The Last Supper…
The Birth of Venus…
The Mona Lisa…
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.
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.
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.