What’s the Key to American Gothic’s Enduring Fame? An Introduction to the Iconic American Painting

The Last Sup­per

The Birth of Venus

The Mona Lisa

Amer­i­can Goth­ic, Grant Wood’s cel­e­brat­ed depic­tion of two Depres­sion-era Iowa farm­ers, holds its own against those icon­ic Euro­pean works as one of the world’s most par­o­died art­works.

Vox’s Phil Edwards dis­pens­es with that sta­tus quick­ly in the above video for Over­rat­ed, a series that unpacks the rea­sons behind icon­ic works’ last­ing fame.

By his reck­on­ing, Amer­i­can Goth­ic’s suc­cess hinges on the dual nature of its cre­ator, a native Iowan who trav­eled exten­sive­ly in Europe, grav­i­tat­ing to such sophis­ti­cat­ed fare as Impres­sion­ism, Pointil­lism, and the work of Flem­ish mas­ter Jan van Eyck.

While he didn’t express satirist and cul­tur­al crit­ic H. L. Menck­en’s overt dis­dain for his rur­al-dwelling sub­jects, his ren­der­ing sug­gests that he per­ceived them inca­pable of under­stand­ing the appeal of his own rar­i­fied plea­sures.

As Kar­al Ann Mar­ling, pro­fes­sor of art his­to­ry and Amer­i­can stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, writes in The Annals of Iowa:

In the ear­ly 1930s, many Iowa farm­ers sus­pect­ed that Wood was mak­ing fun of them in Amer­i­can Goth­ic, that he was a pic­to­r­i­al H. L. Menck­en cas­ti­gat­ing a Mid­west­ern “booboisie.” (He had, after all, lived in Paris briefly and even grew a beard there!) But by 1933, when Amer­i­can Goth­ic was exhib­it­ed in con­junc­tion with the Chica­go Cen­tu­ry of Progress Fair, the paint­ing had become a beloved nation­al sym­bol, sec­ond only to Whistler’s por­trait of his moth­er in the affec­tions of the pub­lic.

Wood, who staged the paint­ing using his sis­ter, his den­tist and a “card­boardy frame house” typ­i­cal of Iowa farms as mod­els, admit­ted that his inten­tions weren’t entire­ly noble:

There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any real­is­tic state­ment. These are types of peo­ple I have known all my life. I tried to char­ac­ter­ize them truthfully—to make them more like them­selves than they were in actu­al life.

As the Art Insti­tute of Chicago’s Judith Barter observes in an audio guide accom­pa­ny­ing the paint­ing, the dour, over­all-clad farmer betrays a bit of van­i­ty, gussy­ing up in a dress shirt and Sun­day-Go-To-Meet­ing jack­et while his female companion—Wood nev­er revealed if she was sis­ter, wife, or daughter—accessorizes her tidy apron with a cameo brooch in antic­i­pa­tion of hav­ing their like­ness cap­tured.

Author Christo­pher Mor­ley, who first saw Amer­i­can Goth­ic in 1930, when it won the Nor­man Wait Har­ris Bronze Medal at the forty-third Art Insti­tute of Chica­go Annu­al Exhi­bi­tion of Amer­i­can Paint­ings and Sculp­ture, lat­er wrote:

In those sad and yet fanat­i­cal faces may be read much of what is Right and what is Wrong with Amer­i­ca.

Per­haps we are drawn to the reflec­tion of our own foibles, whether we’re ascetic every­day folks or big-for-our-britch­es coun­try-born city slick­ers…

The paint­ing con­tin­ues to delight the mass­es in the Art Insti­tute of Chicago’s Gallery 263.

And when in Eldon, Iowa be sure to pose in front of the his­toric Amer­i­can Goth­ic House, with props kind­ly sup­plied by the adja­cent Amer­i­can Goth­ic House Cen­ter.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

The Art Insti­tute of Chica­go Puts 44,000+ Works of Art Online: View Them in High Res­o­lu­tion

Was Jack­son Pol­lock Over­rat­ed? Behind Every Artist There’s an Art Crit­ic, and Behind Pol­lock There Was Clement Green­berg

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Octo­ber 7 when her month­ly book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domaincel­e­brates the art of Aubrey Beard­s­ley. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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