15 Things You Might Not Know About American Gothic

Grant Wood. American Gothic, 1930. The Art Institute of Chicago. Friends of American Art Collection.
Grant Wood. American Gothic, 1930. The Art Institute of Chicago. Friends of American Art Collection.

Few paintings are as iconic as Grant Wood's American Gothic. The piece's staging is so embedded into American culture that even its countless parodies and homages are instantly recognizable. While this deceptively simple portrait has clearly captured the imagination of the nation, the story behind its creation and rise to fame makes it all the more compelling. 

1. It was instantly a big hit. 

American Gothic was submitted to the 1930 annual exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it won a bronze medal and a $300 prize. But that's not all. The Art Institute acquired the piece for its collection. From there, a picture of the prize-winning painting ran in the Chicago Evening Post, then in newspapers across the U.S., gaining fame and popularity with each printing. Eighty-five years later, American Gothic still calls the Art Institute home.

2. American Gothic made Wood famous.

Before this breakthrough, Wood was an unknown 39-year-old aspiring artist, living in the attic of a funeral-home carriage house that he shared with his mother and sister. Although he was toiling in obscurity, artistic training in Europe had taught Wood techniques that led to his big break. Following the success of American Gothic, he became a bit of a media scamp, often rewriting the history and meaning of his painting to best suit a given trend or narrative. And his fans became ravenous, sometimes traveling to his family's home, and walking right into Wood’s quarters uninvited. 

3. American Gothic's inspiration was a real and really distinctive home. 

In the summer of 1930, Wood was visiting Eldon, Iowa to attend an art exhibition. While there he was struck by a little white cottage with a "carpenter Gothic" window on the second floor that Wood found “pretentious” for such a humble home. He sketched out the house on an envelope, providing the base for what would become his most famous painting. 

4. It combined Americana with European technique.

Inspired by the window that recalled the cathedrals he'd seen in Europe during his training and travels, Wood posed his quintessentially American figures in a "rigid frontal arrangement" that recalls Northern Renaissance art, while mimicking that movement's close attention to detail. 

5. The farmer was really a dentist.

Seeking a model for the male in American Gothic, Wood asked a favor of his dentist, 62-year-old Byron McKeeby. It's likely McKeeby felt a bit obligated as Wood's constant craving for sugar—even putting it on lettuce—made him a client worth keeping happy. All that time in the exam chair gave Wood ample opportunity to examine McKeeby's strong hands. Of them, he said, "This is a marvelous hand. This has strength. This has character.” 

6. Wood found the wife close to home. 

The artist's first choice for a female model was his mother, Hattie. However, he was concerned that posing at length would be too much for her. So, in her stead his sister Nan sat in. But Hattie did contribute by lending her apron and cameo for her daughter's costume. 

7. None of the models posed together. 

Wood painted the house, his sister, and his dentist in separate sessions. 

8. Iowans weren't fans, to say the least. 

When the newspapers in Wood's hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, first presented an image of American Gothic, the painting sparked a backlash. This dour portrayal was not how the locals saw themselves, and they resented being presented this way to the world. One farm wife was so enraged by the painting that she threatened to bite Wood's ear off. Another suggested he have his "head bashed in." Wood was stunned by the acrimony, insisting he was a "loyal Iowan" who meant no offense, only homage.

9. American Gothic does not depict husband and wife. Maybe.

A popular caption for the painting in newspapers was An Iowa Farmer and His Wife, but that was not how the painting’s female model saw it. Nan told people the painting depicted a father and his daughter, perhaps because she resented being "married" to a man twice her age. Wood himself waffled on this point. 

10. Its meaning has shifted over the years.

Early on, writers like Gertrude Stein and Christopher Morley believed American Gothic satirized the provincialism of small-town America. But as the Great Depression damaged American morale, American Gothic was viewed as much-needed celebration of the nation's fortitude and spirit. Now, its purpose transforms with each new parody. 

Wood gave this confounding statement: "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.” 

11. Wood's signature is hidden. 

Look in the bottom right corner of the farmer's overalls, and you'll see the artist's name painted along with the canvas medium (wood) and the year (1930) in a pale blue, almost illegible against its denim backdrop.

12. American Gothic fueled the rise of "Regionalism."

An American realist modern art movement that shunned urbanism in favor of the glories found in rural settings, Regionalism (or American Scene painting) hit the peak of its popularity in the 1930s thanks to Wood's works as well as those of Missouri's Thomas Hart Benton and Kansas's John Steuart Curry. Wood played into this brand, always sporting overalls, and proclaiming to the press, "All the good ideas I've ever had came to me while I was milking a cow." 

However, he was actually repulsed by farm animals. And it has been suggested that his penchant for overalls was all PR. Not just to play up his artist persona, but also to help hide—through this perceived manliness—his homosexuality

13. American Gothic's house is now a tourist attraction. 

Built in 1881 by Catherine and Charles Dibble, the Dibble House passed through owners for more than a century before Carl Smith donated it to the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1991. Since then, it has been transformed into a museum celebrating Wood and the painting that made him and the house famous. 

14. The windows weren't just pretty; they were practical. 

Wood may have found them pretentious, but the windows (one in the front of the house, one in the back) were hinged to allow the family to more easily move large furniture in and out, uninhibited by a narrow staircase inside. As extraordinary as they seem in a home instead of a larger structure like a church, it's believed the Dibbles picked their distinctive windows out of a Sears and Roebuck catalog. 

15. Every element has been mined for meaning. 

Some observers have suggested that the man pictured is no farmer at all, but a preacher using the pitchfork as a prop to rail against the devil and his dangers. Perhaps the curl of the woman's hair is meant to paint her as a sharp-tongued spinster. Is the rickrack on her apron meant to allude to old-school values, or mock her as out of date? Their expressions have been read as resolute or sullen. The window's curtains might mean a hidden secret. Do the geraniums in the background signify  melancholy? 

Wood never cleared up any of these points, and so the mystery and debate over American Gothic rages on decades after his passing.

Art

If You Want to Be a Better Learner, Try Drawing (Even If You're Bad at It)

iStock
iStock

Doodling all over your notebook while sitting through class or a meeting might not be so bad after all. According to design historian and art professor D.B. Dowd, even the crudest of drawings can facilitate learning.

Dowd recently spoke with Quartzy about his new book, Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice. In it, he aims to dispel the myth that drawing is only for skilled artists or crafty Pinterest-loving types. Whether you’re doodling a smiley face or penning a map while giving directions, drawing is suitable for everyone, he argues.

“We have misfiled the significance of drawing because we see it as a professional skill instead of a personal capacity,” he writes in his book. “This essential confusion has stunted our understanding of drawing and kept it from being seen as a tool for learning above all else.”

Science seems to back this up. Over a century ago, science students were required to take drawing lessons in order to “learn to observe.” With this in mind, biology professor Jennifer Landin started introducing drawing back into her lesson plans.

“Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she writes for Scientific American. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details. Since some species of dragonfly can only be distinguished from others by the vein patterns in their wings, skipping details is not an option.”

In addition to helping you become a better observer (and thus a better learner), one 2009 study found that drawing also improves memory. Test subjects who doodled while listening to a list of names and places scored 29 percent higher on a surprise quiz of the information than those who didn’t doodle. And while smartphones and laptops can be a distraction, doodling helps you concentrate. The researchers behind one 2011 study theorized that doodling may stimulate “default networks” in the brain, which promote activity in the cerebral cortex even when there are no outside stimuli.

Classroom research has also shown that drawing can be a useful learning aid. When a student is asked to draw a concept like sound waves, for instance, they’re forced to think about it more creatively. Plus, they often enjoy the assignment more, which can’t hurt. So go ahead—break out the pencil and paper and start doodling. It might be good for your brain.

[h/t Quartzy]

New Podcast Opens Up the Cold Case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Heist

Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images
Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images

One of the newest true crime podcasts gathering buzz doesn't involve a murder or kidnapping—instead, it investigates one of the most infamous art heists in history. Last Seen, a collaboration between WBUR and The Boston Globe, looks at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, a case that has gone unsolved for 28 years.

The story begins on March 18, 1990, when two thieves posing as policemen infiltrated the Boston art museum and stole 13 paintings off the walls. The works are from such master artists as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet, and are estimated to have a cumulative value exceeding $600 million.

The scope of the heist alone would have made it historically significant, but the story became even more interesting after the crime was committed. The case never moved forward, despite a drawn-out investigation and a $10 million reward for the return of the stolen pieces. That didn't mean there weren't suspects: Two unnamed men were identified, but they were killed shortly after the theft, and according to the popular theory, information regarding the location of the stolen artworks died with them.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum case is still filled with mysteries, but the new podcast aims to make the story a little clearer. Hosted by WBUR producers and reporters Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico, and with contributions from Stephen Kurkjian, who spent years covering the heist for The Boston Globe, Last Seen follows the saga from the night the crime was committed to today. It features interviews with investigators who worked on the case and people who were employed by the museum in the early 1990s, some of whom have never before agreed to speak publicly on the subject.

The first episode of Last Seen debuted on WBUR September 17, and the series will include 10 episodes in total.

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