Iconic Painting – American Gothic
American Gothic is an iconic American painting by artist Grant Wood. Originally created in 1930, the painting is in a collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Inspiration for the painting is said to have been derived from Wood choosing what is known as the American Gothic House with “the kind of people that I fancied should live in that house.”
The historic painting depicts a farmer holding a pitchfork standing beside a woman in front of a depression-era house. The woman has been interpreted to be his daughter or wife and the figure’s in the painting were modeled by Wood’s sister Nan Wood Graham and his dentist Dr. Byron McKeeby. The woman is depicted in a colonial print apron reminiscent of 19th-century Americana, and the man is shown in a shirt, overalls and a jacket while holding a pitchfork. Interestingly, the plants on the porch of the house are beefsteak begonia and mother-in-law’s tongue, which are the same plants in Wood’s 1929 portrait of his mother Woman with Plants from 1929.
American Gothic is one of the most familiar and celebrated images of 20th-century American art and has been widely parodied in American pop culture.
Inspiration and Creation
Looking for artistic inspiration in August of 1930, Wood was driving around Eldon, Iowa with another painter, John Sharp, when he noticed the Dibble House – a small white house constructed in an architectural style known as Carpenter Gothic. Wood’s biographer, Darrell Garwood, later noted that Wood “thought it a form of borrowed pretentiousness, a structural absurdity, to put in a Gothic-style window in such a flimsy frame house.” At the time of the painting, Wood called it one of the “cardboardy frame houses on Iowa farms” and considered it “very paintable.” The following day, after getting permission from the house’s owners, the Jones family, Wood made a sketch in oil on paperboard while standing in the front yard of the property.
Wood wanted to paint the house with “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house” and recruited his sister Nan to pose as the woman and the man was modeled from his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Being embarrassed by being depicted as the wife of a man much older than herself, Nan told people that her brother had envisioned the pair as father and daughter, instead of the popular opinion they were supposed to be husband and wife. Wood later confirmed this sentiment in a letter addressed to a Mrs. Nellie Suddith in 1941, where he clearly states the woman in the painting is the man’s “grown-up daughter.”
After completing the painting, Wood entered it into a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The competition’s jury awarded Wood the bronze medal for third place and a $300 cash prize. The Art Institute offered to buy the painting and it soon began to reproduced in newspapers from Chicago, New York, Boston, Kansas City and Indianapolis, until finally appearing in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Iowans were not happy that Wood had painted them as “pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers.” Wood responded by saying that the painting was not a caricature of Iowans, but rather a depiction of his appreciation of the people of Iowa and that he “had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.”
American Gothic had very favorable opinions by art critics, however, and was seen as part of an artistic trend toward increasingly critical depictions of rural America of the time. The painting was said to be along the same lines as Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 “Winesburg, Ohio”, Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 “Main Street”, and Carl Van Vechten’s 1924 “The Tattooed Countess in Literature.”
With the onset of the Great Depression, American Gothic came to be seen as a depiction of steadfast American pioneer spirit. Wood contributed to this belief by renouncing his youthful days in Paris and aligning himself with populist Midwestern painters, such as John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton. These artists revolted against the dominance of the popular East Coast art circles of the time. Wood was quoted in this period as stating, “All the good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”