The American Gothic is a painting done by Grant Wood done during the 1930s that mere the Great Depression in the United States. Born on a farm close to the small town of Anamosa in 1891, Wood, exhibited interest in art from childhood often drawing pictures using burnt sticks that his mother gave him from her stove. Although he drew pictures with every chance he got, everyone thought he would eventually become a farmer just lie his father (Garwood, 100). He enjoyed his farm chores and had lots of goats, ducks, turkeys, chickens, and goats. However, after the death of his father, the mother found the task of keeping the farm running too difficult and hence decided to move her family to the nearby city of Cedar Rapids. He found it difficult to fit in the new place as he missed his school, friends, and even pets at the farm but his good sense of humor and talent in drawing made his stay easier in the new town (Hoving, 12-17). During his high school level education, he focused on projects like designing the scenery for the school plays and also drew pictures for the school yearbook and paper. Upon his graduation in 1910, he worked n so many other things such as teaching art, making jewelry, decoration of hous4s, learned carpentry while caring for his mother and sister Nan (Hoving, 27). Wood got his inspiration from what is currently known as the American Gothic House along with the kind of people fancied to be living in such a house to paint the American Gothic painting. It shows a farmer standing beside a woman interpreted from time to time as being his wife or daughter. Wood’s sister and their dentist modeled the figures. It is currently found in a collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Painted in 1930, in the Midwestern town of Eldon in his home state of Lowa (Americangothichouse.net).
The idea for the painting came while Grant Wood was visiting a small town called Eldon in his local Lowa area. He spotted a little wood farmhouse that had a single oversized window made in a carpentry style called Gothic. Wood, who was searching for a suitable subject to make art for the Chicago art exhibition, found his inspiration to draw the American Gothic painting from the Gothic house. In his mind, he thought of the American Gothic people with their faces stretched out along the American Gothic House (Steven, 60-61). Upon seeking permission from the Jones family, he took a sketch of the house and went to draw the painting. He used his sister Han and their dentist as the models though he initially wanted to use his mother but could not stay standing still for long. The dentist and his sister modeled a farmer and his daughter, and he dressed them as though they were tintypes from his old family album. The highly detailed polished style and the frontality of the pictures inspired by Flemish Renaissance art that Wood had studied as he traveled to Europe in the 1920s and 1926 (Americangothichouse.net). On his return to settle to Lowa, he became even more appreciative of the Midwestern traditions and culture, which were undoubtedly celebrated, in his works such as the American Gothic, interpreted as a satirical comment on the character of the Midwesterners. Wood intended the painting to be a form of positive statement about the rural American values offering reassurance at a time characterized by great disillusionment and dislocation that came with the Great Depression. The subjects in the picture represented the survivors of the turbulent times living in a stable and well-crafted world despite all their strengths and weaknesses. Upon its exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time, it was an instant success winning three hundred dollar prize and giving Grant Wood instant fame nationally. It became one of America’s most famous paintings and entrenched in the nation’s popular culture (Artic.edu).
The painting portrays a male farmer standing beside a woman that has been interested in his wife or daughter. They are standing in front of a wooden house that has a huge window. The woman dressed in a colonial print apron evokes the 19th century Americana, and the couple is in their traditional roles of men and women. It is because, the man is holding a pitch folk that symbolized hard labor, and there are flowers over the woman’s right shoulder suggesting she was into domestic work. Moreover, the plants on the porch of the house are same plants that Wood used in his 1929 portrait of his mother ‘Woman in Plants” (Steven, 73).
Scholars argue that the American Gothic painting remains as one of the most famous paintings in the history of American Art. It is a classic example of Regionalism, a movement that actively abstract art from Europe. They preferred portrayals of the rural American subjects rendered in a representational style. It has become part of the American popular culture, and the couple has been the subject of endless parodies (Artic.edu). There some of the scholars that argue that Wood used the painting as a satire to represent the narrow-mindedness and the repression that was characterized by the Midwestern culture. He, however, denied the accusation stating that the painting was a representation of the resilience of the rural life and set up even in the midst of turbulent times that came with the Great Depression. The painting may also be interpreted as a glorification of the moral virtue of rural America or even as an ambiguous mixture of both praise and satire.
The painting has been a fodder of speculation since its exhibition in 1930. There are those that believed that the painting was a celebration of "American" values while others saw it as mere satirical critique American values. Te expression of the pair in the picture leads many people outside the Midwest to assume that Wood was out to make fun of the rural life of Americans. Wood being a self-proclaimed Regionalist made the claims even tougher on him (Artic.edu). The Regionalist paintings in the United States developed at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 and portrayed the American life as simple and rural in direct contrast to the urban-based Realistic paintings that had dominated the American art scene since the beginning of the century (Pbs.org). Regionalism, unlike realism, left no room for social criticism. Wood firmly denied the claim that he was poking fun of the American rural life and hinted that there was indeed some sense of satirical elements present in the painting though he did not expose the exact components (Artic.edu).
Moreover, the subject in the paintings also sparked a lot of debate as to whether the duos were a farmer husband and wife or a father and daughter. Many Lowa farmers’ wives objected to what they perceived as the negative portrayal and wrote letters to the artist complaining about it. Wood later clarified the issue stating that the models were his 30 years old sister and their 62 years old family dentist (Pbs.org).
Some critics also claimed that the subjects in the picture lacked motivation as they would represent anything not necessarily farmers. The man in the image may be merely holding the farm tool and may not be a farmer at all. He may be a teacher, preacher, or even doctor holding the tool as a weapon to guard his daughter against suitors or any form of harm (Pbs.org). The critics that interpreted the woman in the picture as the daughter to the lady have often assumed that she is a spinster, but the kind of spinster that she is left to an individual’s imagination. There are others that interpret the stray curl at the nape of her neck as symbolic of the snake plant in the background of the painting that represented a sharp-tongued and tough maid. However, the feminists view the woman in the picture as a sign of the fact that the woman is not repressed a factor emphasized by her buttoned-up exterior.
The artistic work of Grant Wood witnessed arts works by other painters during the great depression. In 1937, Thomas Hart Benton made the “Flood,” painting that exuded similarities and differences from the Gothic painting by Wood. Some of the major similarities in the works of Wood and Benton are that they were all representing some regionalist view held by the painters. The paintings had a rural subject matter (Russell Tether Fine Art). Both of the artworks also clearly glorified the rural America and represented it as possessing admirable values although many were ignoring the role that rural America played at the time. The art by Wood was an indication of the resilience and boldness in the midst of the turmoil and storms that came with the great depression. The subjects in the painting are bold even with the strengths and the weaknesses that they had and hence signified real survival of the rural Americans during the Great Depression. Similarly, Benton in the “Flood” had the subjects facing a barren and hostile environment and one of the subjects a woman looked weak and weary. However, they still stood as an indication of their survival even with the hard times that faced them at the time (Russell Tether Fine Art).
The art by Wood and that of Benton featured optimism of the Americans during the time of economic desperation that faced the country at the time. The arts indicated a celebration of the American rural life free of the dust storms and the misery characterized by the Great Depression. In the work by Wood, the subjects that is the man and the woman who are farmers are standing well dressed and boldfaced despite the problems that rocked the time. The art also indicated that there was a still plant on the farm, which was an indication of life and not the hunger, and drought assumed the case for the rural areas at the time. Similarly, the subjects of Benton’s work are two ladies with one looking weary and the other holding and offering support to them as they face4d the dry and dead looking surrounding. It was an indication of the role that the rural area was playing in America as it supported the country as a whole at a time that witnessed desperation. It depicted the rural area as a form of support system for the entire country (Russell Tether Fine Art).
The art by Benton on the other hand, was different in that it did not adequately depict the rural Americans as sage and admirable in all the cases as Wood tried to represent. Benton wanted to describe and show the harsh reality that rocked the countryside and the people. Benton was a blunt and ornery member of the Regionalist school of thought and advanced some arguments that were similar and other different from those of Wood as depicted in the difference between Wood’s “American Gothic” and the “Flood” by Benton (Russell Tether Fine Art). The art by Benton is also smaller as compared to Wood’s painting. Unlike Wood, who laid his basis on the works of the Midwestern countries, Benton was a strong oppose to the use of the Western style of the arts in America indicating that the Europe had nothing to inspire the works in America apart from the beautiful and interesting things found in their style. He, therefore, based his art on “Flood” on American style as compared to Wood that had borrowed some of the ideas he had learned on his trip to Europe and incorporated them in the “American Gothic” art.
In conclusion, the “American Gothic” painting by Grant Wood is one of the most renowned paintings in the history of American art. First displayed in the Chicago art gallery, the art was a success from the word goes making Wood a household name in the art scene overnight. The painting was also taken in and placed on the Art Institute of Chicago where it is found to date. Wood went ahead to become a phenomenon contributor of American art as a self-proclaimed Regionalist during the Great Depression. The art can also be interpreted as representing the resilience and the role of the American rural families to the Great Depression contrary to the critique’s claim that it was meant to make fun of the countryside and the values of American people at the time. My feelings about this painting are that it was a great symbolic piece of art that had great represented the values of resilience and hard work among the America people even in the midst of desperate social, economic times. It, however, contains some satirical value in the dressing of the farmers. The man is holding a farming tool yet wearing an official look that does not fit the farming in the rural areas. It may be a satirical indication of the way some people lived above their means even in the midst of the great desperation that rocked the country in the Great Depression.