Opinion  April 15, 2021  Mary M. Lane

Reframed: Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”

Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Grant Wood, detail of American Gothic, 1930. The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection.

In the summer of 1930, Grant Wood, then age 39, was traveling through the rural town of Eldon, Iowa, searching for artistic inspiration. He spotted a white wooden house in a gothic style, quite at odds with the traditional farmhouses surrounding it. Mesmerized, the native Iowan took in the source material for one of the most widely recognizable and parodied artworks in U.S. history: American Gothic.

Courtesy Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, S7.24.

Unidentified photographer, Nan Wood Graham and Dr. B. H. McKeeby Next to American Gothic, Art Institute of Chicago, Undated (circa 1942). Gelatin silver print. 11 x 14 inches.

Returning to Cedar Rapids, Grant enlisted his dentist, Dr. B. H. McKeeby, to play the role of “male farmer,” painting an accurate portrait of the doctor’s staid and somber stare. For the role of “female farmer,” Wood’s sister Nan, a chic blonde barely thirty years old, endured her brother’s dowdy depiction.

The work received only the bronze prize for the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual Norman Wait Harris Award, but it catapulted Wood to both fame and infamy in his day.

Wood, a proud midwesterner, was “firing back at what he [saw] as East Coast elitism,” noted AIC American art curator Sarah Kelly Oehler to Art & Object.

Exhibited months after the devastating 1929 global financial crisis, American Gothic hit a nerve with struggling, working-class Americans who bristled, not without reason, at East Coast elites who saw the work as proof that midwesterners were backward rednecks. Assuming Wood was not one of them, angry midwestern housewives penned a flurry of angry missives to editors across the country.

Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Grant Wood, detail of American Gothic, 1930. The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection.

Over the decades, American Gothic has spawned numerous parodies of famous political couples, including the Clintons and Reagans.

Perhaps the most recent reincarnation, however, proves that the work’s original theme has come full circle: a meme from January 2019 of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, two coastal elites, scolding Trump and his supporters for holding backwoods, backward values.

About the Author

Mary M. Lane

Mary M. Lane is an art market journalist, an art historian, and the author of Hitler's Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich. Reach her on Twitter: MaryLaneWSJ and Instagram: MaryLaneAuthor

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