stained glass and certainly never having accepted such a large commission before, the finished window is looked upon as one of Grant Wood’s greatest achievements.

Grant Wood and Arnold Pyle preparing for the Stained Glass Window

Wood along with his assistant Arnold Pyle spent months prior to the fabrication of the window. The two would spend hours perched aloft on wooden scaffolding in an old recreation room at the Quaker Oats company, where Wood assembled a full-scale mock drawing. This elaborate study enabled Wood to finalise his design and at the same time it afforded him the opportunity to correct difficulties with the perspective. The Emil Frei art glass company of St. Louis, Missouri was awarded the bid to make the glass for the window. However, it was discovered that due to the intricate detail wanted for the piece, the glass pieces had to be manufactured at a factory in Munich, Germany. Wood went to Munich to supervise the final stages of the production of the delicate pieces of glass. While there he was deeply influenced by the realism of the sharply detailed paintings of various German and Flemish masters of the 15th and 16th century and when he returned to the United States he was determined to integrate their approach into his own work.

The six soldiers

The memorial window is a lasting tribute to Veterans of the six American wars from the Revolutionary War to World War I. It stands 23 feet and 6 inches high and 20 feet wide and is made up of about 10,000 pieces of stained glass fitted together with lead, forming a stunning work of art. Solemnly standing at the base of the window are six life sized figures of private soldiers wearing the uniform of Private, representing the wars (from left to right): Revolutionary War, The War of 1812, The Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War and the First World War.

Lady of Peace and Victory

Three stood on either side of a sixteen-foot-high central figure which is said to represent the “Lady of Peace and Victory”. Draped over her head is a blue mourning veil, her floating body surrounded by clouds. In her right hand, she holds the palm branch of peace; in her left, the laurel wreath of victory. In an article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette from 1928 written by reporter Naomi Doebel, she tells of a conversation she had with Grant’s sister Nan:

“…Mrs. Nan Wood Graham, sister of the artist, modelled for the heroic central figure, a woman standing sixteen feet tall and wearing a Grecian robe. The figure, with toes pointed down, floats in the clouds giving the spiritual effect found in many of the Renaissance paintings. Draped over the woman’s head is a mourning veil of blue. In her right hand she holds the palm branch of peace, and in her left the laurel wreath of victory…”

Veteran’s Memorial Building Cedar Rapids during 2008 floods

In 2008 the siting of the Memorial Building on an island proved to be somewhat of a disaster as the Cedar River flooded Mays Island and caused a large amount of damage to the building.

Everybody loved the finished window ? – well, not quite all !!! For the Daughters of American Revolution accused Wood of being unpatriotic because he sourced a German firm to manufacture materials for a U.S. veterans memorial so soon after World War I.   The furore resulted in the window not being dedicated publicly until its restoration was completed in 2010 following the flooding of 2008.

Daughters of Revolution by Grant Wood (1932)

Grant Wood was not one to apologize for sourcing the stained glass for the memorial window from Germany, and he called the females of the Daughters of American Revolution, “those Tory gals,” and in 1932 painted a satirical work entitled Daughters of the American Revolution. To Wood this group was both ridiculous and contradictory to the extreme. On a website American Studies at the University of Virginia, they discuss the satirical aspect of the painting:

…Wood approaches his subjects through many layers of satire. Perhaps most jarring is the juxtaposition of the title and the ladies pictured. That these self-satisfied, teacup-raising, and meticulously coifed septuagenarians might have a thing to do with revolution is nothing short of absurd. Wood has painted the three ladies in a soft-focus haze that at first seems to render them more gentle and sympathetic. Two elements undermine this softness. Perhaps the most noticeable element in the painting is the claw-like hand breaking clearly through the haze and raising the teacup in a wordless and seemingly inappropriate salute to the Revolutionary War…”

Wanda Corn in her 1983 book, Grant Wood, The Regionalist Vision. wrote about the painting:

“…The hand holding the teacup tells us more about the Daughters. It is ringless, which suggests the woman is a spinster, and it is thin and bony, looking very much like the chickens’ feet in some of Wood’s other paintings. Further, the softness of the focus deepens the ladies’ eyes until they are beady and animal-like. They peer out of the painting, waiting only to be recognized for their inherited glory; they are not unlike purebred animals. Wood has further amused himself by placing the ladies in front of Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Although the famed work was considered an American treasure and treated as something of a documentary painting, the truth was that Leutze had painted it in Germany, using the Rhine as a model for the Delaware, and, it was suggested, German soldiers for the models…”

In my next blog I will look at the new style of painting by Grant Wood known as American Regionalism and feature his iconic work of art, American Gothic.

…………………………..….to be continued


I found the information for the two blogs about Grant Wood from the usual sources such as Wikipedia but also gleaned a vast amount of facts from three websites:

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
http://www.crma.org/content/Collection/Grant_Wood.aspx
Sullivan Goss an American Gallery
http://www.sullivangoss.com/Grant_Wood/#Bibliography
Nan Wood’s scrapbook
http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/grantwood/id/880

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

6 thoughts on “Grant Wood. Part 1. The early years of the American Regionalist painter”

  1. Thank you for sharing this informative post! I especially enjoyed the background on how and why The Daughters of the American Revolution was painted. What a magnificent stained glass window he created, only to be criticized by that group for where he had the glass made!

  2. Thank you. I did not do any serious American art as an undergrad, except when the artists moved to France, Britain or Germany. So the expression American Regionalism, while self explanatory, was not a familiar one. You have reproduced two fine paintings of Paris, although I realise 1926 was long past the post-Impressionist era.

  3. I just discovered your blog; oh my, as someone who loves art, I am overwhelmed. Also,I love your writing. Your choice of the opening picture of Grant Wood’s self portrait drew me into the the story about him. Thanks!!

  4. So excited to see your take on Grant Wood. I grew up in that area and always took his paintings for granted. This story of his life and work is most fascinating. I really had no idea. Thanks!

  5. Hi Jonathan, I’m trying to reach you on a permission request concerning one of your blog posts. I’m contacting on behalf of a school book publisher in Finland. As I couldn’t find any contact details to you could you please contact me via email.

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