Arguably, the most disquieting of Wood’s works is American Gothic
—the lynchpin of the Whitney exhibition and a painting so popular that it has been parodied
by everyone from Time
magazine to The Simpsons
. At first glance, it may seem like a straightforward portrait of a farmer and his wife. But like all of Wood’s paintings, a deeper investigation reveals fascinating cultural and psychological complexities—clues to why the work has fascinated audiences for almost a century.
“What makes his work so mesmerizing? I think it’s a psychological ambiguity,” Haskell says of Wood’s oeuvre. “American Gothic, for instance, is very menacing. It has a loneliness that’s characteristic of all Wood’s work. I think that’s what people identify with.” Despite its bright, buoyant palette, the painting is permeated by a sense of isolation and estrangement. While the two figures in the painting overlap, as if touching, there is no warmth between them. He exudes a menacing quality; she, apprehension. A farmhouse stands erect behind them, mirroring their rigid postures.
Wood was inspired to paint the scene after a trip to the rural town of Eldon, Iowa, in 1930. There, he was struck by a home decorated with a single Carpenter Gothic window. After returning to Cedar Rapids, he drew the house and its imagined inhabitants, a farmer and a woman—either his daughter or his wife. (Wood never settled on an interpretation, describing the female figure differently in various instances.) He used his sister, Nan, and his dentist, Byron McKeeby, as models.