Grant Wood. Part 3 – the latter years and rumours.

For many people the name Grant Wood is synonymous with the painting American Gothic but in fact he completed many more superb works of art and in this blog I will look at some of my favourites.

Stone City, Iowa by Grant Wood (1930)

In 1930, the same year he painted American Gothic, he entered two of his works in to the Iowa State Fair Art Exhibition and was awarded first prize for the best picture of the exhibition and first prize in the oil portrait category for his Portrait of Arnold Pyle (see Grant Wood, Part 2) and first prize in the oil landscape category for his painting entitled Stone City. Stone City was Grant Wood’s first major landscape painting. It is a tranquil, idealized scene of life in harmony with nature. Stone City which is located on the Wapsipinicon River, twenty-six miles from Cedar Rapids, was once a boomtown but it went bust. The boomtown came to fruition because of its limestone quarries and laid to rest by the development of Portland cement. Wood, through his painting, would like us to believe that the town has since reverted to a purer purpose of grazing animals and growing crops.  In his 1995 book Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed, James Homs wrote about this painting:

“…Although Stone City, Iowa was based on a direct study of a place with which he was thoroughly acquainted, he turned this village and its river valley site into a fantasy of curving contours, ornamental trees and brightly patterned surfaces. Wood considered the “decorative adventures” of his commonplace rural surroundings – their inherent elements of abstraction – as the true origin of the most lasting qualities in his work…”

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Grant Wood (1931)

In 1931, a year after American Gothic, Wood finished another of his well-loved paintings entitled The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Wanda Corn, a biographer of Wood, wrote that as a child, Wood had been captivated by the tale of Revere’s journey through the night from Boston to Lexington to warn the patriots of the British advance. Like most Americans of his day, Wood would have learned about the American legend from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which was published in 1863:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Like many young boys, Wood was captivated by the idea of a local hero carrying vital news, raising the alarm, and through this brave deed, achieving immortality. Wood probably liked to imagine himself on just such an assignment galloping from farm to farm to warn his neighbours of an approaching tornado and then being held aloft as the local hero having saved so many lives.

Toy Town like geometric houses

Grant Wood’s depiction is viewed from above. We see a vast sweep of countryside and a village with houses depicted as simple geometric shapes, which resembles a “toy town” where the houses are made with wooden blocks. The painting portrays the hero on horseback as he gallops through a small village which is nestled among the trees which are painted in Wood’s favoured “sponge-like” representation. Ahead of this American hero, as he rides out of town, is darkness, behind the horse and rider are houses with lights on and some of the occupants, woken by Revere’s warning calls, stand in their night clothes on their front steps and in the street.  Woods intention in depicting this piece of American folklore was, as he put it, to save those bits of American folklore that are too good to lose. His intention was, during the Great Depression, to remind people of historic times of the past, to remind people of the greatness of their country. However, his work had many detractors who said that his child-like depiction made fun of this American legend.

Grant Wood painting his Stone City ice wagon quarters (c. 1932) Photographer: John W. Barry, Jr.
Courtesy of the Grant Wood Art Gallery, Anamosa, IA.

By 1932, Wood’s reputation as an artist had risen significantly and he became co-founder of the Stone City Colony and Art School in Iowa. along with Edward Rowan, the director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids, Adrian Dornbush, the former director of the Flint Institute of Art who was an art instructor at the Little Gallery. The Stone City Art Colony was a home and a place to paint for artists in the Midwest. As a teacher at the colony Grant Wood was able to spread the message of Regionalism to aspiring artists. Unfortunately, the art colony was always plagued by financial difficulties and closed in the autumn of 1933.

The Corn Parade mural by Orr C. Fisher, in the Mount Ayr, Iowa, post office (1941)

In 1934 Grant took on a position with the art department at the University of Iowa, and also in that year, he was named director of the Public Works of Art Project in Iowa. Grant Wood later took on many of the artists at the artist colony in that project, a programme which employed artists, as part of the New Deal, during the Great Depression, and which he administered for the state of Iowa. The programme produced a large number of Depression Era murals that can still be viewed on the walls of rural post offices and public buildings in Iowa. In her book Wall To Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression by Professor Karal Ann Marling, she explains that the concept for nine years, from 1934 to 1943  She said that the Federal Government, under the Public Buildings Administration, commissioned murals for a variety of newly constructed post-offices around the United States. Life magazine,  named it “Mural America for Rural America.” It was a programme designed to get starving artists out of the garrets and into suitable work that would decorate bare walls, edify the public, and put some spare change in their pockets.

Grant Wood in his favoured rural-type bib and braces

In 1935 Grant Wood published the essay “Revolt Against the City,” in which he laid out the tenets of the Regionalism movement. For him Regionalism was a movement to which artists all over the United States must dedicate themselves in order to avoid a colonial dependency on European tradition. He felt that the rural Midwest, (the farmer’s life, dress and setting) would provide the richest kind of material for a truly indigenous regionalist style.

Joseph Chamberlain Furnas was an American freelance writer. He is best known for his article, commissioned for the Reader’s Digest, “—And Sudden Death!”   This article brought national attention to the problem of automobile safety and is the most-reprinted article in the Digest’s history. In it he wrote:

“…An enterprising judge now and again sentences reckless drivers to tour the accident end of a city morgue. But even a mangled body on a slab, waxily portraying the consequences of bad motoring judgment, isn’t a patch on the scene of the accident itself. No artist working on a safety poster would dare depict that in full detail…”

Death on the Ridge Road by Grant Wood (1935)

It could be that Grant Wood read the whole article in the August 1935 edition of the Reader’s Digest and it was that, that made him paint Death on the Ridge Road in 1935. It is a painting all about movement but with a bleak message about death on the roads. The painting vividly depicts the bends of the road, the shapes and positions on the road of the vehicles careering towards one another. It is a bleak and stormy night.  Even the telegraph pole at the top of the hill seems to be bending over due to the ferocity of the wind and, in the background, we sense that the storm clouds are scuttling across the sky depositing rain which will moisten the road surface. The tarmacked road bends are bordered by barbed-wire fences as it cuts through green hills. The large red truck rushes headlong over the crest of the hill towards an on-coming black car which has skidded across the road into its oncoming path. We know what is going to happen next. We know there will be deaths and the arms of the telegraph poles now seem to symbolise crosses on a grave. Maybe Wood was warning us about the dangers of technological progress.

Spring Turning by Grant Wood (1936)

Grant Wood painted a very hypnotic work in 1936 entitled Spring Turning. This type of work by Wood is often referred to as Magic Realism.  The term magical realism, was first expressed in a discussion of the visual arts. The German art critic Franz Roh, in his 1925 book, Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (After expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the newest European painting).  In it he described a group of painters whom we now categorize generally as Post-Expressionists, and he used the term Magischer Realismus to both highlight and rejoice at their return to figural representation after a decade or more of abstract art.

With its bird’s-eye view of smooth, swelling hills and nearly abstract banded squares of green grass and ploughed earth, Wood’s depiction is probably from his own memory as a child on the family farm in Anamosa.  There is no evidence in the depiction of cars, farm machinery, paved roads, or electric wires. Wanda Corn in her 1983 book, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, describes the work as a tale about:

“…man living in complete harmony with nature; he is the earth’s caretaker, coaxing her into abundance, bringing coherence and beauty to her surfaces…”

1935 photograph of the happy couple – Grant (44) and his wife Sara (51)

Despite the successes Wood achieved with his paintings in the 1930’s his life was becoming stressful with the IRS chasing him for unpaid taxes and he began finding some solace in liquor. To add to his problems, on March 2nd, 1935, he, without warning, married a divorced woman, Sara Sherman Maxon, the former head of Michigan City’s School of Fine Arts and a former light opera singer  The marriage took place in a small ceremony in Minneapolis, the town in which Sara was living, far from Grant’s home, and with none of his friends or family in attendance, as one report put it:

“…Wood’s neighbours read with astonishment that he was to be married that night in a small ceremony in Minneapolis. The fact that Cedar Rapids’ “bachelor artist” had a secret fiancée was nearly as dumbfounding as the circumstances of the wedding itself – a ceremony conducted with little warning, far from home, and with no friends or family in attendance…”

Grant Wood and his wife Sara Maxon

It was not a “marriage made in heaven” and many of Grant’s friends thought they were ill-matched, as Sara seemed flamboyant and overpowering whilst Grant was a socially awkward and reticent bachelor. Shortly after the couple were married, they moved to Iowa City where Grant was teaching at the University of Iowa.

House in Iowa which Grant restored and served as home for his bride and his mother.

Wood bought an eighty-year-old house for $3,500 and spent almost $35,000 renovating and refurbishing it, which financially crippled him. The pair found it difficult to survive as a happily married couple. The marriage was a platonic affair and never consummated. Did Sara know that her husband was homosexual? It seemed to have been common knowledge of his friends and some of his students.

Boy Milking Cow, by Grant Wood (1932)

In the same year Grant and Sara married, Wood hired a handsome,  athletic, young man, Park Rinard, as his personal secretary. Rinard, who lived in Falls Church, was born in Montana and grew up in Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa, where he also received a master’s degree in creative writing. It was while he was in graduate school that he became secretary to Grant Wood. Although not a homosexual himself, Rinard clearly understood Wood’s attraction to him. Rinard was the ghost writer for Grant Wood’s unfinished autobiography, Return from Bohemia.  But Rinard’s presence only further pushed Sara to the side, which made her woefully unhappy.

The relationship between Wood and his wife was so bad at the end that, according to one account, he  enlisted his housekeeper as proxy to deliver his desire for a divorce to Sara. Another account tells of Sara going to hospital because of a suspected heart attack (she was a notorious hypochondriac) and Grant sent a note to her telling her not to bother to return!  The inevitable divorce came in September 1939.

Parson Weems Fable by Grant Wood (1939 )

Another American folktale was the subject for a satirical work depicted in Grant Wood’s 1939 painting Parson Weems Fable. Mason Locke Weems usually referred to as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography of George Washington, entitled The Life of Washington  in 1800, immediately after the first President’s death in December 1799 . The tale of the cherry tree and Washington appeared in the fifth imprint of this bestseller book in 1805. The tale of the cherry tree (I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet) was to highlight George Washington’s virtues, even as a six-year-old child, and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation. Grant Wood created his work in celebration of historian Parson Weems and the first President George Washington. Weems’ anecdote told the story of the six-year-old future President chopping down his father’s favourite cherry tree and then owning up to it. Grant Wood’s regionalism style painting, this satirical work predicts the revolutionary spirit coming to colonial America. His contrast of colours conjures up a sense of impending change, particularly in the storm clouds we see gathering on the horizon.

Father and son, with the $1 bill face

Washington’s father Augustine is depicted as a red coat holding the fallen cherry tree with an outreached hand, while the unruly youth, painted with the adult head and face of Washington, as it appears on the $1 bill, on a child’s body,   The child points at the offending hatchet.   In the right-hand foreground, we see Weems, with a wry smile on his face, pulling a drape aside to reveal this iconic encounter. In the background we catch sight of two slaves picking cherries from another tree, and this could be a reference to another historic and revolution that was to come.

Grant Wood in his studio in1931

Grant Wood was a complex character. He constantly wanted to be known a “farmer-painter” and in many of the photographs of him we see him dressed in overalls which was bizarre as he hated farming. It is more than likely that his showy rural character was part of the style that he, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry promoted in the 1930’s as champions of American Regionalist painting. There is no doubt that they were nostalgic about the past and believed that the healthy values of the Midwest should be maintained as an antidote to their perceived view of the decadence and degenerate European lifestyle and the corruption which they believed sullied life in the American East Coast cities.

Young Corn by Grant Wood (1931)

Unfortunately for Grant Wood, his artistic legacy, which only lasted eleven years, was damaged, firstly by critics’ ridiculing his work, saying it was merely “regionalistic” and light-weight and secondly by wide spread rumours about his sexuality. The final part of the title of this blog mentioned “rumours” and I thought long and hard whether to even include the rumours about Grant Wood’s life. The rumours were about Grant Wood’s sexuality and I was not sure whether it had any bearings on his ability as a painter.  A 1944 biography hinted at Wood’s homosexuality, as did the catalogue written by Wanda Corn that accompanied the travelling exhibition of Grant Wood’s work. However, she and other art historians had to be very careful what they wrote about Wood as his sister, Nan, was quick to litigate against any slurs about her brother. There were  rumours of an attachment Wood had with his wife’s son, Sherman, from her first marriage who occasionally lived with them.  Lester Longman, a modernist-minded colleague in the University of Iowa art department, where Wood had taught since 1935, tried to have him fired, in part on explicit moral grounds. However, the university ignored the charge and retained Wood. It was only after his sister’s death in 1990 that historians could write with more openness and impunity. In a 2010 biography, by R Tripp Evans, Grant Wood: A Life, he unequivocally states that Wood was a closeted gay man and someone who was terrified of having his sexual orientation uncovered.

Sultry Night by Grant Wood (1939)

Probably another work by Wood which made people question his sexuality came about in 1939 when he produced a controversial lithograph, entitled Sultry Night. In it he depicts the farmhand pouring a pail of bathwater over his head in the empty dark of a field. We see water dripping from his mouth, along his chest, and down to his penis. The problem for Wood was that the depiction of the naked man is not posed in the academic postures of the classical nude, which may have made it more acceptable, but instead we see this splay-footed individual with his face upturned to receive the stream of water. Wood created the lithograph for Associated American Artists, a distributor of low-cost reproductions for the masses, but the print was quickly banned by the US Postal Service. Wood maintained that the depiction of the naked man was just a normal scene from his childhood memories of farm life, but despite his protestations that the image was not pornographic, the Postal Service upheld the ban.

Spring in Town by Grant Wood (1942)

Wood’s Regionalism was falling out of favour and that put him at variance with many of the university faculties and he became so frustrated that, in 1940, Grant Wood took a leave of absence from academia although he carried on with his paintings, which continued to show his faithful adherence to American Regionalism, the American art movement he was primarily responsible for founding. During his sabbatical period from lecturing and teaching he still carried on painting. His last works were a pendant pair entitled Spring in Town and Spring in the Country which he completed in 1941. They both illustrate his steadfast devotion to American Regionalism.

Spring in the Country by Grant Wood (1941)

In his sister’s 1993 autobiography, My Brother, Grant Wood, written by her with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald. Grant’s thoughts about the paintings are quoted:

“…In making these paintings, I had in mind something which I hope to convey to a fairly wide audience in America—the picture of a country rich in the arts of peace; a homely, lovable nation, infinitely worthy of any sacrifice necessary to its preservation…”

In 1941, shortly after taking his sabbatical, Grant Wood was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the doctors told him that he was terminally ill. On February 12th, 1942, just a day before his 51st birthday, he died.  Park Rinard was at his bedside.  Grant Wood was buried on his family’s plot in Anamosa. Reportedly, on his deathbed, he repeated over and over again that he wanted to paint his dead father, whom he had “lost” at the age of ten. Thomas Hart Benton, a fellow Regionalist, who visited Wood before his death, later remarked:

“…It was if he wanted to destroy what was in him, and become an empty soul before he went into the emptiness of death…”

He died in debt and his contribution to American art was mostly forgotten by the late 1930’s with international political concerns overshadowing domestic ones. His beloved Regionalist art was condemned for being too parochial, too much of Midwestern chauvinism and a genre which failed to change despite the onset of American Abstract Expressionism which was about to dominate in the post-war years. If remembered at all, it was for one work which has always been judged, as not his finest or most interesting, but one which has now become an iconic work, famous all around the world.

After Wood’s death in 1942, Nan inherited his estate and devoted the rest of her life to maintaining and promoting his legacy. Nan, who had married a real estate investor, Edward Graham, died in 1990, aged 91.

I could have attached many more of Grant Wood’s paintings but I am sure if you like what you have seen in these three blogs about his life you will search out more of his work.

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Most of the information I gleaned for these three blogs on Grant Wood came from the usual sources such as Wikipedia and the following 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

The Beacher Weekly newspaper

http://www.thebeacher.com/pdf/2014/BeacherSep18.pdf

 

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Grant Wood. Part 2 – American Gothic and sister Nan

Grant Wood, Study for Self-Portrait, 1932,

When Grant Wood spent time in Munich overseeing the production of stained glass for the memorial window for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids he had time to visit the city’s museums and he was inspired by the artistry of the painters from Netherlands, especially Jan van Eyck and the portraiture of the Renaissance artists.

Man with Pink Carnation by Andrea Solari (c.1495)

Portraiture normally has a plain background so as not to detract from the sitter but often in Renaissance portraits a landscape background was used which would give you some knowledge about the sitter.

Woman with Plant by Grant Wood (1929)

No doubt Grant Wood remembered that type of portraiture when he painted Woman with Plant in 1929. In this work we see a Midwestern woman in country clothes, wearing a cameo broach and an apron bordered with rick-rack stitching. In her hands she holds a plant pot containing a snake plant. She is the epitome of the pioneer woman, and this is a Renaissance-style work with its half-length figure in the foreground and a landscape backdrop and it is the inclusion of a windmill and sheaves of corn which marks it as an American Midwestern depiction. This was actually a portrait of his mother !

Arnold comes of Age (Portrait of Arnold Pyne)

In August 1930 at the Iowa State Fair Grant Wood’s painting entitled Arnold comes of Age which was his portrait of twenty-one year old, Arnold Pyne, his assistant on the Memorial Window project.

Des Moines Tribune-Capital, August 20th 1930

The renowned American journalist and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune from 1925 to 1932, covering Europe, William Shriver, once asked Grant Wood whilst in Paris, why, having witnessed the emerging art styles in Europe in the 1920’s, would his artistic style change. Wood answered by likening himself to the famous American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, whose 1920 novel, Main Street, satirised the strict conservatism of small-town life. :

“…I am going home to paint those damn cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses… and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and store suits… Isn’t that what Sinclair Lewis has done in his writing… Damn it, you can do it in painting too!…”

American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930)

A year after the stained glass window was installed at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood completed his iconic painting American Gothic, a painting which many consider to be the most famous painting in American art. So how did all come about?

In the spring of 1930, Grant Wood decided to take a weekend off from his painting and drove the 12o miles from his home in Cedar Rapids, to the home of one of his former student in Eldon, Iowa. The road trip passed through gently rolling patchwork of farmlands of central and south Iowa between the Cedar River to the Des Moines River. On a Sunday morning in early April, Wood came upon the now-famous house. It was known by the local residents as the Dibble House as it was built by Eldon resident, Charles Dibble, a Civil War veteran and livery stable owner in 1882 for his family, which included himself, his wife, and his eight children.

The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa

The house was built in a style known as Carpenter Gothic, or Rural Gothic, and is a North American architectural style-designation for an application of Gothic Revival architectural detailing and picturesque massing applied to wooden buildings erected by house-carpenters. This terminology is used when the design of lofty architecture of European cathedrals is applied to American frame houses. The Eldon house was a small, simple frame structure and was no different than many houses dotted around Wood’s home in Cedar Rapids. However, it had one unusual feature. On the second storey there was a single gable with an inset narrow Gothic window. The house mesmerised Wood and he began to wonder what type of people lived in such a house, so much so, after driving around the block he knocked on the door and introduced himself to the residents who showed him around the interior. After thanking the young couple he went back to his car, grabbed his paints and made a quick oil sketch of the house.

The Sunday Register, December 1st 1930

After he got back home he told his sister Nan about the house and how it had captivated him. The one aspect of the exceptional house which disappointed him was the fact that the residents were not whom he had envisioned for they were a young couple.  He said to Nan:

“… I’ve decided to do a painting of the kind of people I think should live in that house. I thought about it last night. I have a woman in mind, Nan, but I’m afraid to ask her to pose, because, you know, like all the others, she’ll want me to make her look young and beautiful. And I’m not going to paint her beautiful in this picture. So she’ll be disappointed…”

Of course, we now know that the woman in the painting would be his thirty-one year old sister, Nan, but there lay the problem for Grant, for the woman he intended to paint was going to be an “old maid”. However, even knowing the problem he still asked his sister to pose and he showed her his preliminary oil sketch.

American Gothic painting satirised

There was a long pause before Grant answered his sister’s question.  Finally he addressed his sister asking her, if she was willing, to pose for the picture.  He then had to sell the concept to her as he wanted the “daughter” to have a plain and old-fashioned appearance and her facial expression was to be one of sternness and sombreness. He asked Nan to imagine what it would be like to be under the control of her elderly and authoritarian father. Nan agreed and that afternoon went off to the store to buy some appropriate sombre brown and black clothes for the painting, as she later recalled:

“…. We were supposed to be small-town people. We were really not supposed to be farmers, but just small-town folk. We would own maybe a cow to milk, and we would have a little garden to tend for ourselves. But we’d keep all we grew and not sell anything in the market. Grant and I talked and talked about this. The man in the painting – who was supposed to be my father, would do some tinkering around the house, we decided. We tried to determine what the mother and wife would look like, but we just could not agree on anything. So we decided that the man was a widower. Now, when we talked about this, we tried to imagine what expression would be on the face of the man and his daughter. When we finished talking about this, I posed…”

Nan later remembered the posing for the painting:

“…It was really difficult because Grant was always joking. And both of us would break into laughter, and then we would have to start all over again. It was hard to go from being Grant Wood’s sister and joking with him in the studio to being a farmer’s daughter standing in front of a house. When I was posing and I lost my concentration, Grant would always draw me back to the work at hand by begging, ‘Come on, now, Nan. I’m trying to do your face and I really need you to look sour.’ So I looked sour, the best I could. And so he painted me…”

His depiction of a plain, stern-faced Iowa woman has an everlasting, inscrutable quality and some who saw the painting called her the “American Mona Lisa.”

Grant explained to her that he would paint the house in the background and, standing side by side in front of it would be an elderly man and his daughter and that he intended to approach his sixty-three year old dentist, Byron McKeeby, to pose as the man. Grant had exchanged some of his paintings in lieu of payment for dental work with him and he knew McKeeby liked his work, so he was sure he would pose for the painting.

For Nan, Grant could do no wrong, and she was a constant source of encouragement to her brother. She had no misgivings about posing for the American Gothic painting even though she knew ahead of time it would probably be very unflattering. However, she harboured no resentment towards her brother, once saying:

“…Grant made a personality out of me. I would have had a very drab life without it…”

Some say the pair depicted were husband and wife but Grant’s sister Nan maintained it was father and daughter so that she was not to be classified as a woman who would marry a much older man. Grant, himself, never clarified the status of the pair !

Nan Wood Graham and the painting American Gothic

The stern-looking man was posed by Wood’s Cedar Rapids’ dentist Byron McKeeby. We see McKeeby dressed in a black jacket and collarless shirt and clean denim overalls. In his right hand he holds a three-pronged pitch fork, the prongs of which are echoed in the stitching of his overalls and again in the Gothic window of the house. Although the depiction of the couple looks suitably posed Wood painted the two people separately and his sister and the dentist never stood together in front of the house.

Comments about Nan as the model were often derogatory with one viewer writing that her face “would sour milk”. Other women protested that Nan was poking fun at them with her dour expression.

Nan Wood Graham and Dr. Byron McKeeby

American Gothic was displayed in Cedar Rapids after Wood’s death in 1942. Nan, at that time, Mrs Wood Graham, and Dr. Byron McKeeby were united with each other and the painting for the first time, with their “stretched out long” faces as dour as ever !

Bronze medal winners awarded by Art Institute of Chicago

Grant submitted the painting to the jury for the forty-third annual exhibition of American paintings and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. The judges dismissed it as a trifling “comic valentine,” but a powerful museum patron urged them to reconsider. The painting was awarded the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal, as well as a three-hundred-dollar prize. The painting was bought by the Friends of American Art at the Institute for another three hundred dollars. Newspapers throughout America soon carried articles and reproductions of the painting. Eventually, the picture appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which caused great consternation with the real Iowa farmers and their wives and they were not amused. To them, the painting looked like a nasty caricature, portraying Midwestern farmers as pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers. However, the painting, which is now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, is one of the most iconic and recognizable images in American art, and it helped propel Wood to fame and launch the Regionalist movement, of which Wood became the de facto spokesperson.

The sitters for the American Gothic painting (1942)

The highly detailed style of the work and the two unbending figures at the forefront of the depiction were inspired by the Flemish Renaissance art, that Wood would have seen during his European travels between 1920 and 1926. Despite the negative comments that Wood was belittling the Mid-Western folk he actually intended the painting to be an upbeat declaration about rural America and rural American principles. Remember, the year before American Gothic was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, the country was hit by the great depression and America was facing a major crisis. In the Mid-West there was overproduction in agriculture, as farming techniques improved, and farmers started producing too much food. Coupled with the fact that there was less demand from Europe for food from America because they could grow their own crops. This abundance of crops led to falling prices and thousands of farmers became unemployed after having to sell their farms. Despite this Wood wanted his painting to be a positive statement about rural American values, and for it to become an image of comfort and encouragement at a time of great displacement and disenchantment. For Wood the man and his daughter were symbols of survivors who would battle on through the tough times.

Portrait of Nan (1931)

Grant Woods, as a token of his gratitude, and maybe knowing of the hurtful remarks about his sister’s appearance in the painting, painted a formal portrait of her in 1931. Tripp Evans, a biographer of Grant Wood, wrote:

“…It’s really kind of a love letter from Grant to his sister. He adored Nan. And it’s a painting that he felt very close to as well, one of very few of his mature paintings that he kept for himself…”

In the painting, Portrait of Nan, he depicts her in fashionably marcelled hair style. The Marcelled hair style was a popular hairstyle of the 1920’s and 1930’s that featured unique waves and styling. Marcel Waves are a deep waved hairstyle reminiscent of American actress and bombshell Jean Harlow. Nan is shown wearing a patent-leather belt and a sleeveless polka-dot blouse. She is holding a plum in her left hand whilst the right-hand cups a small chicken. Nan is depicted as a chic-looking and chick-holding modern woman ! Grant Wood bought the little chick at a dime store but it proved to be an unwilling “sitter” for him. His sister Nan recalls the problems her brother had with the chick:

“…Grant kept long hours when he was on a painting spell and would work well into the night. The chick adjusted to his hours and made an awful fuss if it was sent to bed—actually, a crock Grant kept in the closet—before 2 or 3 a.m. It was also fussy about its victuals. It wouldn’t eat toast without butter or potatoes without gravy. One evening, the chick was acting up while company was over, so Grant deposited it in the crock, placed a book on top and forgot all about it. By morning, deprived of air, butter and gravy, the chick was in a dead faint. We threw water on the chick and fanned her for almost an hour before she came to. It was a close shave. She was pretty weak, and Grant didn’t have her do much posing that day…”

So why were the chicken and the plum featured in the portrait. Wanda Corn a leading Grant Wood scholar knew Nan well before she died, at age 91, and in 1990 wrote about the portrait:

“…He [Grant] undoubtedly liked the chicken because as it perched, young and vulnerable, in the cupped hand of his sister, it conveyed her tenderness. And the plum because, as an artistic convention, fruit has always symbolized femininity…”

So according to Wanda Corn, the two images represented, for Wood, all that was beneficial and wholesome about the Midwest. Many believed the chicken and the plum were symbolic but Grant’s sister Nan had a more down to earth reasoning for the inclusion of the chicken and the plum. In 1944 she wrote about the portrait:

“…Grant said the chicken would repeat the colour of my hair and the plum would repeat the background…”

Nan’s role as a model for Grant’s paintings ended with Portrait of Nan, Tripp Evans wrote in his 2010 book, Grant Wood: A Life:

“…After completing the painting, Wood reportedly told his sister, ‘It’s the last portrait I intend to paint, and it’s the last time you will ever pose for me.’”

She was surprised—she’d spent years posing for him—and asked for an explanation.
Wood said, “Your face is too well known…”

..……to be continued

In my final blog about Grant Wood I will look at his later years, showcase more of his paintings and talk about a rumour concerning the artist which would never go away.


Apart from Wikipedia much of the information about the artist and his paintings came from:

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
Eldon House
http://lde421.blogspot.com/2011/12/american-mona-lisa-profile-of-nan-wood.html

American Gothic by Grant Wood

American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930)

My Daily Art Display offering today is the oil on beaverboard painting by American artist Grant Wood entitled American Gothic which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.  This is said to be one of the most famous paintings in the history of American art.

Grant Wood was born in small town America, in Anamosa, Iowa in 1892.  During his early artistic life his works of art showed no one distinguishable style but he enjoyed painting the “niceties” of American Midwestern life with all its small villages and their white-painted churches.  That all changed in 1927 after he spent some time in Munich on a commission supervising the putting together of stained glass windows for the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building.  Whilst in Munich he visited the large art gallery, Alte Pinakothek and was introduced to the Early Netherlandish works of art and witnessed first hand the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement in German paintings which reflected the resignation and cynicism of the post-war period.  In all he made four trips to Europe and after each journey he returned home with a much greater appreciation of the Midwest lifestyle, culture and its traditions and this love of Midwest America was transformed into his paintings.

On his return home his painting style changed and his paintings took on a more painstaking and sharply detailed style.  As is the case in today’s painting Wood liked to paint ordinary every day people and their commonplace lifestyle in the Midwest of America.  His style of painting was often termed Regionalism and exuded a sense of patriotism and nostalgia and in some ways was an artistic record of the history of small town America.  He hoped that this style of his art and the subjects he displayed would, in some way, act as  a boost to the morale of people who were suffering badly during the Great Depression, reminding them that they should retain their self belief and steadfast American pioneer spirit.  American Regionalism opposed the European abstract art and the art which was very popular at the time on the East Coast of America and California and preferred depictions of homely rural America and its people

In American Gothic we see a farmer and his spinster daughter standing in front of their late nineteenth century Gothic Revival styled house with its distinctive upper window.  The actual building in Eldon, Iowa, is still standing and is a popular tourist attraction.  The figures were modelled by the artist’s dentist, Doctor Byron McKeeby and Wood’s sister, Nan.  They are both dressed in clothes dating from the 1890’s.  The man, because of the way he is dressed, and the fact he is holding a three-pronged pitchfork , one believes him to be a farmer but he also has the studious look of a banker’s clerk.  Maybe the pitchfork is there to signify man’s traditional role as hard working but it also gives him a slight air of hostility and someone who has a bad temper.   There is something puritanical in his look.  In contrast, the woman exhibiting a side-long glance seems more prim and dowdy with her colonial-print apron with its white collar.  She conveys an air of domesticity.   The precise realism of the rigid frontal arrangement of the man and woman was probably inspired by the Northern Renaissance Art Wood saw when he was in Europe.  There is a definite similarity with van Eyck’s double portrait, The Arnolfini Portrait, (see Nov 27th) and also the way mystery surrounds the symbolic meaning and interpretation of both works.

However with regards symbolism and interpretation maybe we should leave the last word to the artist for when asked about the satirical nature of his painting and the two characters he merely replied that “they were the kind of people I fancied should live in that house”.

Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago and although it was not liked by all the judges, it achieved a bronze medal and the Institute bought the work of art.  Copies of the painting were published nationwide in many newspapers and all was well until the local newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa published it.   The locals were up in arms at the depiction of the couple as “pinched, grim-faced Bible-thumpers”.   Woods’ sister was embarrassed and horrified as being portrayed as the wife of somebody old enough to be her father and was quick to state that the couple were indeed father and daughter.

It is a strange painting but one, like the Arnolfini Portrait, which may hold symbolic messages and is open to many interpretations despite the artist himself denying any hidden meaning to his famous work of art.