Why Is This Famous?: American Gothic

Did Grant Wood’s masterpiece champion the Bible Belt spirit, or satirize it?

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Sep 19, 2018

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Jan van Eyck

Grant Wood

In our series Why Is This Famous?, we aim to answer the unanswerable: How does a work actually enter the public consciousness? (See all installments.)

Just about every American can name Grant Wood’s 1930 painting American Gothic. For a work parodied almost as much as the Mona Lisa, you’d assume it has a clear message. After all, how else could it be so easily appropriated in advertisements, political cartoons, and greeting cards? And yet, even today art historians debate its most basic intentions.

American GothicGrant Wood
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Dissenting readings of a work rarely contradict each other so starkly as those contending for American Gothic. On one hand, we can take the image at face value: a depiction of the hard-working farm culture that endured the Great Depression (and championed President Hoover’s isolationist policies). On the other, we can see it as an argument against landlocked America: that it was unprogressive compared to the bohemian cultures of turn-of-the-century Europe, archaic compared to the rapidly industrializing New York. The painting’s fame ultimately stems from its chameleon-like ability to either appeal, satirize, venerate, champion, or expose Bible Belt America—depending on who you are and how you want to read the work.

Elite art critics of Wood’s time confidently asserted that the work was satirical, while institutions throughout the Midwest still attest that the painting displays a humble, admirable American attitude. Wood never clarified the debate. In fact, he once said, “there is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement.” Equally as unhelpful, he revealed that he was inspired to draw the figures only as the “kind of people I fancied should live in that house.”

Absorbing a “New Objectivity”

Wood is understood as the pioneer and leader of American Regionalism, an artistic movement of realist representations of the American Midwest and Deep South that rejected the Abstract movements developing in Europe and popular on the American East Coast. But what is lost in the common conception of him is that he actually found his painterly identity in Europe, where he adapted the style of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. In Europe, he was also able to embrace a distinctly bohemian lifestyle that was promptly discarded when he returned to conservative Iowa. It is of note that historians believe Wood was gay, while the mores of his hometown left no room for homosexuality.

The Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife Giovanna CenamiJan van Eyck
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Critics agree that the stark lines and minute details of American Gothic may be influenced by Northern Renaissance painters (such as Jan van Eyck), whose work he learned to admire while living in Munich. More controversial is the painting’s connection to other European movements. In the 1920s, “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity) rose to prominence in Germany. This movement also used harsh lines, seeking to parody the Weimar Republic’s corruption and reject Expressionism’s focus on romanticism and individuality; instead, it favored a more American attitude toward productivity and pragmatism. Wood was certainly aware of Neue Sachlichkeit when he painted American Gothic, but did he mean to emulate the style and embrace its political stance?

In some sense, America’s promise was turned inside out in 1929, the year before Wood painted American Gothic. As the stock market crashed, engendering the Great Depression, American Midwest farmers (who were far removed from its cause) suffered greatly. It’s certainly possible that Wood was drawing from the Neue Sachlichkeit movement to sardonically say, “this is the kind of America that foreigners admire.” But more traditional critics are quick to point out that the figures in American Gothic are too naturalistic and formal to draw a connection to the wonky, dark German paintings.

The Midnight Ride of Paul RevereGrant Wood
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While American Gothic may have saliently differed from the Neue Sachlichkeit style, some of Wood’s later paintings, like Death on Ridge Road (1935) and Spring in Town (1941), adhere more closely. These paintings, created during the height of the Great Depression, not only continue American Gothic’s individualism, they are darker, both visually and in subject. Some of Wood’s contemporary critics even stated that American Gothic was so rigid and conservative that it showed Wood was championing Europe’s rising fascism—a reading that contradicts any association with Neue Sachlichkeit (the movement’s works were deemed “degenerate” by the Nazi’s).

In conclusion, there is no conclusion

Critics are torn in their readings of American Gothic and Wood’s intentions. This likely mirrors Wood’s own conception of his home (one that is not uncommon among the general population)—multifaceted, tied up in conflicting emotion. Take just one strand of it and you’ll be missing the whole picture. Contradicting scholarly debates may leave us without a clear resolution, but they also allow multiple readings, even readings that waiver within a single viewer.

''Olevano'' by Alexander Kanoldt (1924), who was associated with Neue Sachlichkeit

And about that name

The work’s famous title refers to the architectural style of the home in the background. Gothic architecture is distinctly European, ornate, and ostentatious—but American Gothic style (now referred to as Carpenter Gothic to avoid confusion) rejects these sensibilities in favor of practicality and quaintness. The style does, however, adapt European Gothic revival in its tall, sharply angled, pointed roofs, and windows that draw the eye up, toward the heavens. It seems that Wood was not the only early 20th–century American who harbored a complex relationship with European visual culture.

Further reading: Behind That Humble Pitchfork, a Complex Artist, and The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” by Wanda M. Corn and Grant Wood.

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