Grant Wood will always be most famous for his iconic artwork, American Gothic. But in truth, there is much more to his career than just that one painting and he is particularly respected for how he depicted rural life in the US in the early 20th century.
The artist's career has fallen in and out of fashion since his death in the early 1940s. His approach was considered charming but some, but too traditional for others. In today's world there is plenty of room for different views and artistic approaches, and slowly over time more of his oeuvre has started to emerge. He is rightly regarded as an important American painter who offered something different both in style and content. He appealed directly to the more patriotic of Americans, working at a time when most other artists within the country would focus on city life or even European influences instead. The types of characters that appear in some of his portraits would have seemed uninteresting to other artists but Grant Wood's roots were in the farming community and he never lost this connection with rural communities. The majority of his work therefore falls between landscape and portrait paintings, displaying the rolling fields of his local environment as well as some of the people who were employed upon it. During a time now of internationalisation of many things, there are plenty of Americans who see Grant Wood's paintings as an opportunity to revert back to simpler times.
The artist would work mainly in oil on masonite across his career but there were also periods in which he took on other mediums. Quite a variety appeared in his early years as an artist, just as he had set up as a professional artist. There were also many charcoal and graphite drawings from his time working in the military, where his other technical abilities were developed and displayed. Although the artist loved Europe and visited several times in order to expand his understanding of art history, he would over time play on his proud American status and would attempt to quieten talk of his interest in other cultures. This helped to build his career at a time when Americans were fiercely defending and promoting their own nationality and seeking to find similar attitudes within American art. His work was highly regarded across the US but struggled for acceptance abroad, partly due to the general rejection by Europeans of homegrown American art at that time. His American Gothic, however, has ensured a place in history and very few artists in the world have produced an artwork as famous as this.
There are many examples in the US today of how their artistic son is remembered and revered. He is particularly well known in his native Iowa where many different organisations and places have taken his name. Although his popularity is mainly confined to the US, his iconic artwork from 1930 has become one of the most recognisable paintings in the art world, and ensures that his legacy will never be forgotten. It also helps to capture the essence of rural America, along with a number of other paintings which continued this theme, such as The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Young Corn, Daughters of Revolution and Fall Plowing. Wood opened the door for other regional artists who could start to build careers of their own, with some also going on to achieve national reputations too. The artist also had a slightly unique style which brought in many different influences and he was memorable for his eccentric use of perspective within some of his landscape paintings, as well as some innovative cropping techniques used in group portraits. He fused together European and American techniques, but in terms of content was entirely devoted to his native land.
Grant Wood was born in the region of Anamosa, Iowa, USA on the 13th of February, 1891. He was brought up in a very rural area where farming communities dominated and this would later influence his own artistic direction. He enrolled in the The Handicraft Guild where he received an introduction to many artistic techniques. By his early twenties the artist was to be found at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and his career would soon start to take off. Intially, he worked for the military as an artist on various projects during WWI before returning to live with his mother and start up as a professional artist, with a makeshift studio. It would take quite some time to achieve any level of financial or critical success, but it is important to remember that his iconic American Gothic arrived as early as 1930, immediately marking Wood out as an artist with some potential. Whilst continuing to paint he would also help teach art to others which ensured some a regular income and he realised that his region of the US was not cut out for artists to succeed without considerable hard work alongside any merit they might have. Wood spent many years fusing together an interesting mixture of influences which collectively helped him to deliver a unique body of work.
Grant Wood went on a passage of discovery around Europe in the 1920s which broadened his artistic mind considerably. It would have been quite a culture shock to have travelled from rural Iowa to some of the cultural hotspots of Europe but the ambitious young man took up the challenge with great zeal. Between the years of 1922 to 1928 he would visit on four different occasions and would study many different artistic periods in detail in order to maximise the impact of these trips on his own development. We do know that he spent time living in France and this period brought him most in contact with Impressionist and Post-Impressionism. One can argue that this may have influenced him in deciding to focus on landscape art, but in truth, as someone who grew up in a rural area, it was perhaps inevitable. Additionally, the bright colours palettes of the Impressionists may also have influenced how he worked later on. One specific artist who we know did leave a great impact on the artist was Jan van Eyck, a North European painter from many centuries previous who was also key in establishing the use of oils as the main medium for painters across Europe.
The movement of Regionalism was fundamentally based on Realism, but with a particular focus on rural communities within the US. They did, however, allow some variation on style within the group and it became more of an umbrella term for the content that they used, rather than a style. Grant Wood used bright tones and playful techniques to produce charming scenes of his local landscape, often with perspectives that were not as precise as one might have expected. The hills would be rounder and deeper than in real life, and some of his trees had a cartoon-like form to them. This approach attracted as much praise as it did derision, but Wood carried on regardless. He had attempted to fuse elements of European art with American society together and achieved success in some iterations of this fusion. Hs portraits would also draw us in to his world, bringing local characters to life and allowing us to understand his community, for better and for worse. The nature of his work was contemporary for the time and still works well today, particularly his landscape paintings, and consequently prints of his work are still regularly requested today.
The majority of Grant Wood's paintings were produced using oil on masonite. He would have followed in the footsteps of most painters in America at this time in using oils, which was established as the main tool across the western world. Masonite is an engineered wood that can be used relatively cheaply for artists and it was this artist's favoured material, as an alternative to traditional, natural wood panels or the more popular stretched canvases. He also used beaver board as well for some of his earlier creations, and this was a form of fiberboard building material which may have also been readily available in Iowa at that time. Clearly, budget was a concern for the artist and for much of his career he would have to be careful in how he budgeted for all of his materials. He would have been aware of how the old masters would often create their own oils but preferred to work in a more modern manner, sourcing suitable materials locally and achieving the best results that he could but without laying out too much money. We are not currently aware of any watercolours within his career, but he would have been aware of the medium from other American artists, as well as from his travels to France in the 1920s.
Grant Wood was known to have been taken by the incerdible precision of Jan van Eyck, as well as a number of other members of the Northern Renaissance, whilst visiting Europe. He would also spend time relaxing in the artistic haven of Paris, where an entirely different lifestyle would suck him in for a period. However, he was always proudly American and the biggest influence on his artistic style would have to be the environment in which he was brought up, namely Iowa. Not just the rolling hills filled with agricultural workers, but also the people themselves, the relationships that he had, and the somewhat traditionally-minded characters that made up these small towns. He would poke fun at them sometimes, frustrated by their lack of progression, but he also loved his roots dearly at felt it necessary to record them within his paintings when few others were doing so. Aside from that, we also know that he took an interest in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, both of which transitioned over to the US eventually. Because of the strong focus, almost obsession, that the media has had for his major artwork, American Gothic, it is perhaps inevitable that other parts of his career, including the influences that shaped his approach, have not received as much attention as they really deserve.
American Gothic is comfortably Grant Wood's most famous painting. It arrived in 1930, at the very start of his time as a professional painter, though he had been working as an artist prior to that on various projects. Aside from that iconic piece, other memorable pieces include the likes of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Daughters of Revolution and Fall Plowing, with landscapes and portraits dominating his oeuvre. The artist would also leave behind a good number of detailed drawings, some of which were study pieces for later paintings, as well as lithographic prints which offered him an additional income in his later years. Most who look beyond his iconic painting from 1930 will remember him most for the rolling hills that can be found sweeping across his landscape scenes, with small American towns reduced to charming houses and an almost cartoon-like style. In today's modern world it is this type of style which can attract many and the majority of his best known works can be found within major US art galleries and musuems, including the Met and the Chicago Art Institute.
Grant Wood is believed to have been gay, but was forced to hide this fact from society for his whole life. During this traditional time within the US, it would have caused him considerable problems, both personally and professionally, if he had outed himself. There are several items of evidence from his past which suggest that he was gay, and it is unfortunate that this caused him to have to hide part of his life. He got a taste of what could happen if he was more open about his sexuality when he worked for a University. A colleague attempted to have him removed, after suspecting his hidden secret, but thankfully Grant Wood was able to overcome this attack on that occasion. It would, not doubt, have reminded him of the hostile nature of life for homosexuals in the US at that time, and so forced him to continue his policy of silence. He did marry a lady, that said, in 1935 but there relationship was shortlived, and this was most likely due to the reasons given here. They separated after three years together. Some historians have argued that Wood's friends actually realised that he was gay, but loved their friend and were happy to go along with his ruse, for his own wellbeing.
Grant Wood was a major figure within the American Regionalism movement. It was an offshoot of Realism, though with many elements from modern art incorporated into it. Another unique element to Regionalism was its strong focus on rural and small-towns in the midwest of America, which was not an area that many artists had previously covered. Artists such as Wood were therefore exposing parts of American society that city dewllers may not have been particularly aware of, helping to boost their identities and feeling of relevance within the nation. They also represented traditional values that some felt had been forgotten, in a similar way to what is happening in the country today. It was an important but relatively short lived movement, lasting just around a decade in the 1930s, closing in the 1940s. Despite that short time span, there were many elements to it which survived to the present day and the fame achieved by American Gothic has helped to keep it fresh in our minds. Alongside Wood, other respected contributors to it included Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, whilst talented illustrator Norman Rockwell has also been linked to this group.
Iowa continues to celebrate its famous son in a number of ways, with his estate having been passed over to the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa after the death of his sister. World War II Liberty Ship SS Grant Wood is perhaps the most famous celebration of his career, but his legacy within Iowa is real and genuine because of how his work also promoted the region. The highlights from his career have been dispersed further afield into some major museums and art galleries around the country, which has helped other regions to become aware of his important contributions, as well as seeing first-hand the beauty of the countryside and the people within this particular region. Despite some derision from Europe at the time, he has helped give American artists confidence in following their own path and not to be forced into replicating European styles as had been common before, even though he himself was highly complementary of their great masters himself. His strongest legacy was in laying the groundwork for American artists across later decades to dominate international art, and start to compete in equal terms against their European counterparts for the very first time.
Grant Wood died on the 12th of February, 1942. He was only fifty years of age and was being treated for pancreatic cancer at the Iowa City university hospital. He was later bried at the Riverside Cemetery, Anamosa, Iowa. Several items within the local community have since been dedicated to the artist and his reputation remains as strong as ever today, more than eighty years after his passing. The success of American Gothic has established Wood as a major American artist for centuries to come, though many today are also aware of some of his other famous works.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.