How American Gothic became an icon


It’s two people, a house, and some sky. Isn’t it a little overrated? Just a second, just a second… put down the three-tined pitchfork. So, I understand that Grant Wood made an incredible painting. You can see it in all the little details. Like how the pitchfork’s lines are repeated in the house, and farmer’s shirt. Or how there are complementary patterns in the window drapes, and the woman’s dress. The painting is technically complex. But look at this, this is what you get when you Google “American Gothic parody.” Pages and pages of the exact same joke. Star Wars, Minions… (giggles) … Minions. There are so many parodies. You don’t get everywhere from Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Janet,” to Mulan, “Not to mention they’ll lose the farm,” with nice lines alone. These parodies happened because there was something
bigger that made this painting so famous. And understanding the secret to American Gothic’s success actually helped me to appreciate it for the first time. Nobody would have guessed Grant Wood’s painting
would be a huge success. Born near Anamosa, Iowa, he grew up in the big city: Cedar Rapids. But in the 1920’s he frequently traveled to Europe. Impressionism was an inspiration. So was Pointillism. Older artists influenced him too. He said Jan van Eyck’s look changed his art. I think you can see it in these long, flat faces that Wood drew himself. The result of that traveling was a guy who was half European artiste, half Iowan farm boy. So, when Wood passed by this house in Eldon, Iowa, he saw something. Something gothic – that weird, slightly ominous window – and something American, too. He made sketches of the house, and enlisted his dentist, and yes, his sister, as models for the painting. There were some tweaks as the painting developed – the weeds in front of the house disappeared. The original rake became a pitchfork. Wood promised he’d elongate his sister’s face so she wasn’t recognized as the wife of this older dentist. Wood completed it in 1930. That year, the painting made its way to the Chicago
Art Institute, for a contest. But it got bronze. Third place. The first mention in The New York Times was dwarfed by
an ad for stomach acid medication. Wood sold American Gothic to the museum for $300. That’s the big question. How did a third place, $300 painting, featuring a dentist and the artist’s sister, turn into an icon? America changed a lot from 1880 to 1920. This chart shows all the jobs. The big one to notice is agriculture. In 1880, almost half of all Americans were on the farm. Now let’s go to 1920. Agriculture went from 48% to just 25%. In 1880, about 30% of Americans lived in cities. By 1920, it had jumped to more than half. America was split between city and country. In the 20’s and 30’s, city people started snarking. The critic H.L. Mencken is a good example. (Imagine Bill Maher, but more famous with 20 extra IQ points, and less pot.) Mencken called small town people the “booboisie.” This kind of thing was common. In 1920, Main Street was a hit novel that was basically about how
small towns stunk. American Gothic was perfectly balanced for this big, nasty fight. Some city people saw the couple as the “booboisie.” Some country people saw them as authentic Americans. Remember that blue and black dress, (or white and gold dress)
that went viral on Buzzfeed? That didn’t go viral because it was a great picture, it went viral because it was a great fight. In 1930, American Gothic wasn’t that different. Grant Wood knew what he was doing. This is Grant Wood’s 1935 self-portrait, Return from Bohemia. He’s trying to look like a solid Iowa artist. But he was always Bohemian, too. In 1932, Wood painted Daughters of the Revolution. He said it was his only satire. An American myth blocked by women clinking their tea cups. Or look at 1939’s Parson Weems’ Fable. It honors the story of George Washington refusing to lie
about chopping down a cherry tree. Then, the curtain pulls back. That American story is just something Parson Weems made up. Farmer, artist, real American, artistic snob. Grant Wood kept everybody guessing. If you think about it, his approach to art was not that different than all those stupid parodies that try to have it both ways. Half the time, they are honoring the painting, and the idea
of a solid American couple. And half the time they are calling it a joke. What the satirists might not realize, is that when Grant Wood
painted his sister and his dentist, in front of a house in Eldon, Iowa, he was doing the same thing. Just in case you were worried about Grant Wood’s sister
hating her famous portrait, she did convince her brother to paint another portrait, that was a little more glamorous and
probably a little more true to life.

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