No American artwork has been parodied more than American Gothic. Zombies, dogs, Beavis and Butt-Head, the Muppets, Lego figures, and even Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton have taken a turn with the pitchfork. But the painting itself is no joke—American Gothic is as recognizable as the Mona Lisa and The Scream.
During the Great Depression, the masterpiece gave hope to a desperate nation, and it helped shape the notion of the Midwest as a land of hard work and honest values. Today, the painting is firmly embedded in our cultural vocabulary. Yet, for all its fame, few people know the story of Grant Wood and how the piece also unraveled his life.
That Quirky Wood Kid
In 1929, Grant Wood was a 38-year-old unknown. The artist was living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the attic of a funeral-home carriage house. Though the location may seem morbid, Wood spruced up his home with whimsical decorations. He replaced the front door with a repurposed coffin lid and outfitted the entrance with a dial that indicated if he was in, out, asleep, painting, or having a party. Wood wasn’t the only one stuffed into this loft space: He shared the studio with his mother and sister, all three sleeping side by side on pull-out beds.
Oddly enough, none of this shocked the neighbors. As a closeted gay man, Wood avoided what his sister, Nan, called “any earmarks of the artist.” He dressed exclusively in overalls, a signifier that the painting he did was gritty—man’s work. And he benefited from being a local. People in Cedar Rapids found Wood’s eccentricities charming. Friends shook their heads and smiled when he forgot to pay his bills. They even ignored his flimsy excuses for avoiding marriage. Wood was a lovable bachelor who wanted to take care of his widowed mother, that’s all.
Painting was just another of Wood’s harmless quirks—at least now that he’d given up living in Europe. The artist had spent good chunks of the 1920s in Paris and Munich, but announced upon his 1928 return that he was back for good. The freewheeling and permissive nature of the European art scene had fascinated him. But when a solo show in Paris was met with critical indifference, it put a damper on the continent’s shine.
Still, Wood’s style benefited from his experiences abroad. His previously atmospheric, Impressionistic painting took on a hard-edged, Old Master quality. He drew inspiration from the work of the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who recast biblical narratives as scenes from his own time. And he took composition cues from 15th-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. After three stints in Europe, Wood was ready for home. As the artist told the Chicago Tribune, “I spent 20 years wandering around the world hunting ‘arty’ subjects to paint. I came back ... and the first thing I noticed was the cross-stitched embroidery of my mother’s kitchen apron.” That moment changed him. Armed with new technique, and a new appreciation for the mundane, Wood no longer needed to travel. What he needed was right there, in Iowa.
In August 1930, Wood spotted an unusual farmhouse on a drive through the tiny town of Eldon, Iowa. The house had a strange and compelling feature: a high, arched window in the Carpenter Gothic style. The artist was immediately transfixed by the structure. He needed to know what sort of people resided there. But instead of simply knocking on the door, Wood decided to capture the farmhouse in paint and tease out the story for himself. Piece by piece, he sorted through the puzzle.
Wood started by asking his dentist, 62-year-old Byron McKeeby, to serve as the male model. Throughout his life, Wood had suffered from an incurable sweet tooth—he took half a cup of sugar with his coffee, and even poured sugar on his lettuce. Over the years, he spent plenty of time in McKeeby’s chair studying and admiring the dentist’s grim, oval face. Now seemed like the perfect time to paint it. For the farmer’s companion, Wood intended to use his mother, Hattie, as a model. But when he realized that posing would be too exhausting for her, he asked his 32-year-old sister, Nan, to don Hattie’s rickrack-trimmed apron and cameo pin.
While the cast was familiar, the composition was something completely new. The couple stands posed before their simple farmhouse, its only flourish an arched window purchased from Sears. The man stares almost directly at the viewer while clutching his pitchfork; his thin lips and arched eyebrows give him a stern, slightly quizzical look. The woman looks off to the side as if unwilling to meet the viewer’s gaze, a single curled tendril of hair escaping from her bun. Both have unnaturally long faces and thin necks, as if to emphasize their uprightness. They are hardworking and humorless, dignified and honest.
Wood submitted American Gothic—the name a nod to the house’s architectural style—to a 1930 competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Overnight, the painting became a hit. American Gothic won a bronze medal and a $300 prize, was acquired by the museum, and was reproduced in newspapers around the country. Something about it resonated with audiences, and in that mysterious process by which paintings become famous, it quickly achieved near-universal recognition.
Not everyone saw the same thing. Some perceived the work as a scathing parody of the Midwest—one outraged farm wife even threatened to bite off Wood’s ear. Meanwhile, Gertrude Stein and other critics praised the painting as a cutting small-town satire, the visual equivalent of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Still others saw the painting as honoring the Midwest and its strong values. As the Great Depression bore down on the country, Americans yearned for positive depictions of themselves, and Wood’s work provided the nation with a pair of ready-made secular saints of the American heartland.
Perhaps the strangest reaction, however, was from an audience focused on the age disparity between the husband and wife in the picture. Protests poured in. Nan, too, became increasingly concerned—she didn’t want to be memorialized as “married” to a much older man. So Wood altered his initial stance to claim that the painting depicted a father and daughter. In fact, Wood frequently rewrote the artwork’s history. When the painting was hailed as a satire, he went along; when it was declared an homage to the Midwest, he agreed with that, too. Finally, he came out with a bold statement that clarified nothing: “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.”
A Mixed Legacy
With the success of American Gothic, Wood finally received the validation of his talent that he’d been seeking all his life. He was declared the founder of a new school of art, called Regionalism, and he was quick to embrace the narrative. “All the good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,” Wood famously told the press. In truth, he hated life on the farm, and was repulsed by cow udders and freshly laid chicken eggs.
For Wood, the trade-off for fame was steep, and the artist was ill-equipped to deal with the scrutiny. He and his family lost all of their privacy. Strange fans began showing up at his apartment, ignoring the dial on the door and walking right inside. People started asking pointed questions about his bachelor status. A blackmailer even confronted Wood, threatening to reveal lurid secrets from his past. And as a nation looked to Wood as the embodiment of the Midwestern man, Wood found it harder and harder to negotiate his double life. By 1935, he was desperate. He married an older divorcée and fled Cedar Rapids. While the marriage was one of convenience, the strains of the arrangement left him both financially and creatively bankrupt.
Meanwhile, Wood’s tricks had finally worn thin. People were tiring of Regionalism, and Wood found it increasingly difficult to conceal his sexuality. He spent more and more time drawing the male figure, and in 1937, he produced Sultry Night. The piece showed a naked man standing next to a trough pouring a bucket of water over his body. When questioned, Wood defended the work as depicting the ordinary bathing habits of hired men on farms. The explanation fooled no one. Things got worse: When Wood submitted the painting to a national juried show, he was asked to withdraw it. Then, the piece was barred from being sent through the mail after the Post Office deemed it “pornographic.”
Wood was mortified. He sawed the canvas in half, burned the nude portion of the painting, and didn’t paint another picture for more than a year. The artist’s life was complicated by a divorce. And when Time magazine launched an investigation into the truth about his sexuality, Wood was forced to abandon a coveted teaching position at the University of Iowa.
Wood might have pulled through all these challenges, but he never got the chance. In 1941, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on February 12, 1942, one day before his 51st birthday and not quite 12 years after the completion of American Gothic.
As for his masterpiece, its fame continued to grow after Wood’s death. Easily parodied, it’s been reimagined in movies, TV shows, marketing campaigns, even pornography. And audiences seem unable to put away the painting—to assign it a single, easy interpretation and just let it be. American Gothic remains inscrutable: satire and homage, highbrow and lowbrow, honest and creepy all at the same time. In the end, what makes the painting so successful is that it begs you to look closer and ask questions—the very thing Wood never wanted for himself.
American Gothic 101
Wood was inspired by the Old Masters of Northern Europe, and elements of the painting make it a modern version of Late Gothic art: the clear blue sky like those typically painted above Christ or the Virgin Mary; the woman’s elongated face like that of a Madonna; and the flat, finished surface, an effect Wood created by painstakingly smoothing the surface of the canvas with a razor blade.
Windows of the Soul?
Viewers often come away from American Gothic with a sense of disquiet, unable to stop thinking about the most disturbing element—the closed and curtained window. Biographer R. Tripp Evans called the window “a vanishing point in more than one sense,” adding, “Family secrets, dead bodies, incest, and murder all haunt this work, and they enter the painting here.”
Making a Cameo
The pin on the woman’s dress had been a gift from Grant Wood to his mother, Hattie. Some read the painting as a one-step-removed portrait of Wood’s parents, the stern, humorless father being a stand-in for his own dad.
On One Hand
Critics have noted that the farmer’s clenched fist anchors the painting (without it, the pitchfork fades into the background). Wood was enamored with his dentist’s hand, once gripping it tight and remarking, “This is a marvelous hand. This has strength. This has character.”
When Iowans complained that pitchforks typically have four tines, not three, Wood defended his depiction. He claimed the tool he drew was the kind used for pitching hay. But the argument misses the point. The verticals of the three tines are echoed throughout the painting: in the pocket, windows, the man’s shirt and face, and the roof of the barn.
This article first appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a risk-free issue here!