Saturday, March 29, 2014

Wood, Grant

American Gothic
oil on beaver board
74.3 cm × 62.4 cm
Art Institute of Chicago, IL, USA

"the kind of people I fancied should live in that house." (Wood)

The painting is one of the most familiar images in 20th-century American art, and has been widely parodied in American popular culture. It shows a farmer standing beside his spinster daughter. The woman is dressed in a colonial print apron evoking 19th-century Americana, and the couple are in the traditional roles of men and women, the man's pitchfork symbolizing hard labor, and the flowers over the woman's right shoulder suggesting domesticity.

Grant DeVolson Wood (1891-1942) was an American painter born in Iowa. He was one of the major exponents of Midwestern Regionalism, a movement that flourished in the United States during the 1930s. He is best known for his paintings depicting the rural American Midwest. He was trained as a craftsman and designer as well as a painter.

After spending a year at the Academie Julian in Paris, he returned to Iowa, where he was commissioned to do a stained-glass window. Knowing little about stained glass, he went to Germany to seek craftsmen to assist him. While there he was deeply influenced by the sharply detailed paintings of various German and Flemish masters of the 16th century. He subsequently abandoned his Impressionist style and began to paint in the sharply detailed, realistic manner by which he is now known.

In 1930 his American Gothic caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. The hard, cold realism of this painting and the honest, direct, earthy quality of its subject were unusual in American art. The work ostensibly portrays a farmer-preacher and his daughter in front of their estate farmhouse, but Wood actually used his sister, Nan, and his dentist, B.H. McKeeby, as models. As a telling portrait of the sober and hard-working rural dwellers of the Midwest, the painting has become one of the best-known icons of American art.

Wood was married to Sara Sherman Maxon from 1935-1938. He taught painting at the University of Iowa's School of Art from 1934 to 1941. During that time, he produced a variety of his own works, and became a key part of the University's cultural community. He died at the University of Iowa hospital of pancreatic cancer, one day before his 51st birthday. When he died, his estate went to his sister, Nan Wood Graham, the woman portrayed in American Gothic. When she died in 1990, her estate, along with Wood's personal effects and various works of art, became the property of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.