– Dr Debnita Chakravarti

On October 13 this year the Iowa Icons Showdown results were posted on the Net. This was a survey where online voters had to decide on Iowa’s most famous calling card, its most prominent mark of identity for the rest of the world. The first digital computer, which Iowa State University researchers developed in the 1930s, was the obvious choice. But after three weeks of voting and thousands of votes, a little white house in Eldon claimed victory at midnight Sunday October 12th by 79% votes. It was a little wood farmhouse, with a single oversized window, made in a style called Carpenter Gothic, in the small town of Eldon. This is the American Gothic House, the subject of Grant Wood’s 1930 painting American Gothic.

Holly Berg, who runs the visitors’ centre across the street from the original house, credits the win to the famous Grant Wood painting’s place in pop culture. “People from all over the world, when they think of Iowa, they think of that building. We have visitors every week from Italy, Germany, Russia — all over. We’re working on writing foreign-language guides. The phrase ‘American Gothic’ shows up 20 times a day on Twitter,” Berg said. “But that’s what’s cool about it. People still find a way to connect it to today.”[Des Moines Register 1] In his book American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting, Steven Biel documents how the painting evolved from iconoclasm to icon to parody, claiming that American Gothic ranks in importance as a recognizable national emblem alongside the flag, the eagle and the Statue of Liberty. [Biel 41]

In August 1930, Grant Wood, an American painter with European training, was looking for inspiration. He was driven around Eldon, Iowa by a young painter called John Sharp. Wood was born on a farm near Anamosa on February 13, 1891 but moved to Cedar Rapids when he was ten years old after the death of his father. From then on, Wood lived most of his life in Cedar Rapids or Iowa City, dying of cancer on February 12, 1942, the day before his 51st birthday.

Wood noticed the Dibble House and sketched it on the back of an envelope. Wood “thought it a form of borrowed pretentiousness, a structural absurdity, to put a Gothic-style window in such a flimsy frame house.” At the time, Wood classified it as one of the “cardboardy frame houses on Iowa farms” and considered it “very paintable.” [Biel 22] After obtaining permission from the Jones family, who were the house’s owners, Wood made a sketch the next day in oil on paperboard from the house’s front yard. This sketch displayed a steeper roof and a longer window with a more pronounced ogive than on the actual house, features which eventually adorned the final work.

Wood decided to paint the house along with the kind of people he fancied should live in that house. “I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house”.[Biel 41]  He got his sister Nan (1899–1990) to model the woman, dressing her in a colonial print apron mimicking 19th-century Americana.

The man is modelled on Wood’s dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby (1867–1950) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. However, Wood did not add figures to his sketch until he returned to his studio. Nor did they pose side by side – he painted them separately. He sent to Chicago for the man’s overalls and woman’s apron, decided a pitchfork would look better than a rake, added his mother’s cameo to the woman’s outfit and finished his painting.

After he sent it to Chicago, history was almost not made. Narrowly escaping preliminary elimination, Wood’s painting was eventually awarded third prize – the Norman Wait Harris bronze medal – and $300. At that point, American Gothic, with its bronze medal, could logically have been expected to disappear. Instead it began its journey to becoming a national symbol.

Wood, who rarely explained his work, did not clarify his choice of this house. Was he mocking the inclusion of this window as a homeowner’s choice to make an ordinary house look grander than it was? Or was he honouring the effort the homeowners took (and the additional expense they incurred), to make an artistic statement that was not otherwise needed?

Important compositional elements of the painting are based upon the window. It has two equal arches, capped by the oddly shaped pane that joins them together from the top. Looking at the painting in its entirety, the window is duplicated with the two halves of the window repeated by the two human figures standing side by side The roof of the house visually joins the man and woman in the same way that the oddly shaped top pane of glass joins the two arches of the window. One thing that is clear is that he regarded the shape important enough to reinforce it by repeating it in the stitching on the male figure’s bib overalls (continuing into the pattern of his shirt). It also functions compositionally, as it mirrors (upside down) the shape of the panes in the upstairs window. This kind of repetitive pattern enlivens the composition and gives it rhythm. The continuity of other patterns also ties the composition together. Most notable is the pattern on the curtains in the upstairs window and the similar pattern on the woman’s apron. It is worth noting that these are pure pattern; both the curtain and apron lack the distortion that would realistically occur from folds in fabric. It is worth noting the rickrack edging on the apron of American Gothic’s female figure is found on his mother’s apron in Woman with Plants. His sister Nan recalls “[he] asked me to make an apron trimmed with rickrack, a trim that was out of style and unavailable in the stores. I ripped some off Mother’s old dresses, and after the painting made its debut, rickrack made a comeback. Grant was responsible for a rickrack revival.” [Biel 26] Both women wear a cameo brooch.

Was the pair a farmer husband and wife, or a father and daughter? The subjects’ motivations, even when considered as father and daughter, are unclear: The man may be a farmer holding a pitchfork, nothing more than a piece of farming equipment. Or he may not be a farmer at all, but a preacher, perhaps, jealously guarding his daughter from male suitors. Critics who interpret the woman as his daughter have often assumed that she was a spinster — but just what kind of spinster is left to the imagination. An errant curl that hangs down behind her right ear softens the severity of the woman’s hairdo. Some see the stray curl at the nape of her neck as related to the snake plant in the background, each one symbolizing a sharp-tongued ‘old maid’. Others see in the curl, however, a sign that she is not as repressed as her buttoned-up exterior might indicate. Adding a human touch softens the sternness of the subjects. The man’s gold collar button is a bit on the showy side for someone we otherwise take to be a sober, conservative man.

The three-pronged hay fork is echoed in the stitching of the man’s overalls, the Gothic window of the house, and the structure of the man’s face. In a surviving pre-painting sketch, the male figure holds a rake rather than the three-tined hayfork of the painting. Again, this cannot have been an idle choice. Scholars, knowing Wood’s sense of humour, speculate endlessly on the significance of the hayfork. Is it an allusion to a devil’s pitchfork or something less sinister?

The painting’s arrangement may have been based on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century practice of travelling photographers posing subjects in front of their homes. In the late nineteenth century, pioneers posed solemnly in front of their dugouts and frame houses, often with their most important possessions, for portrait photographers. The choice by either the homeowner or photographer as to where the people stood, testifies to the association Americans have with their homes as extensions of themselves. In rural America, a home not only signified family but also the mutual hard work of its members, and as the family’s greatest financial possession.

The plants were not on the porch of the house when Wood created his sketches. Why include a geranium and a mother-in-law’s tongue (sansevieria)? Wood did not disclose the reason for his choices, but plants often have symbolic meanings. Geraniums are sometimes used to signify melancholy and sometimes, among other things, ineptitude.

Wanda Corn, a leading scholar on Wood and author of Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, has speculated that the hardiness of sansevieria made it popular with pioneer women and his use of the plant may be no more than an allusion to the hardiness of those women. [Corn 78] Whatever the plants may symbolize, they do contribute to the composition: the geraniums echo the shape of the trees behind the house, the three leaves of the mother-in-law’s tongue repeat once again, on a smaller scale, the pattern of the window, the hay fork, and the stitching on the bib overalls.

Moreover, the same plants appear in the portrait Wood painted of his mother in 1929. In Woman with Plants, his mother sits in front of a geranium (and a begonia) that, as in American Gothic, echo the tree shapes in the background, and she holds a potted mother-in-law’s tongue in front of her. Reusing elements from one painting to the next is common in Wood’s work, and if the plants had symbolic meaning in addition to their compositional importance, that too carried from painting to painting.

The characters have been described as dour, even ill-humoured, which seems at first to contradict Wood’s claim that he was painting an “affectionate portrait” of Midwestern types. The man and woman (in one rare explanation Wood claimed they were father and daughter) seem to be “no nonsense” characters. An explanation for the stoic expressions may come from early photographs. Photographers discouraged models from smiling because of the film’s need for long exposure times. Therefore, borrowing from that photographic practice would result in unsmiling faces.

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.

This style of painting was part of the wider American Scene Painting movement: it was in effect its mid-west branch, and flourished during the 1930s. Regionalism attracted those artists who shunned city life, with its rapid industrialization, to create nostalgic scenes of rural life. In particular, Regionalist paintings are characterized by their realistic depiction of scenes, architecture and figures from the American Midwest. One of the most patriotic forms of American art, regionalism coincided with The Great Depression, and its positive images and sense of nostalgia went some way towards mitigating the resulting gloom which was so prevalent across rural America. It was partly because of the Great Depression that Regionalism became one of two important art movements in America in the 1930s – the other was Social Realism. The United States was largely an agricultural nation with a much smaller percentage of its population living in urban or metropolitan areas.

Regionalism was in direct contrast to the urban-based Realist paintings that had dominated the American art scene since the turn of the century. Grant Wood became the spokesman for the Regionalist painting movement, when he famously and (somewhat outrageously) remarked that he got all his best ideas for painting while milking a cow. As part of playing that role, he frequently wore bib overalls in photos. (Even if he did milk cows when he was a young boy, as an adult, this was not a part of his life.)

In his uncompleted autobiography, Wood states that he always remembered his life on the farm and drew from those memories for his paintings. It is important to understand he was using the farm life of the past for his inspiration and ideas. Evidence of modern life on the rural landscape, like telephone poles and tractors, rarely appear in his work.

In its Dec. 24, 1934 issue, Time magazine ran a cover story about Regionalist artists and featured their work in the first ever color spread in that magazine. Time proclaimed that a “truly American art” was being born at last and asserted that these Regionalist painters were creating it. It spoke of an art form free of the strange “isms” of modern European art (cubism, surrealism, etc.), and a print of American Gothic accompanied the article. If there was a single impulse behind Regionalism, it was a semi-patriotic rejection of European modern art (especially such abstract art movements as Cubism, Constructivism, Neo-Plasticism and Surrealism) in favour of a strictly American idiom – ideally one with roots west of the Mississippi. This approach to finding an authentic American art shows why Regionalism equates comfortably with Provincialism. Like earlier American painting movements, such as the Ashcan School and Precisionism, Regionalism had no agenda or manifesto. Instead, Regionalist painters were inspired by a patriotic desire to promote a genuinely American type of art, marked by a naturalism and above all realism that adequately represented the nobility and legitimacy of small-town America.

The article focused primarily on: Missourian, Thomas Hart Benton (1889 – 1975) who painted Missouri scenes among other things, but lived and worked in New York City. It also touched on Kansan John Stuart Curry (1892 – 1942), who painted pictures of life in Kansas, but lived and worked in Connecticut. Wood was the only one of these three artists who really “walked the talk,” – that is, he was the only one of the three who really lived in the place he was painting.

Eventually, Benton returned to Missouri from New York and Wood helped Curry land an artist-in-residence position in Wisconsin, thus leading all three artists to live their lives more closely to their public persons and to their subject matter.

The article also included Wood’s theory on Regionalism: “…regional art rests upon the idea that different sections of the U.S. should compete with one another just as Old World cities competed in the building of Gothic cathedrals. Only thus, [Wood] believes, can the U.S. develop a truly national art.”

Regionalism was not, however, exclusively about making art nor was it an invention of Wood’s. In Iowa, poet and writer Jay Sigmund suggested the idea of Regionalism to Wood. Sigmund, along with author Ruth Suckow, reasoned that artists of any medium should focus on what they know rather than trying to emulate artists from New York and the East.

Wood eventually became a principal spokesman for Regionalism in art for two reasons: first, because his painting American Gothic achieved almost instant fame and second, in the summers of 1932 and 1933, Wood ran the successful art colony at Stone City, which received a great deal of attention from the national press. This too gave both Wood’s ideas and the concept of Regionalism a national audience and legitimacy in the art world.

Regionalism acted as a sort of a stepping stone from Academic realism to abstract art, not unlike Impressionism did in Europe. It limited the spread of abstract art (to which it was fundamentally opposed) to the East Coast. Not until the 1940s, when Liberals gained control of the arts establishment – aided significantly by the post-war desire for change – did the New York School supercede Regionalism with its new Abstract Expressionism. Regionalism, with its specific focus on American themes, images and motifs, helped American art to gain confidence in itself and not to rely on slavish imitation of European styles. And unlike Realism, Regionalism left no room for social criticism.

So went the theory. Since first shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930, American Gothic has been fodder for speculation. Wood’s painting became many things to many people right from the beginning. Its subjects spurred much of the debate. In one camp were those who believed the painting was a celebration of ‘American’ values; in the other were those who saw it as a satiric critique of the selfsame thing. The pair’s dour expressions led many outside the Midwest to believe that Wood, a self-proclaimed Regionalist, was poking fun at rural life. Non-Iowans, especially the Eastern elite, felt the painting was a perfect comment on what they took to be sour Midwestern narrowness. Wood himself denied this in some interviews, but in others hinted that there were indeed some satiric elements present. (He wouldn’t say which elements those were.) American Gothic is often understood as a satirical comment on the midwestern character. Yet Wood said he intended it to be a positive statement about rural American values, an image of reassurance at a time of great dislocation and disillusionment. When his painting first became famous, Wood tried to clarify his intentions: “I hate to be misunderstood as I am a loyal Iowan and love my native state”. The man and woman, in their solid and well-crafted world, with all their strengths and weaknesses, represent survivors. Perhaps Wood’s point is simply to celebrate–with a wink to the more sophisticated–the extravagance of simplicity in both mind and surroundings of America’s heartland; perhaps he intended to remind his audience that the America was not built on a bedrock of complexity but rather on a bedrock of solid farmers, dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s idealized yeoman. In attempting to express this, Wood ironically painted an image of elusive meaning. Shortly before he died in February 1942, however, Wood wrote a letter in which he also embraced the viewer’s need to construct stories.

Regardless of how he chose to explain the painting to the public, the European-travelled Wood could not have failed to understand the resonance of the word ‘gothic’ in the title. ‘Gothic’, according to the Webster Collegiate Dictionary, meant “of, pertaining to, or designating a style of building and ornament”; hence the pointed inclusion of a gothic window on the Midwestern farmhouse. The gothic aesthetic in Europe assumed an awe and a spiritual power that, at its height, spoke of man’s greatest monuments in art and architecture. Wood’s American Gothic includes the elongation of the window, echoed by the elongation of the faces of his farm people, as a reference to this majesty. Otherwise, there is little of awe to be found; the people are simply clad, standing in front of an average house. They appear most definitely human: the divine light that envelopes figures in many pieces of gothic art is quite clearly avoided. Their expressions are similarly human; the man is suspicious and protective of his charge (be it wife or daughter) but also appears to be waiting for instruction. The woman looks off to her left, an expression perhaps of concentration, perhaps of disapproving interest on her face. Neither person is open to strangers, to approach; they seem to feel no need to justify their response to the viewer’s intrusion. The irony in American Gothic seems to lie in the contrast between what is American in the picture (small town, perhaps small-mindedness, simplicity, defensiveness) and what is not ‘gothic’.

The next definition may account in part for Iowans’ angry reaction to the painting: “Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of, the Middle Ages; medieval; derogatorily, of, pertaining to, or characteristic of, the Dark Ages; hence: rude; barbarous.” Iowans were offended, and they had reason. Many Iowa farmers’ wives objected to what they perceived as a negative portrayal, writing letters of complaint to the artist. “We have at least progressed beyond the three-tined pitchfork stage!”, one irate letter commented. A local woman told Wood he should have his head bashed in; another threatened to bite off his ear. [Biel 45]

Although Grant Wood claimed to have painted only one satire, Daughters of Revolution, he seems virtually alone in that opinion. Much of the discussion sparked by his most famous painting, American Gothic, revolved around the level of satiric intent, and Wood was henceforth typecast as a satirist, a label which ignored his vast artistic skills and interests. No less an authority on modern art than Gertrude Stein, whose opinions the American press eagerly reported in the 1930s, praised Wood as the “foremost American painter” and declared, “We should fear Grant Wood. Every artist and every school of artists should be afraid of him, for his devastating satire.” [Biel 59]

Critics who admired American Gothic in the early 1930s agreed with those who detested it that the painting was a satire. In perusing Wood’s painted works, it is difficult to argue that many of them are not satiric at most and gently ironic at the least. Wood observed his fellow Americans with what can only be described as an amused eye, and more than once sought to capture and slightly deflate that into which so much patriotic stock was put. Wood’s genius in these pictures of things most American–Daughters of Revolution, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, and Parson Weems’ Fable—are his restraint and appreciation of the power of understatement. He treads carefully in these, not failing to bring an appropriate amount of American majesty and patriotism to the forefront, but always slightly undercutting the nationalism of the image with elements of ironic whimsy that complicate the meaning of the paintings. Wood also produced several paintings that, while hardly entirely serious were much more personal and devoid of a ‘national’ character. Again, they seem to have been born of Wood’s ever observant and ever amused eye, but the treatment of his subjects in these–notably Adolescence and Victorian Survival–is gentler, more affectionately ironic than popularly satirical.

As the 1930’s unfolded and the Depression deepened, views of American Gothic changed. “There is no way to date precisely when the Midwest came to represent ‘America,’ ” Biel writes, “but the rhetoric and iconography of the Depression — and American Gothic in particular — certainly helped, and irony gave way to identification.”[ Biel 108] By August 1941, with the threat of American involvement in World War II looming, Fortune magazine editors proposed a series of patriotic posters. Their first candidate was American Gothic, to be framed against a black background, a quotation from Lincoln printed in white underneath.

Only a few people who recognize American Gothic have ever experienced seeing it first-hand. The majority have seen it through repeated reproductions. Only a few other images, such as the Mona Lisa or Scream, are as widely known as American Gothic, and because of its high visibility, the painting is an easy choice as a parody.

It’s simple — two people and a house — and easily remembered. It’s ambiguous and thus can evoke the ambivalent. Wood’s choice of clothing, hairstyle, colour and sober posture denies specifics, yet suggests a time, a place and an attitude. It can accommodate argument (does it criticize Middle America or affirm its values?); cliché (the Barbie and Ken or Mickey and Minnie Mouse versions); rebellion (Gordon Parks’s photograph of a black cleaning woman uses the pose to remind us of its basic whiteness); commerce (Paul Newman and his daughter posing on their organic snack packages); politics (representations of a long line of American presidents and their first ladies); and endless pop cultural references (the film American Gothic or the credits for Green Acres).

With a few simple changes, such as clothes, hairstyles or background, American Gothic can be easily manipulated and has been for decades. Pop-culture embraces this painting by replacing the couple or background elements with hundreds of alternatives, creating statements and advertising campaigns. This altering is successful because the public knows what is being manipulated and can appreciate the resulting humour or change in mood of the painting. Grant Wood surely knew that no national mythology could ever be as simple as the people wanted it to be. Modifications to the painting communicate cultural and social issues as well. Effects of the farm crisis can be illustrated by putting the couple in barrels instead of clothing, and having the couple don gas masks illustrates the risks of pollution to humans and the earth. The painting endures is both itself and a parody of itself. Its meaning has more to do with the viewer’s perception than Wood’s intention. The familiarity and readymade set of associations of American Gothic make it a slate on which anyone can freely draw on and evoke a response, and many, many do. Wood speculated late in his life as to “whether or not these faces are true to American life and reveal something about it”. The painting doesn’t reveal just ‘something’ about American life; it apparently can reveal almost anything. And that’s a huge space for a small wooden house.

Works Cited

Morain, M. “ ‘American Gothic’ house voted Iowa’s favorite icon.’ The Des Moines Register. http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/life/2014/10/13/american-gothic-house-iowa-icons/17213813/ Web. 13 October 2014.

Biel, S. American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.Print.

Corn, W. Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision. New Haven : Published for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts by Yale University Press, 1983.Print.