This American life...

American Gothic by Grant Wood

American // Regionalism
Painted with oil paints on a 62.4 x 74.3 cm canvas
Currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, USA

American Gothic is by far Grant Wood’s most famous painting, and it’s also one of the most recognizable works of the 20th century. Wood painted it in 1930 and it wasn’t long before the parodies started to emerge – however, it wasn’t always received with such admiration. Throughout the 1900s, many made claims that Wood was mocking the intolerance and rigidity of rural lifestyle and locals of Iowa were furious at their depiction as “pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers”, but in actual fact Woods had no such satirical plan for the painting. Instead, Wood was really paying homage to the Puritan ethics and virtues, which he believed gave the Midwestern character its dignity and which he admired.

The title “American Gothic” was inspired by the American Gothic style home that can be seen in the background, and it’s the house that was the first star of the painting. Woods spotted it on a visit to Iowa and sketched it on the spot – later having the house photographed so that he could reference its architecture.

Posing for the girl was Wood’s sister Nan, and their family dentist took the place on the right to model for the man. There is some ambiguity around whether it is supposed to be husband and wife or a farmer and his spinster daughter for the characters. Woods’ himself remains fairly silent on this point and its been suggested that it was his sister who earnestly pushed for the father / daughter angle after being embarrassed to be portrayed as the wife of a man who is clearly much older than her.

It wasn’t until the Great Depression that people started to take the painting a bit more seriously. It came to represent – not the satirical joke on rural life as previously proclaimed – but a celebration of American virtue and the “Pioneer spirit” that Americans felt embodied them at that time. However, it was also this seriousness of “Authentic Americans” that first gave rise to the parodies – The first instance came from a photographer in 1942 who photographed a cleaning woman holding a broom in front of an American flag and called it American Gothic. Since then, there have been countless parodies in movies, music, art and even cartoons.

The house itself still remains the star of the show with people today flocking to get their own interpretation of an American Gothic pose out the front.

All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.

― Grant Wood