“We should fear Grant Wood. Every artist and every school of artists should be afraid of him, for his devastating satire.” Gertrude Stein wrote those words after seeing American Gothic, the 1930 painting that would become one of the most iconic images created in the United States. Yet Wood himself “said he painted American Gothic to extol rural American values, real people in their well-ordered world: an image of reassurance during the onset of the Great Depression.” That’s how Art History School host Paul Priestley puts it in the video above, which asks of the painting, “Is it a satire, or a positive statement of American rural life?”
It could be neither; then again, it could be both. That very ambiguity goes some way to explaining American Gothic‘s success — as well as its persistence in the culture through frequent and unceasing parody. Yet in its day, the painting also angered some of its viewers: “An Iowan farmer’s wife who’d seen the picture in the papers in 1930 telephoned Wood to express her anger,” says Priestly.
“She claimed she wished to come over and smash his head for depicting her countrymen as grim Bible-thumpers.” Wood maintained that he was one of them, “dressing in rugged overalls after the painting was completed and telling the press, ‘All the really good ideas I’d ever had come to me while I was milking a cow.’
Yet Wood was no farmer. A son of Cedar Rapids, he traveled extensively to Europe to study Impressionism and post-Impressionism. There he first saw the work of Jan van Eyck, whose combination of visual clarity and complexity inspired him to develop the signature look and feel of the movement that would come to be known as Regionalism. He became “half European artiste, half Iowan farm boy,” as Vox’s Phil Edwards puts it in the video just above, all the better to straddle his homeland’s widening divide between town and country. “In 1880, almost half of all Americans were on the farm,” but by 1920 more than half the population lived in cities. American Gothic came a decade later, and most of a century thereafter, it still makes Americans ask themselves — earnestly or sardonically — just what kind of people they are.
What’s the Key to American Gothic’s Enduring Fame? An Introduction to the Iconic American Painting
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.