“Technique does not constitute art. Nor is it a vague, fuzzy romantic quality known as ‘beauty,’ remote from the realities of everyday life. It is the depth and intensity of an artist’s experience that are the first importance in art.” – Grant Wood [quoted in “Grant Wood Revisited,” Midwest Today, April/May 1996]

 

American Gothic by Grant Wood, the painting

American artist Grant Wood painted his masterpiece American Gothic in 1930, the iconic image of a farmer and his wife with a pitchfork in front of a white house in Wood’s native Iowa.

The artist had traveled Europe and studied art there throughout the 1920s, yet returned home to the US Midwest and said this (Chicago Tribune):

“I spent 20 years wandering around the world hunting ‘arty’ subjects to paint. I came back … and the first thing I noticed was the cross-stitched embroidery of my mother’s kitchen apron.”

When passing through a tiny town called Eldon, Iowa, not long after his return, Grant Wood noticed a house with an intriguing upper window, in the Carpenter Gothic style. He felt the need to paint it, to imagine the kind of people who lived in the house, and so he assembled a couple from people he knew. The wife in the painting was the artist’s sister, and the austere man was his dentist. The brooch pin was borrowed from his mother. He painted them and named the piece American Gothic, after the style of the window. It became an instant success and has become one of the most iconic paintings in recent times.

Grant Wood (1891-1942), American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaver board, 30 3/4 x 25 3/4 in. (78 x 65.3 cm),  The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection, 1930.934

Grant Wood (1891-1942), American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaver board, 30 3/4 x 25 3/4 in. (78 x 65.3 cm),
The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection, 1930.934

The painting reminds me of the towns in Kansas where my grandparents lived, of the frame house their parents built on the land where they settled as immigrants from Sweden in the early 1900s. The landscape is sparse and bleak, and fields stretch for eternity in every direction. Work on the land is hard, but the simple things bring the most pleasure, especially the homemade pies and meals my grandmother made. American Gothic, to me, represents that world. Grant Wood’s paintings depict the heart of America.

I saw American Gothic at the Cincinnati Museum of Art, where Grant Wood’s paintings are on display until November 16, 2014 (link here). It was fascinating to see in person, as well as with two other masterpiece paintings by Wood.

This painting has been endlessly parodied, in advertisements, and even unlikely pop divas (link here).

Mr. Wood’s work became a window into the Midwestern culture of his time. He became an expert at contrasts and details, at repeating shapes and textures, and at depicting the mundane details many of us don’t see. His work reflected hard work ethics and parodied scenarios, people, and the pressures of real life.

Thank you to the Cincinnati Art Museum for allowing me to post your image of your exhibit and collections. It is a privilege to not only see great art, but to be able to share it widely. If you have the chance to see Grant Wood’s work up close and personal, you must. He was an artistic genius.

 

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