‘American Gothic’ is among the most recognisable paintings in the world. You might be familiar with it, having seen the many parodies made of it, but do you know who painted it or what was the inspiration for many of its elements? If you are not an avid follower of art history, this famous American painting might just be “that painting with the creepy people standing in front of a house”.
Like many works of art, ‘American Gothic’ took a life of its own once it was seen by the world. Since it’s creation in 1930 by American artist Grant Wood, people have bestowed it with meanings and interpretations that were probably far from what the artist intended.
‘The couple in front of the house have become preppies, yuppies, hippies, Weathermen, pot growers, Ku Klux Klaners, jocks, operagoers, the Johnsons, the Reagans, the Carters, the Fords, the Nixons, the Clintons…’Robert Hughes, Art Critic
As the decades have passed, ‘American Gothic’ has been read through the lens of different ideologies and world events. But perhaps few of us know some of these interesting facts behind the American masterpiece.
1. The woman in the painting was modelled by the artist’s sister Nan Wood Graham who was also an artist as well as an art teacher. The man was modelled (rather reluctantly) by the family’s dentist Dr. Byron McKeeby.
2. Grant Wood claimed that the people in the painting were meant to be a farmer and his daughter– not a husband and wife as many people thought it to be. However, some people believe that Wood was pressured by his sister to say so as she disliked the idea of being paired up with an older man, even if it was in just a painting.
3. The house in the painting is inspired by an actual house that the artist saw while in Eldon, Iowa. The Dibble House, as it’s called, still exists today. According to one of Wood’s biographers, the artist thought the house was rather pretentious with Gothic-style windows on a “flimsy frame house”.
4. The painting gets its name from the neo-Gothic architecture of the house. The Dibble House is built in the Carpenter Gothic architectural style.
“Carpenter Gothic is an eclectic and naive use of the most superficial and obvious motifs of Gothic decoration. Turrets, spires, and pointed arches were applied, in many instances with abandon, and there was usually no logical relationship of ornamentation to the structure of the house.”Britannica.com
5. Grant Wood painted the his sister, the dentist and the house in separate sessions.
6. The plants on the house’s porch are mother-in-law’s tongue and beefsteak begonia. These plants also appear in another painting by Wood– ‘Woman with Plants’.
7. The artist’s signature (in pale blue) can be seen in the bottom right corner of the farmer’s overalls.
8. The shape of the prongs of the hayfork is also echoed in the lines of the farmer’s overalls as well as the lines of the house. The pattern on the woman’s apron is similar to the pattern on the curtains.
9. When Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, he won the bronze medal and a $300 cash prize. Not all the judges loved his work though. One judge described it as a “comic valentine”.
10. The painting gained popularity once it started being reproduced in newspapers across the US. When it was printed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette however, it faced the ire of a lot of Iowans who thought the painting was mocking them by depicting them as “grim-faced” and “puritanical”.
11. Many art critics too believed that Wood was attempting to criticise rural America. Wood insisted that it was quite the opposite. In a letter written in 1941, he wrote: “In general, I have found, the people who resent the painting are those who feel that they themselves resemble the portrayal.”
12. With the onset of the Great Depression, the painting began to take on new meaning. ‘American Gothic’ started to be seen as a homage to the pioneering spirit of rural Americans.
13. Some people believe that ‘American Gothic’ expresses a lot of grief, perhaps even some of the grief that Grant Wood still felt after losing his father when he was only 10 years old. In a 2010 interpretation, art historian Tripp Evans points out: [It is an] “old-fashioned mourning portrait… Tellingly, the curtains hanging in the windows of the house, both upstairs and down, are pulled closed in the middle of the day, a mourning custom in Victorian America. The woman wears a black dress beneath her apron, and glances away as if holding back tears. One imagines she is grieving for the man beside her.”
‘American Gothic’ is currently displayed at The Art Institute of Chicago, and it’s a painting I one day hope to see in person. What do you think about ‘American Gothic’? What do you think it’s grown to symbolise? Let us know in the comments.
[Parody images courtesy of americagothicparodies.com]