“All the really good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,” Grant Wood reflected in 1936. And, whether inspired by cattle or not, arguably none of his ideas were as good or had as much impact as his Work from 1930 American Gothic.
Syncs the US response to mona lisa, American Gothic is arguably one of the most parodied pieces of art in the world, derided in movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Showand even starred in an episode of The simpsons. But what is it about this painting that has captured our imaginations for almost a century?
“To me, American Gothic Its appeal lies in its sense of mystery and ambiguity,” says Sarah Kelly Oehler, Field McCormick Chair and Curator of Art of America at the Art Institute of Chicago. “From the sitter’s identity to Wood’s reasons for painting it, the work has an intriguing narrative void that has allowed it to be reinterpreted in so many different ways.
“Wood deliberately cultivated this ambiguity – mostly because it was good publicity – and remained vague as to whether the duo is husband and wife or father and daughter; It’s these kinds of lingering questions that helped propel the painting’s popularity.”
Outrage in the Midwest
Wood painted the work in the fall of 1930—at the onset of the Great Depression—after being inspired by a house he saw in Eldon, Iowa earlier that year. As he looked at the house – a dated 1880s building built in the Carpenter Gothic style – Wood had tried to imagine what kind of people might live there: “American Gothic people” was his final conclusion. Upon returning home, Wood asked his sister Nan and his dentist to model for the play on various occasions, styling and dressing them as if they were “tin guys from my old family album”. Indeed, Wood instructed Nan to order an apron and overalls with “plain colonial print” from a mail order company. The jagged edge of Nan’s apron, long out of fashion, had been torn from some of her mother’s old clothes.
Fascinating as it is, the painting would likely have remained relatively unknown if Wood hadn’t submitted it to a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where incidentally it has hung ever since. The play won third prize, but it wasn’t long before it was picked up in the press as an example of rural Iowa. And Iowans were outraged.
“The painting sparked a tremendous backlash in Wood’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, and many Iowans took offense at being portrayed as ‘pinched, grim, puritanical Bible-thumpers,'” says Oehler. “Locals wrote to the press that the painting was not an accurate depiction of the Midwest and insisted that they wore fashionable hairstyles and clothing and used modern farming techniques.” One particularly angry farmer is said to have even threatened to bite Wood’s ear off .
Whether it is satire or not – which Wood has always denied – theories about the painting have abounded over the past nine decades. For some, the serious couple – exuding a formality reminiscent of 19th-century daguerreotypes – represents the courage of the pioneering spirit and a return to authentic American values. Others were more preoccupied with their relationship. Whether he is father or husband, the hostile gaze and firmly grasped pitchfork evoke the feeling that this is a man protecting both the virtue of the woman beside him and his home.
Oehler concludes: “It doesn’t matter to me who you are; it is the lack of knowledge that interests me. The painting’s ambiguity, its empty expressions, leave it wide open to interpretation—and parody. That’s a big part of why American Gothic remains such a popular and well-known painting even after all this time.”
where to look
Wood uses several repeating shapes in the painting that tie all the elements together: the shape of the pitchfork is repeated in the lines of the man’s overalls and to some extent the lines of the house. Elsewhere, the pattern of the woman’s apron is the same as the fabric of the blinds on the window. The whole painting feels elongated – from the faces to the pitchfork to the gothic style window.
Some art historians believe it to be a mourning portrait, reflected in the woman’s black dress and closed window blind – a mourning custom common in 19th-century America.
Male vs Female
The woman is associated with the domestic elements of the house – like the plants and the porch behind her – while the barn and pitchfork traditionally represent male farm work.
American Gothic hangs in Gallery 263 of the Art Institute of Chicago. Visit the institute’s website for more information about the painting and how to visit it
This article was first published in the June 2022 issue of BBC story revealed