“At first I felt I had to search for old things to paint – something soft and mellow. But now I have discovered a decorative quality in American newness.” Grant Wood.
Wood was born in Iowa where he was to remain for most of his life. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and attended the Academie Julian in Paris very briefly in the 20s. By and large, however, Wood was self-taught. Early on he worked as a metal-worker, interior decorator and teacher, and did camouflage work in his army service during the First World War. In 1927 he was commissioned to make stained glass windows for the Cedar Rapids Veteran Memorial Building and went to Munich the following year to supervise their manufacture. It was there that he was exposed to 16th century Flemish painting causing him to abandon his early Impressionist style and turn to more closely observed realism.
It was the people and landscapes of the American Midwest that were to inspire Wood’s paintings. He gained national attention with his most famous work, ‘American Gothic’ in 1930. Using his sister and a local dentist as models, Wood dresses them up in late 19th century dress and painted them against a traditional farmhouse distinctive for its Gothic-style window. The painting won great popularity despite raising a good deal of controversy at the time for what people saw as its ridiculing of simple country folk. Wood went on to paint some highly distinctive paintings including ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’ (1931) and ‘Daughters of the Revolution’ (1932), but the success of ‘American Gothic’ overshadowed the majority of his work. In 1934 he became Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa and died of cancer in 1942.
Wood is known as one of the leading figures of Regionalism, a movement preoccupied with depicting scenes from the American Midwest. ‘American Gothic’ has had such resonance that it is a work that every American is familiar with. Indeed, as a sign of its fame, numerous parodies of the couple in front of that wooden house in Eldon, Iowa have appeared over the years. From the Ku Klux Klan to hippies to the Clintons, this painting is embedded in the national consciousness. Whether he was poking fun at these downhome citizens of Iowa or praising their traditional values, the painting has intrigued audiences for many years.