By Margot Clark-Junkins
Artist Grant Wood’s painting <American Gothic> has long been considered an icon of American art. It has been interpreted by some as an indictment of the Puritanical characters who always seem to populate small towns, and by others to be a portrait of America’s hard-working citizens and their proud, pioneering spirit. While either interpretation may be true, what we learn from the exhibit “Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is that there is much more to the artist and his paintings than we ever realized.
Wood (1891-1942), who was born and raised in Iowa, completed <American Gothic> in 1930 and was awarded a $300 prize by the Art Institute of Chicago. It was painted at a particularly difficult time in America, when the country was coping with the Depression while watching the rise of fascism in Europe. The couple depicted in the painting were not married, as we often assume. The man in overalls holding a pitchfork was the artist’s dentist and the younger woman standing beside him wearing an apron over her Sunday-best was the artist’s sister, Nan. Wood posed them squarely in front of a quintessentially American farmhouse with a Gothic-style window.
In view of the couple’s lackluster expressions and tame backdrop, one might wonder why the painting was ever considered iconic. “From the painting’s debut onward, its meaning has been the subject of endless speculation,” notes curator Barbara Haskell. The exhibition at the Whitney has attracted a great deal of attention, perhaps because, as she writes in the exhibit catalogue, “what has remained essential is its seeming embodiment of something stereotypically American.” And what it means to be an American is much on our minds these days, too.
Wood’s father died when he was 10. After completing high school, the artist attended a guild school in Minneapolis, learning how to hand-craft decorative objects, and then formed his own guild, Volund Crafts, in Park Ridge, Illinois, in 1914. Two years later, he returned home to Cedar Rapids, establishing himself fairly quickly as a painter. Living in a small town in the Midwest, he kept his homosexuality a secret.
Between 1920 and 1928, Wood took four trips to Europe. His earlier paintings reflect an interest in the type of brushwork employed by the French Impressionists, but he was more greatly influenced by Northern Renaissance painters like Hans Memling and Albrecht Dürer, masters of minute detail, smooth surfaces, and clean lines. His rapid acquisition of a range of techniques gave him confidence, as did an increasing number of clients.
By the late 1920s, Wood was fine-tuning what he considered to be a Regional style, one that could be considered not only uniquely his own, but uniquely American. “By the time he painted <American Gothic>,” Haskell writes, “he had concluded that the hard-edge precision and meticulous detail…could be used to convey a distinctly American quality, especially suggestive of the Midwest. Joined with Iowan subject matter, it became the basis of his signature style.”
After 1930, Wood’s creative output increased significantly, which turned out to be imperative because his life would be cut short by pancreatic cancer at the age of 50. The exhibit features some remarkably detailed and often archly humorous portraits (<American Golfer>, 1940), as well as many sensuous landscapes (<Spring Turning>, 1936). One of his more famous works, <Parson Weems’ Fable>, 1939), depicts George Washington as a man-boy, caught in the act of cutting down a cherry tree; it is a good example of Wood’s exploration of American ideals and of the smooth, flat style he employed in his mature works.
Viewers are also treated to several richly dark lithograph prints (<Shrine Quartet>, 1939, among them), a variety of bookcover designs, and even a Time magazine cover. The charcoal studies that Wood prepared for each of his paintings can easily stand alone as fully-realized works of art. He was also adept with chalk, graphite, gouache, and watercolor; he designed textiles and once provided Steuben with a sketch for an etched glass vase.
The exhibition underscores how little we once knew about <American Gothic> and its creator, Grant Wood — the depth of his talents, his hidden homosexuality and how that may have influenced his work, his abiding interest in American ideals and democracy. He deserves our attention as a major figure in the pantheon of American art.
The Whitney Museum of American Art is open every day but Tuesday and open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The exhibit runs through June 10. For more information, visit www.whitney.org or call 212-570-3600.
Grant Wood, <The American Golfer>,1940, oil on board
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark.
Grant Wood, <American Gothic>,1930, oil on composition board
Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection
© Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Photograph courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY
Grant Wood, <Parson Weems’ Fable>,1939, oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
© Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, NY, NY
Grant Wood, <ShrineQuartet>,1939, lithograph
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Gift of Arthur G. Altschul
Grant Wood, <Spring Turning>,1936, oil on composition board
Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, N.C.
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, NY, NY.
Image courtesy Reynolda House Museum of American Art