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“American Gothic,” Iowa’s most famous work of art

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“American Gothic” by Grant Wood is what one art historian called “America’s Most Famous Painting,” and in fact, one of the most recognizable paintings in the world.  It is also the subject of diverse interpretations and the source of countless parodies.

In 1930, the director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids, partnered with town of Eldon in southeastern Iowa to sponsor an art exhibit.  Grant Wood, an artist living in Cedar Rapids, was recruited to assist in the project and traveled to Eldon where he was driven around town by an local eighteen-year-old boy with an interest in learning to paint.  It was on this trip the Wood first saw the little white house built in what is called the Carpenter Gothic style for its vertical lines and peaked roof.  What especially caught Wood’s eye was the upstairs Gothic window that he judged to be ostentatious for such an otherwise plain design.

Placing a couple standing rigidly in front of their house (or farm) draws on a tradition of rural photography of which Wood was familiar.  Many photos exist of rural families displaying their houses, barns, livestock and machinery.  Wood chose his sister Nan to pose as the woman and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, as the farmer.  He did not intend them to be husband and wife but, as he stated in a letter, a father and “his grown-up daughter.” The couple did not stand together as Wood painted them into the scene.  Dr. McKeeby actually posed in his doctor’s office.

Like many of Wood’s paintings, there is scrupulous attention to detail.  In his original sketch, the man is holding a rake, not a pitchfork, but he changes that to a three-tined fork, the kind used to pitch threshing bundles.  The pattern in the man’s overalls matches the shape of the pitchfork he’s holding.    The pattern in the woman’s dress is repeated in the curtains in the upstairs window.  Wood told his sister to slick back her hair.  Because the trim she wanted for the dress was out of style and no longer available, she removed from one of her mother’s old dresses.  The Gothic window is centered precisely between the two head of the couple.  The brooch at her neck was also her mother’s.

Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago where it won $300 dollars and the Bronze Medal for third prize.  The Institute purchased the painting for that amount, and it today is perhaps its premier art piece. Its reception in the art world and the public was controversial from the very first.  Cedar Rapids residents resented the sour, joyless couple that many art critics took to represent Wood’s attitude toward rural Iowa.  As the Depression deepened through the 1930s, however, the painting came to symbolize the resilience and solid values of the region.  It also came to be the subject of numerous parodies in advertising and popular culture.

In 1974, the house was put on the National Historic Register of Historic Places.  In 1991, its owner at the time, Carl E. Smith, donated the property to the State Historical Society of Iowa that today owns and manages the property.  While visitors are encouraged to have their picture taken standing where the couple would have been standing, they are not allowed into the interior of the house.  A Visitor Center nearby houses related exhibits, a gift shop, and visitor services.

“American Gothic” is the most well-known art work ever produced in the State of Iowa, whatever one thinks the couple represents.

For Further Reading

Steven Biel, “American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting”. New York, W. W. Norton  Company, 2005.

For more information

American Gothic House
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art Grant Wood Studio