Art
Grant Wood’s Menacing, Mesmerizing Portrait of Rural America
Unknown photographer, Nan Wood Graham and Dr. B.H. McKeeby next to American Gothic, 1942. Courtesy of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art Archives.

Unknown photographer, Nan Wood Graham and Dr. B.H. McKeeby next to American Gothic, 1942. Courtesy of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art Archives.

Grant Wood was a painfully shy, secretive man. It is fitting, then, that his most famous painting—also one of the world’s most recognizable artworks—is full of mystery. In it, a balding farmer in soiled dungarees stares sternly ahead, clutching a pitchfork. A woman peers over his shoulder, rigid with an emotion that looks something like fear. In stark contrast, the sky above them is brilliantly blue, the abundant trees behind them a soothing shade of green.

American Gothic has mesmerized viewers since Wood, a native of Iowa, painted it in 1930. The United States was suffering under the weight of the Great Depression, and many Americans longed for a simpler time, free from the greed they believed sparked the recent stock market crash. Wood, too, developed a nostalgia for the America of his early childhood, one spent on a farm milking cows under the stern eye of his Quaker father. So he began to pepper his canvases with images inspired by his past: the rolling fields of America’s corn belt, little churches with impossibly sharp steeples, and boys clinging to footballs.

But these scenes weren’t particularly sunny. “There is an undertow of disquiet and sadness that permeates the work,” explains Whitney Museum curator Barbara Haskell, who organized the New York institution’s upcoming show, “Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables.” While the artist has routinely been pigeonholed as a regionalist painter of arcadian agricultural life, she says, a closer look at the work reveals “that his paintings are not bucolic, uplifting, or affirmative.”

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Art Institute of Chicago. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Art Institute of Chicago. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY.

Grant Wood, Spring in Town, 1941. Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Grant Wood, Spring in Town, 1941. Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Wood, who was born on a small-town Iowa farm in 1891, was a timid, pudgy, near-sighted boy who spent much of his time drawing under the kitchen table. It was “everything he imagined his Quaker father didn’t want him to be,” notes Haskell. Even after his father passed away and Wood’s mother moved the family to the larger city of Cedar Rapids, he remained a self-described outcast. His shyness was further exacerbated by a deeply closeted homosexuality.

He took refuge in art. As early as the 1920s, Wood began to carefully construct a self-image as a “farmer-painter,” posing for publicity shots in overalls and illustrating the rural life that surrounded him. But this façade belied his European art education (cumulatively, he spent several years in Paris during his thirties) and the emotional turmoil he felt as a lonely man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality.

Fusing his childhood memories from the farm, the sharp edges and saturated hues of Northern Renaissance painting, and his contemporary surroundings in Iowa, Wood constructed scenes that simultaneously honored the Midwest and alluded to the alienation he felt there.

“That conflict between his simultaneous desire to celebrate something and his distance from that thing he was trying to celebrate seeps into the work,” Haskell explains. “His paintings have an eerie sort of silence and a frozen, airless quality, as if they are chillingly make-believe.”

 Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

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.

Grant Wood, Spring Turning, 1936. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Image courtesy Reynolda House Museum of American Art, affiliated with Wake Forest University.

Grant Wood, Spring Turning, 1936. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Image courtesy Reynolda House Museum of American Art, affiliated with Wake Forest University.

After completing the canvas in 1930, Wood submitted it to the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibition of American painting and sculpture. It was only the third painting had Wood exhibited outside of Iowa and became an overnight sensation, winning him third place in the show and $300 (a significant sum at the time).

Wood said he intended the painting to flatter its subjects, whom he imagined as “good, solid people.” But audiences immediately picked up on their sullen demeanor and speculated as to the artist’s intentions. Was the piece meant to be satirical, as writer Gertrude Stein believed? “We should fear Grant Wood,” she said, after laying eyes on American Gothic. “Every artist and every school of artists should be afraid of him, for his devastating satire.” Or was it meant to celebrate Midwestern, back-to-the-land values, as Wood himself maintained?

For her part, Haskell sees a resonance between the disquietude Wood captured in the 1930s (even if it was inadvertent) and the anxiety that permeates our world today. “We’re living in a disquieting, alienating age,” she muses. “So Wood’s work feels especially relevant right now.”

Alexxa Gotthardt is a Staff Writer at Artsy.