American Gothic Explained: How Grant Wood Created His Iconic American Painting (1930)

“We should fear Grant Wood. Every artist and every school of artists should be afraid of him, for his dev­as­tat­ing satire.” Gertrude Stein wrote those words after see­ing Amer­i­can Goth­ic, the 1930 paint­ing that would become one of the most icon­ic images cre­at­ed in the Unit­ed States. Yet Wood him­self “said he paint­ed Amer­i­can Goth­ic to extol rur­al Amer­i­can val­ues, real peo­ple in their well-ordered world: an image of reas­sur­ance dur­ing the onset of the Great Depres­sion.” That’s how Art His­to­ry School host Paul Priest­ley puts it in the video above, which asks of the paint­ing, “Is it a satire, or a pos­i­tive state­ment of Amer­i­can rur­al life?”

It could be nei­ther; then again, it could be both. That very ambi­gu­i­ty goes some way to explain­ing Amer­i­can Goth­ic’s suc­cess — as well as its per­sis­tence in the cul­ture through fre­quent and unceas­ing par­o­dy. Yet in its day, the paint­ing also angered some of its view­ers: “An Iowan farmer’s wife who’d seen the pic­ture in the papers in 1930 tele­phoned Wood to express her anger,” says Priest­ly.

“She claimed she wished to come over and smash his head for depict­ing her coun­try­men as grim Bible-thumpers.” Wood main­tained that he was one of them, “dress­ing in rugged over­alls after the paint­ing was com­plet­ed and telling the press, ‘All the real­ly good ideas I’d ever had come to me while I was milk­ing a cow.’

Yet Wood was no farmer. A son of Cedar Rapids, he trav­eled exten­sive­ly to Europe to study Impres­sion­ism and post-Impres­sion­ism. There he first saw the work of Jan van Eyck, whose com­bi­na­tion of visu­al clar­i­ty and com­plex­i­ty inspired him to devel­op the sig­na­ture look and feel of the move­ment that would come to be known as Region­al­ism. He became “half Euro­pean artiste, half Iowan farm boy,” as Vox’s Phil Edwards puts it in the video just above, all the bet­ter to strad­dle his home­land’s widen­ing divide between town and coun­try. “In 1880, almost half of all Amer­i­cans were on the farm,” but by 1920 more than half the pop­u­la­tion lived in cities. Amer­i­can Goth­ic came a decade lat­er, and most of a cen­tu­ry there­after, it still makes Amer­i­cans ask them­selves — earnest­ly or sar­don­ical­ly — just what kind of peo­ple they are.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

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

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Brings to Life Fig­ures from 7 Famous Paint­ings: The Mona Lisa, Birth of Venus & More

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmar­shall or on Face­book.

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  • Jonathan Collins says:

    Not sur­pris­ing that “tastemakers“would look at the paint­ing and imme­di­et­ly con­sid­er it satire. To them, the peo­ple in the paint­ing should be mocked, while many oth­ers, look at it as a pos­i­tive por­tray­al of hard­work­ing, plain peo­ple. Such is the genius of the paint­ing, it holds top a mir­ror to the view­er to see what they want to see.

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