A Painting with "Legs"

Like the poems Emily Dickinson stored in her attic, or John Steinbeck’s repeatedly rejected early manuscripts, one of America’s best-known paintings was almost lost. American Gothic, Grant Wood’s ubiquitous vision of Midwestern farmers posing before their home, wedged its way into history by winning third prize in a Chicago art competition, says Steven Biel, senior lecturer and director of studies in history and literature and the author of a new book, American Gothic: The Life of America’s Most Famous Painting. “If it hadn’t won anything,” he adds, “it would’ve gone home to Iowa, where no one but Wood’s friends would’ve seen it.” Instead, the image has become synonymous with America itself.

The Iowa-born Wood had been a successful schoolteacher and soldier (and a failed jewelry maker and expatriate) by the time he spotted the house he would make famous, on a car ride in Eldon, Iowa. He had finished three paintings of people posing in front of haystacks and barns, rounded trees, and bright blue skies, and another of a typical Iowa farmhouse where Eldon’s art gallery had been established—a painting that circulated among art patrons, who thought little of it. In 1930, these visual interests merged into American Gothic.

Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The prize committee rejected it, but a trustee urged the committee to reconsider (and even purchased the work and convinced the museum’s backers to reimburse him and accept the painting for display). Few people remember which paintings won first and second place, Biel says, but Wood’s third-place winner appeared in newspapers across the country, catapulting the stern-looking couple to fame.

Like all good cultural icons, Gothic’s meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and the earliest onlookers weren’t too pleased. “Everybody took too seriously that we should think about who these people are in the real world,” Biel says. One Iowa farm wife insisted that Wood should “have his head bashed in.” Another wrote, “If this is all our work and progress has brought us (Iowa farmers’ wives), we might as well quit the job and take up bootlegging….We at least have progressed beyond the three-tined pitchfork!”

Wood tried to quell the criticism, insisting that the couple in the painting weren’t Iowans, weren’t even necessarily farmers, but simply “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house.” His sister, Nan Wood, who had modeled for the painting (with Byron McKeeby, a Cedar Rapids dentist), maintained that her character was not the farmer’s wife, but his daughter, “one of those terribly nice and proper girls who get their chief joy in life out of going to Christian Endeavor [a youth group].” For all their public-relations efforts, neither Wood nor his sister seemed able to convince Iowans that the painting wasn’t a satire at their expense.

“Maybe those are self-hating Puritan repressive Midwestern people. In the cultural climate of 1930, that’s how lots of people perceived it,” Biel explains. “Within a very few years, though, they were wholesome, virtuous, hardworking Middle Americans who exhibited resilience in the thick of the Depression and into World War II.” Indeed, by 1935 the meaning of the image had shifted and the couple (whoever they were) became symbols of American virtue—and in 1941 Fortune magazine argued that the painting’s “don’t tread on me character” would make a good war poster. Wood’s painting joined works by Woody Guthrie, James Agee and Walker Evans, Theodore Dreiser, and others who, Biel writes, began “to document the lives of ‘ordinary’ Americans and discover or preserve a usable national past.” The painting had become a celebratory—and white—definition of the United States. (In 1942, Gordon Parks, then a photographer for a New Deal agency, posed an African-American woman with a broom and bucket in front of an American flag and called the photograph “American Gothic.” It circulated much later, after Parks attained fame.)

The 1950s and ’60s ushered in parodies. American Gothic played in cereal commercials and Saks Fifth Avenue ads, The Music Man and Green Acres, and appeared in political cartoons and visual send-ups. After September 11, a Marisa Acocella cartoon in the New Yorker showed “ NY” T-shirts on the couple; others have used the image to make arguments about subsequent U.S. foreign policy.

These disparate interpretations of the image rely on two constants, Biel contends. The first is that elusive but quintessential “American” element. The second is its transparency. “You get into it and you get out of it very quickly—into something extra-artistic,” he says, “something that has nothing to do with the painting,”

Biel started the book, he says, because the couple “nagged him.” Writing their history didn’t resolve the relationship. “I’m still disturbed that ‘we’ would want to embrace their self-righteousness, their purity, their certainty, as the essence of America, as who ‘we’ are at our best,” he writes. Or put more simply, “The creepiness of it,” he says, “is that it isn’t seen as creepy.”                   

   ~Jina Moore


Steven Biel e-mail address: biel@fas.harvard.edu

[Not shown:  In Charles Addams’s 1961 cartoon, the American Gothic couple climb down from the canvas and walk into life. Also, Barbie® and Ken® dolls adopt the American Gothic pose in a Hallmark anniversary card. And in a Marisa Acocella cartoon published in the New Yorker just after the 9/11 attacks, the couple’s faces appear sad and sympathetic rather than stern.]

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