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

Celebrating Amanda Crowe, Famed Native American Woodcarver

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Amanda Crowe created remarkable works of art with just a mallet and chisel, transforming blocks of wood into bears, raccoons, deer, moose, and owls. The late Eastern Band Cherokee Indian woodcarver, who died in 2004, is being celebrated in today’s Google Doodle.

A video featuring images of some of Crowe’s works was released in recognition of Native American Heritage Month. The musical accompaniment was composed by her nephew, William “Bill” H. Crowe, Jr., and the video highlights some of Crowe’s best-known quotes.

“I carve because I love to do it,” Crowe once said. “The movement of the grains—they almost seem alive under your hands—and the beautiful tones and textures all add life to the figures you whittle.”

Crowe was born in the Qualla Boundary, North Carolina on July 16, 1928, and her uncle started teaching her how to carve wood when she was just four years old. She later commented that she was “barely old enough to handle a knife” when she first started learning, but she clearly had a knack for working with her hands.

After honing her craft throughout her childhood and teen years, she was offered a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. There, she studied various media—including plaster, stone, and metal—but she always gravitated toward wood. Crowe went on to earn a master’s degree and spent some time in Mexico studying with Spanish sculptor José de Creeft.

When she finally returned home to the Qualla Boundary, she spent the next 40 years teaching art at Cherokee High School. According to Google, she is often credited with helping to restore interest in Cherokee carving—an ancestral tradition and a unique art form. Her carvings have carried her legacy around the world, having been displayed at museums in the U.S., England, Germany, and beyond.

35 Happy Little Facts About Bob Ross

Whether or not you’re artistically inclined, there’s a good chance that you—like millions of other people around the world—have been captivated by Bob Ross’s instructional landscape paintings and soothing voice. On what would have been Ross’s 76th birthday, we’re sharing 35 facts about the happy little legend.

1. HE KEPT AN ALLIGATOR IN THE BATHTUB AS A KID.

A lifelong animal lover, Ross was always rescuing wounded animals and nursing them back to health. As a kid growing up in Florida, this meant one rather strange addition to the family: an alligator, which he attempted to nurse back to health in the Ross family bathtub. Even in his adult life, Ross was always playing host to orphaned and injured animals, including an epileptic squirrel that lived in his empty Jacuzzi.

2. HE WAS AN AIR FORCE MASTER SERGEANT.

Ross’s quiet voice and gentle demeanor were two of his most iconic traits, which makes the fact that he spent 20 years in the United States Air Force and retired with the rank of master sergeant all the more surprising. Basically, he was the guy who told everyone else what to do.

3. HE USED TO BE QUITE THE YELLER.

Before he lent his dulcet voice to The Joy of Painting, Ross spent a lot of time yelling. "I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work,” Ross once said. “The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn't going to be that way anymore."

4. BEFORE HE PAINTED HAPPY LITTLE TREES, HE PAINTED PANS.

While stationed in Alaska during his stint in the Air Force, Ross indulged his creative side by painting his now-iconic landscapes onto golden pans, which he sold for $25 apiece. Today, they can fetch as much as $7500 on eBay.

5. HE WAS INSPIRED BY BILL ALEXANDER.

From 1974 to 1982, German painter Bill Alexander hosted an art instruction show on PBS, The Magic of Oil Painting, where he shared his “wet-on-wet” oil painting technique. Ross discovered the series while working as a bartender, and became an immediate fan of the artist. He ended up studying under Alexander, who became his mentor. In fact, Ross dedicated the first episode of his own PBS show, The Joy of Painting, to Alexander. “Years ago, Bill taught me this fantastic technique,” Ross told viewers. “And I feel as though he gave me a precious gift, and I'd like to share that gift with you.”

6. WHEN ALEXANDER RETIRED, HE APPOINTED ROSS AS HIS SUCCESSOR.

In the early 1980s, as Alexander was preparing to retire, he asked Ross to take over teaching his painting classes. Ross agreed, and set out to tour the country on his own in a motor home, traveling and teaching people Alexander’s “wet-on-wet” technique. He told his wife Jane that he’d try it out for one year, and if he didn’t make enough money, he would return to Alaska.

7. HIS SIGNATURE PERM WAS AN ECONOMICAL CHOICE.

It was during Ross’s time on the road that he adopted his iconic hairstyle. Since teaching painting wasn’t an extremely lucrative profession, Ross learned to stretch every penny. One way he did this was to save money on haircuts by getting his locks permed.

8. ROSS HATED THAT HAIRDO.

Though Ross reportedly hated the permed hair, he was a businessman first, which is why he kept it. “When we got a line of paints and brushes, we put his picture on,” Bob Ross Company co-founder Annette Kowalski told Mental Floss. “The logo is a picture of Bob with that hair, so he could never get it cut. He wasn’t always happy about that.” 

(You can see what he looked like without his trademark perm here.)

9. HE WAS “DISCOVERED” BY ONE OF HIS STUDENTS.

Though it was Alexander who got Ross started on his career path as an artist, it was Kowalski—one of Ross’s students—who put him on the pop culture map. Kowalski, who is often credited as the woman who "discovered" Ross, took a five-day instructional course with Ross in 1982, and quickly became enamored with his calming voice and positive messages.

In addition to newfound painting skills, Kowalski left the class with a new client: she became Ross’s manager, helping him broker the deal for The Joy of Painting television show with PBS, and later, a line of Bob Ross art supplies.

10. HE WORKED FOR FREE.

The Joy of Painting ran new seasons on PBS from 1983 to 1994, so even at public broadcasting rates the show must have made Ross quite a bit of loot, right? Not quite. Ross actually did the series for free; his income came from Bob Ross Inc.

Ross's company sold art supplies and how-to videotapes, taught classes, and even had a troupe of traveling art instructors who roamed the world teaching painting. It's tough to think of a better advertisement for these products than Ross's show.

11. HE COULD FILM AN ENTIRE SEASON IN ABOUT TWO DAYS.

How did Ross find the time to tape all of those shows for free? He could record a season almost as fast as he could paint. Ross could bang out an entire 13-episode season of The Joy of Painting in just over two days, which freed him up to get back to teaching lessons, which is where he made his real money.

12. THE JOY OF PAINTING WAS A WORLDWIDE HIT.

In addition to being carried by approximately 95 percent of all public television stations across America, reaching viewers in more than 93.5 million homes, The Joy of Painting was a hit outside of the U.S. as well. The show was broadcast in dozens of foreign countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, South Korea, and Turkey.

13. HE WAS PARTICULARLY BIG IN JAPAN.

The Joy of Painting was a big hit in Japan, where it aired twice a day. (His voice, however, was dubbed.) On a visit to the country, Ross was reportedly mobbed by fans.

14. ROSS LIKENED HIS POPULARITY TO A DRUG ADDICTION.

"We're like drug dealers,” Ross once said of the popularity of his painting technique. “Come into town and get everybody absolutely addicted to painting. It doesn't take much to get you addicted.”

15. VIEWERS LOVED HIM. FELLOW ARTISTS? NOT AS MUCH.

Though he was undoubtedly a pop culture phenomenon, the art world didn’t exactly embrace Ross. “People definitely know who he is," Kevin Lavin, a “struggling” painter, told The New York Times in 1991. "In his own way, he is as famous as Warhol.”

"It is formulaic and thoughtless,” sculptor Keith Frank said of Ross’s work in the same article. “Art as therapy."

“I am horrified by art instruction on television," added Abstract Expressionist Richard Pousette-Dart, who passed away the following year. "It's terrible—bad, bad, bad. They are just commercial exploiters, non-artists teaching other non-artists."

16. SOME ART SUPPLY STORES KEPT ROSS’S PRODUCTS AT A DISTANCE.

The New York Times paid a visit to Pearl Paint Company, an art supply store in New York City, where an employee pointed to the “happy little corner" where they kept Ross’s products. "We hide them," he admitted, "so as not to offend."

17. ALEXANDER WASN’T THRILLED WITH ROSS’S SUCCESS.

Bill Alexander was one of the artists who wasn’t thrilled with Ross’s success, even though he had been his protégé. “He betrayed me," Alexander told The New York Times. "I invented 'wet on wet.' I trained him and he is copying me—what bothers me is not just that he betrayed me, but that he thinks he can do it better."

18. HIS HAPPY LITTLE COMMENTS WEREN’T AD LIBBED.

Though part of Ross’s appeal was his conversational tone, none of this talk of happy accidents or other happy little things was ad libbed. “He told me he would lay in bed at night and plan every word,” Kowalski once said. “He knew exactly what he was doing.”

19. HE WAS MISSING PART OF HIS LEFT INDEX FINGER.

Though you’d never know it from his painting technique, not all of Ross’s digits were intact. He lost part of his left index finger when he was a kid in a woodworking accident while working with his dad, who was a carpenter.

20. HE RARELY PAINTED PEOPLE.

While trees and wildlife often helped bring Ross’s paintings to life, he rarely painted people. In fact, he liked to keep his work as people-free as possible.

“I will tell you Bob’s biggest secret,” Kowalski told FiveThirtyEight. “If you notice, his cabins never had chimneys on them. That’s because chimneys represented people, and he didn’t want any sign of a person in his paintings.”

21. HE KEPT A TINY SQUIRREL IN HIS POCKET.

The Joy of Painting regularly featured a rotating cast of happy little animals, with a tiny squirrel named Peapod probably getting the bulk of airtime. According to Ross, Peapod liked to sit in his pocket.

22. NOT MANY PEOPLE ACTUALLY PAINTED ALONG WITH HIM.

Though The Joy of Painting was a beloved series, people didn’t seem to be watching it to learn how to be the next Picasso. It was once estimated that only 10 percent of viewers were actually painting along with Ross.

23. HE REALLY DID LOVE TREES.

In 2014, FiveThirtyEight did a statistical breakdown of Ross’s work on The Joy of Painting and found that 91 percent of them included at least one tree—by far the most popular element. (And if he painted one tree, there was a 93 percent chance he’d paint a second one—though he referred to any additional trees as “friends” on the show.)

24. HIS SON, STEVE, PREFERRED LAKES.

On a few occasions, Ross’s son Steve subbed for his dad as a guest host. That same data set discovered that Steve liked happy little lakes: 91 percent of Steve’s paintings featured one (as opposed to Bob’s 34 percent).

25. HE MADE THREE COPIES OF EACH PAINTING YOU SEE IN THE JOY OF PAINTING.

Ross shot 403 episodes of The Joy of Painting and made three near-exact copies of each painting per episode. The first copy always hid off screen, and Ross referred to it while the cameras rolled (none of his on-air paintings were spontaneous). Ross painted a third copy when filming finished. This time, an assistant would stand behind him and snap photos of each brushstroke; these pictures went into his how-to books.

26. HE DIDN’T GET A WHOLE LOT OF INTERVIEW REQUESTS.

For all his worldwide popularity, there aren’t a lot of interviews with Ross. It has nothing to do with the artist being publicity-shy—it’s just that people rarely asked. “I never turn down requests for interviews,” he once said. “I’m just rarely asked.”

27. HE WAS AN MTV PITCHMAN.

For all his hokey-ness, Ross was cool enough to be asked to be a pitchman for MTV—which he deemed “The land of happy little trees.”

28. NINTENDO HAD PLANNED A SERIES OF BOB ROSS VIDEO GAMES.

Though some thought it was an April Fools’ joke, Nintendo had plans to create a series of video games based on The Joy of Painting. Unfortunately, the project ran into production problems pretty early on, so we’ll never know what might have been.

29. THE JOY OF PAINTING IS GREAT FOR INSOMNIA.

In 2001, Bob Ross Inc. media director Joan Kowalski told The New York Times how people almost seemed embarrassed to admit that Ross’s voice was the perfect solution to insomnia. “It's funny to talk to these people,'' she said. ''Because they think they're the only ones who watch to take a nap. Bob knew about this. People would come up to him and say, 'I don't want to hurt your feelings, but you've been putting me to sleep for 10 years.' He'd love it.''

Even today, Ross has become an ASMR star: On the ASMR thread on Reddit, “Bob Ross” is listed as a common trigger. A video of Ross painting a mountain has a staggering 7.65 million views, with others regularly surpassing 2 or 3 million views. Of course, not all of those are ASMR viewers, but a mounting online presence suggests they certainly deserve some of the credit.

30. HE DIDN'T SELL HIS PAINTINGS.

In a 1991 interview with The New York Times, Ross claimed he'd made over 30,000 paintings since he was an 18-year-old stationed in Alaska with the Air Force. Yet he was not one to hawk his own work. So what happened to them? When Ross died of lymphoma in 1995, most of his paintings either ended up in the hands of charity or PBS.

“One of the questions that I hear over and over and over is, ‘What do we do with all these paintings we do on television?’ Most of these paintings are donated to PBS stations across the country,” he said. “They auction them off, and they make a happy buck with ‘em. So if you’d like to have one, get in touch with your PBS station, cause … we give them to stations all over the country to help them out with their fundraisers.”

31. ROSS’S VAN WAS ONCE BURGLED OF 13 PAINTINGS.

The fact that Ross didn’t try and turn a profit from his own work doesn’t mean that you can’t find one for sale. At one point, more than a dozen of his paintings hit the black market when someone stole 13 reference paintings from Ross’s van during the show's second season.

32. HE HOPED TO DEVELOP A CHILDREN’S SHOW ABOUT WILDLIFE.

In the early 1990s, Ross was looking to branch out from art and had an idea for a kids’ show called Bob’s World, where he planned to go out into nature and teach kids about wildlife.

33. IF YOU HAPPEN TO FIND YOURSELF IN FLORIDA, YOU CAN CHECK OUT SOME OF HIS ORIGINAL WORKS.

The Bob Ross Art Workshop in New Smyrna Beach, Florida is a must-visit destination for Ross die-hards: In addition to offering art classes in Ross’s method, you’ll find a collection of the artist’s original paintings.

34. YOU CAN VIEW MORE THAN 400 OF HIS WORKS IN ONE PLACE.

Two Inch Brush—named after Ross's brush of choice for the wet-on-wet technique—is an unofficial database that organizes all 403 paintings from The Joy of Painting by season and episode.

35. HE IS A FUNKO TOY.


Funko

In August 2017, Funko released a vinyl figurine of the iconic artist/television personality. It depicts Ross dressed in his trademark jeans and button-down shirt, holding a painter’s palette. Sadly, it doesn’t come with any miniature paintings of "happy little trees."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER