American Gothic, by American artist Grant Wood, is one of the most famous paintings of all time. But what makes this artwork so well known, and who is it pictured within this scene? Here we examine the masterpiece in detail and touch on other highlights from this artist's career.
There is something truly haunting about American Gothic, from the stare given by the male figure on the right, to the menacing way in which he holds a pitchfork in our direction. The content also goes beyond just depicting a rural couple, but provides commentary on life in the American countryside more generally. The artist himself was brought up in such and environment and would regularly deliver portraits that captured the essence of these regions. It must be remembered that for many years American artists had tended to follow in the footsteps of the great European masters, both stylistically but also in the content that they covered. Grant Wood was highly knowledgeable on European art himself, but wanted to work in a manner which was patriotic and true to his home nation. His oeuvre would cover two main genres, the landscape of these communities, as well as the local characters themselves. Although he would never repeat the fame of American Gothic, he did continue to achieve success in multi-figured portraits which continued to expand his coverage of life in counties such as Iowa. It is rare to find an artist who is almost entirely known for one artwork, when normally their exposure is spread around a good number of different paintings across their artistic development.
The image of the two figures in front of us here will remain in your memory for years to come, such is the unique atmosphere of the piece. Parodies of it have been common, particularly in recent years, but it has never lost its considerable respect from academics. The piece has been loaned out by its current owners several times in order to recognise the international audience which continue to laud its qualities. Despite Grant Wood being dismissed by most European art critics during his own lifetime, this piece has been treated much more favourably. There is a sense that it perfectly delivers the mood of rural life in the US, the community and it's way of life, providing a multitude of layers to this artwork that many would not initially be aware of. Wood was often seen as a little old fashioned in the early 20th century, at a time when so many new and exciting contemporary art styles were appearing, but today he is judged more fairly and within the context of American art history as a whole. It would take some time for American art to be respected on the international stage, but artists like Grant Wood helped to bring that about a little faster.
The information below drills down into specific details about the artwork itself, as well as the artist who created it. You will discover more on the two figures found in the painting, as well as the house on which the painting is named. There is also a larger image of it, allowing fans to see elements more closely. There is also some discussion about the artist's life in Iowa, and the way in which he focused on rural American life across his career. Although Grant Wood had to fight hard for acceptance during his own lifetime, his legacy remains strong today and many different elements from his local community have been named after him, including a ship. He was an important contributor to the rise of American art, providing something different to rival European ideas and to place the young country on the cultural map. He would later be joined by many other famous names who followed on in the next few decades, helping to solidify America's position within the art scene of the western world. American Gothic itself has become known as one of the truly iconic images of western art, dating back to before even the early stages of the Renaissance.
Grant Wood, who produced American Gothic in 1930, was a Regionalist artist who focused on the rural communities across the US. His earliest employment was as an artist within the military but he would go on to set up as a professional independent artist with his own studio. His oeuvre is filled with portraits of locals from his native Iowa as well as landscape scenes which capture the rolling hills of this attractive environment. Wood himself was born into a farming community and so understood the mentality of this region perfectly. Although he spent several years learning artistic ideas across Europe in the 1920s, he would return to the US and continued to focus on native content. American Gothic arrived relatively early in his career, and was one of his best examples in how he could precisely capture the mood of those living around him. It may have been his travels abroad which made some of these intricate details clearer to him. He would become highly regarded within Iowa and has been bestowed many awards in his name in the years that have passed since his career took hold. The artwork shown here has, by itself, raised his reputation and prominence from notable national artist to an internationally known painter.
Description of the Painting
This iconic image shows two figures in the foreground, a young woman to the left and an older man on the right. They are from the farming community, as represented by the pitchform which the gentleman brandishes in a somewhat aggressive manner, with its prongs pointing upwards. They wear matching expressions, with tight lips and an unfriendly demeanor. Behind them we then can see a small residential home, covered in white wooden beams. The residence appears entirely tidy and respectable, but there lacks a welcoming feeling to these individuals. Several trees are shown in the background, along with some subtle touches of Christianity and some other buildings. This places us within a rural setting, though with a community that has settled here. The sky is left bright blue, without a single cloud. Besides the figure's expressions, their clothing was also carefully chosen by the artist - their attire builds the atmosphere of this region of the US, whilst also being styled conservatively. Stoicism can be seen here, a strength of will to continue through the problems being faced in the US at this time and Grant Wood was proud of those around him within Iowa who had battled on throughout.
American Gothic is certainly much more than just a portrait, for it depicts life itself within rural America. Whilst some have rejected the piece as unfair on the community of Iowa, the artist himself always was clear in that the image was intended as a complementary gesture to the region. He saw a strength of character to be respected and was perhaps surprised by how many people were offended by the image. The problem got worse when other publications within the US started to print the image as a way of disrespecting rural life, and the same attitude would start to spread into literature within the 1930s. One could argue that, whatever the intentions of the artist at the time, some of these negative views have even continued up to the present day and perhaps contributed to the fragmented nature of American society within the present day.
"I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa... In general, I have found, the people who resent the painting are those who feel that they themselves resemble the portrayal..."
Medium and Size
The painting itself is sized at 78 cm in height, by 65.3 cm in width (30+3⁄4 inches by 25+3⁄4 inches). It was completed using oil on beaverboard, with the artist rarely using standard canvases. Grant Wood also made use of masonite for his artworks fairly regularly and presumably found these two types of materials fairly easy to come by in rural USA. In terms of his own technical knowledge, Grant Wood tried out many different mediums in the early stages of his careeer as he sought to stretch his artistic ideas across many projects, and he would also learn the methods of the old masters during his time in Europe. American Gothic is a fairly simple composition, and so the artist would have realised that he did not need a particularly large area in which to add the required detail, as we essentially have a two figure portrait, with elements of architecture in the background. The beauty of this artwork is more about the atmosphere that he creates with the expressions of the figures, rather than delivering extraordinary levels of detail.
American Gothic, 1930, can be found in the permanent collection of the Chicago Art Institute, USA. At the time of writing, the painting is on view to the public in the Arts of the Americas Room, Gallery 263.The provenance of the artwork is fairly straight forward, having been sold directly to the Chicago gallery in November 1930 from Grant Wood himself. They give credit to the Friends of American Art Collection, as providing assistance to the institution in its acquisition all those years ago. The Chicago Art Institute, in recognising the international fame of American Gothic, have been very generous in allowing the artwork to be loaned out many times around the country to other galleries and museums, as well as abroad too. The piece has recently been seen in London, at the Royal Academy as well as the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris, France. Curators understand that this piece alone can be a big draw for those who do not often get the chance to see it in person, and so many international galleries will be willing to exchange items for a period of time in order to loan this piece in for a particular exhibition.
The artist came across a wooden farmhouse whilst travelling around his native Iowa. It would provide the inspiration for this painting, and the architecture was known as Carpenter Gothic, hence the artwork's title of American Gothic. It is believed that he came across the building whilst in the town of Eldon and this composition would immediately bring this small American town to the world's attention. Having seen the building itself, Grant Wood considered how the portrait subjects might look to match the style of the architecture, and set about finding the right models to achieve that look. He particularly wanted an elongated facial structure, perhaps to fit the shapes of the window at the front of the house. From the artist's point of view, the figures themselves, as well as the solid home sitting behind them, would represent a local success story, even though critics would later misconstrue the meaning of his work. Wood deliberately adds an additional building to the right hand side in order to give the impression of a town setting, rather than the alternatives atmosphere brought about by a couple possibly being much more cut off from the rest of the community.
"...I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house..."
Nan Wood Graham was the female model for this painting, and she stands to the left hand side within this simple composition. She was the sister of the artist and so was intended to be seen as the daughter within American Gothic, rather than as the wife as many have since assumed. The older man to the right was modelled by Grant Wood's dentist, Dr Byron McKeeby. The artist had a very clear image is his mind as to how these two should look, and so carefully planned everything in the painting, including their clothing. They were to represent the types of figures that he came across in old photos albums, solid and respectable but without much visible life in their faces. They both stand up right, with lips closed. Their series expressions are joined by conservative clothing, with plain details and a lack of flair. This is the life that they know, and they make no apologies for it. Wood was complementary to them in this painting, though through the lens of modern society, some have assumed him to have been taking more of a critical view of life in rural America. Several photographs of both models for American Gothic have been uncovered over the years since this painting was finished and these have helped to underline how their appearances were heavily influenced by the artist for the purposes of this particular piece.
When was American Gothic painted?
American Gothic was painted by Grant Wood in 1930. In the same year he also produced Arnold Comes of Age snf Stone City, Iowa, whilst the following year he was even more productive, with titles such as Appraisal, Young Corn, Fall Plowing, The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, West Branch, Iowa, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and Plaid Sweater. Grant Wood would have been in his very late thirties at the time that he painted American Gothic and close to his peak at that point. Sadly, his career would only last around another decade because of his early death at the age of 50 in 1942. Although this was during WWII, he actually passed away due to cancer, for which he was in hospital at the time in order to receive treatment.
Other Famous Paintings by Grant Wood
Stone City, Iowa, Young Corn and Fall Plowing are amongst the best examples of Grant Wood's landscape paintings. They offer bright palettes with contemporary forms and present his local area in a positive manner. There is nothing of the toil that one might find elsewhere on agricultural topics, where peasants work so hard for little return. There is an abundance of space and light, with people living simple but relatively happy lives. We can then examine some of his more famous portraits which, like American Gothic, provide an intimate view into the lives of ordinary folk. Daughters of Revolution, Woman with Plants and Arnold Comes of Age are some good examples of that and we immediately witness a relatively reserved set of personalities on show. The happiness of the landscape scenes is replaced by a slight melancholy in many of these artworks, as people's gazes drift off into the background, just as was common at that time. The Appraisal is perhaps the best example of where Grant Wood diverged from this atmosphere and provided a more upbeat view of local people, as two women interact in bright sunshine.
Large Image of American Gothic
In order to enjoy some of the finer details, we have included a larger image of the painting below. This will allow you to see more of the two figures themselves, as well as the house which sits behind. It is a memorable piece which most art followers are already aware of, even if they have not studied the rest of Grant Wood's career yet. Those fortunate enough to do so, should visit the piece in person in order to really understand why American Gothic is just so famous today. It remains at the Chicago Art Institute and is amongst the highlights of their impressive collection. This important institution also hosts a number of exhibitions which run for several months at a time and this helps to freshen up the display for regular visitors who may live locally. They will offer print reproductions for some of their most popular pieces, so that followers can enjoy them on their own walls for minimal cost. One will normally find the room that holds this particular painting to be amongst the busiest, because of how the work is known and understood by even the most occasional art follower.