The best possible introduction to Grant Wood’s American Gothic is the fact that it was listed by The Washington Times as one of the most important icons of the 1930’s in America: “Hardship at home and conflict abroad…the Great Depression. Dust bowl farmers sought a harvest of hope…labored to lift the countries spirits…Pitchfork Picture: Grant Wood paints American Gothic.” (The Washington Times, May, 1999)
Created in 1930, American Gothic captured the public imagination and shifted the attention of American painting from the cosmopolitan to the rural: “Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ caused a stir in 1930 when it was exhibited for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago…. Newspapers across the country carried the story and the painting of a farm couple posed before a white house….” (The Art Institute of Chicago Web site)
Why did a painting of an ordinary farm couple in front of a gothic house set America and the art world on fire? To answer this question, it would be important to study the painting in question more closely. Oil on beaverboard, American Gothic got its inspiration and name from a Gothic cottage in the small Southern Iowa town of Eldon. The Gothic Revival style is indicated both by the upper window designed to resemble a medieval pointed arch as well as the aesthetic emphasis on the verticality in height and features of the farmer and his unmarried daughter. Critics have also interpreted the highly detailed style and rigid frontal arrangement of the figures as having drawn its inspiration from Northern Renaissance art, which Wood had studied in Europe (The Art Institute of Chicago Web site).
But it wasn’t so much the technique and style but the representation of rural American subjects that made the American Gothic a subject of controversy. While many interpreted Wood’s depiction of the farm couple as a glorification of the moral virtue of rural America, there were some who felt that it satirized the narrow-mindedness and repression typical of Midwestern culture: “…those who believed the painting was a celebration of ‘American’ values…those who saw it as a satiric critique of the selfsame thing.” (Sister Wendy’s Web page)
Wood himself, in a letter to Mrs. Sudduth, described his vision of American Gothic as small town, self-righteous folks, with a significant relationship to the false Gothic house and its ecclesiastical window: “Incidentally, I did not intend this painting as a satire. I endeavored to paint these people as they existed for me in the life I knew. It seems to me that they are basically solid and good people. But I don’t feel that one gets at this fact better by denying their faults and fanaticism” (CampSilos Web site).
Perhaps it was the stark realism of his portrait that appealed to the American public at a time when the Great Depression and the growing unrest in Europe had resulted in the development of a national sentiment, which sought an idealized vision of the American way of life: “…that farmer, actually Wood’s dentist, stands with calm menace, defending the home that immediately…became an icon for middle America with all its positive and negative connotations.” (University of Virginia Web site)
The growing nationalist sentiment of the time had also led to cultural changes that may have impacted the response to American Gothic: “Between the First and Second World Wars, many American artists rejected European influences on art and attempted to establish a truly American form of art…known as Regionalism.” (Arts & Activities, Vol. 129, March 2001).
Regionalist art expressed itself through local surroundings and developed at a time when the prevailing trend was one of realism. While Edward Hopper used techniques of realism to paint statements about poverty and hardship, questioning America’s ideals and values; the Regionalist triumvirate of John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood depicted rural life in America in the tradition of European masters, and thereby offered the comfort of a known way of life.
The popularity and mesmerizing appeal of American Gothic can, thus, be traced to the themes of realism in the works of other painters as well. Curry, for instance, painted representations of families surviving natural disaster, probably inspired by the dust bowl and farm closures that drove the Midwest into economic turmoil (Tornado Over Kansas; The Mississippi). Benton addressed the relationship between the government and farmers in Politics and Agriculture; racism in A Lynching; and sexuality in Hollywood (University of Virginia Web site).
Though Wood concentrated on projecting warm images of a homely, secure rural America, the appeal of his work can be seen to lie in the reality of the Great Depression era. Hopper, Curry and Benton, in fact, recorded the historical moments such as the misery of cosmopolitan America, racism and the Dust Bowl disaster that led to the New Deal, the Social Security Act, the formation of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the appeal of pop songs such as “God Bless America.”
In the light of the aforesaid context, “The popularity of Regionalism at a time when the country was floundering economically and ideologically is not difficult to fathom. Regionalism was really a specified brand of nationalism…particularly Wood’s brand…fit right in…a sanitized and hopeful view of America’s heartland…independently employed farm families…security found in the wealth of arable land….” (University of Virginia Web site)
Wood’s brand of regionalism was influenced by his rural background in small-town Iowa and is unmistakable in all his works, focusing as it does on portraits and landscapes of the Midwest. The years he spent in Europe formed his technique and style, which he drew from Northern Renaissance artists such as Van Eyck and the German ‘new objectivity’ movement (Guardian Unlimited), as also his philosophy of art: “While in Europe, he learned most from…Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach and Hans Memling…rejected…European art called ‘modernism” (Arts & Activities, Vol. 129, March 2001).
Simultaneously, the social and cultural climate of his time probably formed his ideology of the charm and peace of rural life. In fact, Wood published an essay entitled “The Revolt Against the City,” where he said “…his region ‘has always stood as the great conservative section of the country,’ adding that in boom times it is ridiculed ‘but under settled conditions it becomes a virtue” (Contemporary Review, Vol. 264, January 1994).
Wood’s experiences and views affected his work deeply. For one, his belief in the virtue of simplicity can be seen in the manner in which he adopted the stylization of the extreme simplification of objects. American Gothic is a classic example of his highly detailed, yet simplistic portrayal of a farmer and his unmarried daughter in front of a Gothic house. The stylized simplification is also noticeable in almost all his works. Take “…the large swelling volumes of the rolling Iowa prairie, made more prominent by extreme simplification” in Spring Turning. (Arts & Activities, Vol. 129, March 2001)
Secondly, Wood’s belief in the virtue of an old, never changing way of life is evident in his persistence in portraying a bygone time of the nineteenth century, be it in his arrangement of the land, the lack of machines or the inference that can be drawn from the rigid, stiff, unyielding postures of the figures in American Gothic. As Woods himself said of the last, “I endeavored to paint these people as they existed for me in the life I knew” (CampSilos Web site). Indeed, his own professed statement is a function of his simple vision of Regionalism as a concept: “…paint what is around them, what they know and what they see” (University of Virginia Web site).
This, then, is a probable explanation of the implied behavior of the farmer and his daughter in American Gothic. Traditional and solid, rigid and unyielding in their self-righteousness; depicting both the positive and negative aspects of the same coin as experienced by Wood in small-town Iowa. Only too human, as he himself pointed out in his letter to Mrs. Sudduth, accounting for “…people who resent the painting are those who feel that they themselves resemble the portrayals.” (CampSilos Web site)
American Gothic is a recognized icon of American culture precisely because Grant Wood was able to paint such a realistic portrayal of it. The values imposed on or adopted by the women of that time are reflected in the primness of the caricature of the unmarried farmer’s daughter and by the fact that she is shown slightly in the background. The farmer himself displays strength and determination, characteristics that the pioneer settlers were known to possess. Varying interpretations of the satirical quality of the American Gothic indirectly represent the progressive nature of a young nation that is constantly questioning the status quo while searching for its identity.
The controversy over Wood’s American Gothic has largely revolved around the interpretation of his depiction of the farmer’s daughter as a prim, suppressed spinster and the implied narrow mindedness of the Midwestern culture. All things considered, however, it can be said that American Gothic is a true to life portrayal of the era in which it was created though the winds of change had perhaps already begun blowing as evidenced by the government legislation on minimum wages for women in the 1930s.
The symbolism of American Gothic in the Gothic house representing deeply rooted religious beliefs of the small-town folk in America is also very representative of the time. Some critics have interpreted the closed nature of the house as further indicating a desire to keep the rest of the world out: “… second closing of space, its front wall impenetrably neat, with blinds pulled down over the windows. Only behind that do we glimpse the blue sky and round puffy trees of pastoral joy.” (Guardian Unlimited)
It is questions such as does the ‘gothic’ element represent a satirical view of Midwestern culture as being rigid and non-progressive, implied by the open, inviting blue sky beyond or is it more a statement of nationalist American sentiment of that time, that continue to lend so much interest in the American Gothic.
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