The Models for “American Gothic” Pose in Front of the Iconic Painting (1942)

Grant Wood’s “Amer­i­can Goth­ic” now hangs at the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go. And on the muse­um’s web­site you’ll find a lit­tle back­ground infor­ma­tion intro­duc­ing you to the icon­ic 1930 paint­ing:

The impe­tus for the paint­ing came while Wood was vis­it­ing the small town of Eldon in his native Iowa. There he spot­ted a lit­tle wood farm­house, with a sin­gle over­sized win­dow, made in a style called Car­pen­ter Goth­ic. [See it here.] “I imag­ined Amer­i­can Goth­ic peo­ple with their faces stretched out long to go with this Amer­i­can Goth­ic house,” he said. He used his sis­ter and his den­tist as mod­els for a farmer and his daugh­ter, dress­ing them as if they were “tin­types from my old fam­i­ly album.” The high­ly detailed, pol­ished style and the rigid frontal­i­ty of the two fig­ures were inspired by Flem­ish Renais­sance art, which Wood stud­ied dur­ing his trav­els to Europe between 1920 and 1926. After return­ing to set­tle in Iowa, he became increas­ing­ly appre­cia­tive of mid­west­ern tra­di­tions and cul­ture, which he cel­e­brat­ed in works such as this. Amer­i­can Goth­ic, often under­stood as a satir­i­cal com­ment on the mid­west­ern char­ac­ter, quick­ly became one of America’s most famous paint­ings and is now firm­ly entrenched in the nation’s pop­u­lar cul­ture. Yet Wood intend­ed it to be a pos­i­tive state­ment about rur­al Amer­i­can val­ues, an image of reas­sur­ance at a time of great dis­lo­ca­tion and dis­il­lu­sion­ment. The man and woman, in their sol­id and well-craft­ed world, with all their strengths and weak­ness­es, rep­re­sent sur­vivors.

Above, you can see Wood’s sis­ter and dentist–otherwise known as Nan Wood Gra­ham and Dr. B.H. McKeeby–posing in front of “Amer­i­can Goth­ic” in 1942. That’s when the paint­ing first went on dis­play in its home­town, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It’s a fair­ly meta moment. Gra­ham and McK­ee­by look down­right dour in the pic­ture, just as in the paint­ing.

Grant Wood died of pan­cre­at­ic can­cer in ’42, and his sis­ter even­tu­al­ly moved to North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where she became the care­tak­er of his lega­cy. She did, after all, owe him a debt. “Grant made a per­son­al­i­ty out of me,” she said. “I would have had a very drab life with­out [Amer­i­can Goth­ic].”

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Artist Project” Reveals What 127 Influ­en­tial Artists See When They Look at Art: An Acclaimed Video Series from The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

Whit­ney Muse­um Puts Online 21,000 Works of Amer­i­can Art, By 3,000 Artists

Smith­son­ian Dig­i­tizes & Lets You Down­load 40,000 Works of Asian and Amer­i­can Art

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