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

Last Surviving Person of Interest in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist to Be Released From Prison

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Almost exactly 29 years ago, two men disguised as police officers weaseled their way into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and started removing prized artworks from the wall. They made off with 13 famous paintings and sculptures, representing a value of more than $500 million. It remains the largest property theft in U.S. history, but no one has ever been charged in connection with the heist.

Now, as Smithsonian reports, the last living person who may have first-hand knowledge about the heist will be released from prison this Sunday after serving 54 months for an unrelated crime. Robert (Bobby) Gentile, an 82-year-old mobster who was jailed for selling a gun to a known murderer, has been questioned by authorities in the past. In 2010, the wife of the late mobster Robert (Bobby) Guarente told investigators she had seen her husband give several of the artworks in question to Gentile—a good friend of Guarente’s—eight years prior.

A 2012 raid of Gentile’s home also revealed a list of black market prices for the stolen items. Previous testimony from other mob associates—coupled with the fact that Gentile had failed a polygraph test when he was questioned about the art heist—suggest Gentile might know more about the crime than he has let on. For his part, though, Gentile says he is innocent and knows nothing about the art or the heist.

The FBI announced in 2013 that it knew who was responsible for the museum heist, but would not reveal their names because they were dead. Still, the whereabouts of the artworks—including prized paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer, and Degas—remain unknown. The museum is offering a $10 million reward to anyone who can provide information leading to “the recovery of all 13 works in good condition," according to the museum's website. A separate $100,000 reward will be provided for the return of an eagle finial that was used by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

[h/t Smithsonian]

9 Colors Named After People

Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress/Wikimedia // Public Domain

Throughout history, a variety of famous people have lent their names to shades of brilliant blue, shocking purple, grassy green, muddy brown, and other hues. While many of these figures are artists who were known for using or developing these hues, other color eponyms come from the scientists who invented them or those who loved to wear them. Consider this list the place where the history books meet the artist’s palette.

1. Alice Blue

A pale azure blue named for Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for wearing gowns of the color and thus sparking a trend for it. (She was also known for smoking in public and other forms of mischief-making, leading her father to declare: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”) Her ice-blue dresses inspired the song "Alice Blue Gown" by Joseph McCarthy and Harry Tierney, which premiered in the 1919 Broadway musical Irene. ("I once had a gown that was almost new / Oh, the daintiest thing, it was sweet Alice Blue / With little forget-me-nots placed here and there / When I had it on, I walked on air.")

2. Yves Klein Blue

Visitors look at 'Monochrome Blue, without title' (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
Visitors look at Monochrome Blue, without title (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images

The artist Yves Klein was interested in art as transcendence, and he’s perhaps best known for painting monochromes in a brilliant ultramarine meant to suggest the infinity of sea and sky. (As Klein once explained, "Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions.") In 1960, he registered a formula for the color—known as IKB, or International Klein Blue—with the French government; the formula relied on ultramarine pigment mixed with a synthetic resin that wouldn't dilute the color.

During his “blue period,” Klein exhibited only blue paintings and objects, releasing a thousand and one blue balloons into the sky in Paris to celebrate one show, and serving gin, Cointreau, and blue-dye cocktails at another. Don’t copy that last idea, mixologists: everyone who drank them peed blue for days.

3. Titian Red

Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

A person with red hair is sometimes said to be a Titian, after the great 16th century Venetian painter who was notably fond of painting redheads. (Examples of such paintings include Bacchus and Ariadne and Noli me Tangere, now in London's National Gallery.) In the 1960s, redheaded Barbie dolls were officially known as “Titians.” More loosely, the term has come to mean any orange-red color, although people seem to love to debate exactly what shades count.

4. Scheele's Green

Svenska Familj-Journalen, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Arsenic-based green pigments were all the rage in the 19th century, coloring everything from hosiery to hats to children’s toys. The first such pigment on the scene was Scheele’s Green, discovered by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775. The vibrant yellow-green hue caught on, especially after it was discovered that arsenic also produced a variety of other greens, from deep emerald to pale peridot. Although Scheele and others knew how toxic these pigments were, that didn't stop the colors from being used for clothing, candles, papers, playing cards, book-bindings, and sometimes even food. In perhaps the most famous example of its use, arsenic green wallpaper graced Napoleon’s last bathroom while he suffered through his exile on St. Helena, and some think the fumes caused by his long baths may have been what killed him.

5. Isabelline

José Reynaldo da Fonseca, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

If true, this color's origin story has to be the most off-putting in history. Once used to describe the pale champagne color of certain horse coats and bird feathers, the term Isabella-colored or isabelline is said (by no less than Isaac D'Israeli's 1791 Curiosities of Literature) to come from Isabel of Austria, the devoted daughter of Philip II of Spain.

Supposedly, when Spain laid siege to the city of Ostend in 1601, Isabella vowed not to change her undergarments until the city was taken. She expected a speedy victory, but much to her dismay (and presumably that of everyone around her), the fighting continued for three years before Spain won.

The Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this origin story, noting that Isabella as a color is first noted in 1600, a year before the siege began. But linguist Michael Quinion notes that accounts in French, German, Spanish and Italian (where isabelline has a similar color meaning) refer to the earlier Queen Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) and the siege of Granada—which means the story might just be true, even if it's about a different Isabella and a different set of 7-month-old dirty underwear.

6. Fuchsia

Heinrich Füllmaurer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Here's a more pleasant etymology: The vivid red-purple of fuchsia, the color, comes from fuchsia, the flower, which is in turn named for 16th-century German botanist Leonhart Fuchs. (His last name, by the way, comes from the German word for "fox.") And if you think fuchsia and magenta are the same color, you're closer than you might think: Magenta was originally an aniline dye named fuchsine, named after the fuchsia flower. The name was changed in 1859, the year it was patented, in honor of the French victory at the Battle of Magenta. That apparently helped the dye become a stunning success.

7. Vandyke Brown

Anthony van Dyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep, warm, transparent brown was made with a high concentration of organic matter (basically: actual dirt), and was popular with the Old Masters. It was named for the innovative Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, who often used the color in his paintings, and who also lent his name to an early photographic printing process—which also produced a brown color, but did not actually involve dirt.

8. Perkin's Mauve

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like so many scientific discoveries, the invention of synthetic dyes happened by accident. In 1856, chemistry student William Henry Perkin, then only 18, was trying to find a new way to make quinine (a popular treatment for malaria, and the ingredient that still gives tonic water its slightly bitter taste). The experiment didn't quite work as planned, but Perkin noticed some purple sludge left over in his flask after rinsing it with alcohol, and realized its potential.

His instincts were good: After Perkin patented his creation and began mass-producing it, the color swept England, becoming so popular that the magazine Punch condemned an outbreak of “the mauve measles.” The color was originally called aniline purple by Perkin, as well as Perkin's purple or Perkin’s violet. The mauve part of “Perkin’s mauve” came a few years later thanks to the French, who named it after their word for the mallow flower.

9. Hooker's Green

Thomas Herbert Maguire, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The warm, grassy "Hooker's Green" is named for botanical illustrator William Hooker (1779–1832), who created a special pigment just to convey the exact green of leaves.

Bonus: Mummy Brown

A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
iStock.com/izanbar

OK, it’s not a color named after one person, but a color named after many people—many dead people. First made in the 16th and 17th centuries, but a special favorite of the 19th century painters, this rich brown pigment was created by mixing both human and feline mummy crumbles with white pitch and myrrh. (Although we tend to think of them as protected antiquities today, people in centuries past often considered mummies just another natural resource.)

In part because of its curious components, the pigment wasn’t the most stable in the world, and it fell out of favor once its origin story became better known. According to one biography, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones gave his tube of Mummy Brown a funeral in his garden when he discovered where it came from. The pigment was sold into the 20th century, although if you see the name “mummy brown” used today, rest assured it contains no actual corpses. Probably.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

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