If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Grant Wood must be flattered out the wazoo. Although the artist of “American Gothic” died in 1942, his painting has gone on to symbolize all things American, and parodied by Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and both the left and right-wing press. And let’s not even get started with a Google Images search.
This odd depiction of our culture has inspired, flabbergasted, outraged and obsessed generations of Americans. However, everybody instantly recognizes it and somehow “gets” it.
Arguably the most famous painting in our country’s history (“Whistler’s Mother” is a distant second), the work was almost rejected and forgotten when it was first presented in 1930. It has since developed a legendary story about the ultimate in recycling.
This fascinating chapter in American history has been captured by Harvard historian Steven Biel in his book, American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting [W.W. Norton and Company]. Here, he takes a few moments to reveal the painting’s importance.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’m interested in objects and events that have become overly familiar. I wrote a book about the Titanic disaster a few years ago [Down with the Old Canoe]. This was before the  movie came out, before it saturated popular culture more than ever. I’m interested in things that have been flattened out to clichés and I try to recover the history behind them and find out why they’re famous. In this case, [the painting’s fame] is all out of proportion to its humble origins and to its artistic merit compared to other “masterpieces.”
What is the story behind the painting?
Grant Wood was an unknown artist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1930. He went down to a small town in south-central Iowa called Eldon. He traveled there because a friend of his was running a community fine-arts project. He was riding around in a car with another artist named John Sharp. While riding, they encountered this house on the outskirts of Eldon – an extremely modest clapboard house, but it had this gothic window, which stood out. It was not completely unexceptional in the Midwest, but it was strange enough to get Wood to get out of the car.
He decided to put some figures in the foreground that could possibly belong to this strange house. He had his sister and his dentist pose for it. He distorted them – he elongated them with grim expressions. Then he entered it into a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it received third prize. A notable critic reprinted it in newspapers, and from there, it took off.
Originally, it took off because it was ridiculing the Midwest and the kinds of people who supposedly lived there – uptight, repressed, puritanical and generally nasty. The sort of yokels that writers like H.L. Mencken would poke fun at throughout the 1920s. It also stirred up a controversy in Iowa because the farmers really thought it was an insult to them. Its initial fame was born out of controversy, out of the perception that its meaning was satirical.
Describe the painting strictly from an artistic and aesthetic viewpoint.
It’s a realistic portrait of a man and a woman posed in front of a house. The woman is wearing a rickrack apron. The man is wearing overalls, a dark coat and a collarless shirt. He’s holding a hayfork, which directly mirrors the gothic window. The pattern of the hayfork is repeated in the pattern of the man’s overalls if you look closely. There is a clear blue sky in the background, highly stylized, rounded trees, a red barn off on the right side, a snake plant on the porch on the left that mirrors a lock of hair running down the woman’s neck. The man is directly looking at the viewer. The woman is looking off to the side.
Some have said that what lends itself to parody formally is that you have these two figures facing us and it’s easy to plug other faces into them and to substitute something else in place of the pitchfork.
In the beginning, the painting was despised by certain people and celebrated by others. As time went on, the painting took on new meanings.
It was despised and embraced, as far as I can tell, for the same reasons. It was perceived as being a work of satire. The critics who really made Wood’s reputation understood it that way. They understood him as a victim of these people and their repressiveness and hostility.
Initially, the people who despised it were Iowa farmwives who wrote letters to newspapers protesting being depicted as primitive idiots.
How exactly did this painting become an American icon, the most famous painting in American history?
There is no quantifying that, really, but I would say so. It happened because over the course of The Thirties in the context of The Depression and throughout World War II, it changed from being that satirical image to a national symbol of stability, order, prosperity, virtue and wholesomeness.
Instead of holding its subjects up to ridicule, it now came to be seen as holding them up for admiration as quintessential Americans. In hard times, the “let’s make fun of yokels” idea seemed kind of cruel. The conservative virtues of the Midwest were re-embraced by some East Coast critics, and even The Left in the 1930s paid homage to the fortitude of the “folk.” It was a way of fighting off despair.
Some people say that the subjects are husband and wife; others say they are father and daughter. Which is it?
Wood was non-committal on this. His sister, Nan, probably because she was thirty-something when she posed [and Dr. McKeeby was in his sixties], was really offended by the idea that they might be husband and wife. It was she who really took the lead in insisting that they were meant to be father and daughter. Wood, as far as we know, left no record of his intentions. We don’t have anything that tells us what he was thinking when he painted this.
Everything that he says about this comes after the fact, and it comes from responding to those people who hated it. He said that he didn’t mean to make fun of anybody and that he was a loyal son of the Midwest. Strangely enough, he said sometimes that they were father and daughter and as time went on he seemed completely comfortable in saying that they were a couple. He went back and forth and didn’t seem to have a particular stake in it one way or the other.
The fact that it is ambiguous has opened the door to these gothic interpretations of the painting: what is the relationship between these two people? What is going on behind that curtain? What kind of creepy things might be happening in that house?
Wood’s sexuality was rather ambiguous. Do you think that influenced the painting in any way?
If I don’t have solid evidence on this, then I’m not really willing to go there. Circumstantially, yes, he lived with his mother until he was into middle age. He married very late. It was a terrible marriage by every account. It rather quickly ended in divorce. Speculations about his sexuality aren’t entirely unreasonable, but suggesting that it would have certain aesthetic consequences simplifies the relationship between sexuality and artistic production. [For example,] the critic Robert Hughes suggested that this is some kind of gentle satire because Wood was a closeted homosexual. To me, it doesn’t illuminate that much.
From The Sixties onward, this painting becomes a real source of parody — everything from Green Acres to the yuppies to The Simple Life.
I started thinking about where I first became aware of this image. It certainly wasn’t at the Art Institute of Chicago and I certainly didn’t see it in a non-parodied form first. The first time I became aware of it was in a Country Corn Flakes commercial and in the opening credits of Green Acres. It had already become such a well-known image that it was an easy move to make. If you want to send up American heartland values or if you want to encapsulate those values in a single image, you use “American Gothic.” It’s a really effective shorthand way of capturing those myths of the true America.
After that, the floodgates just opened. The first presidential couple to be parodied was the Johnsons. Every presidential couple since then have been plugged into the “American Gothic” pose.
Then you start to get these lifestyle parodies, where those old-fashioned people in the painting aren’t having any fun, but we are, with a tennis racquet or an electronics product instead of a pitchfork. They are playing on the immediate recognition of the image and at the same time saying that consuming this or that product is wholeheartedly American.
The joke couldn’t be more blatant than with Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in The Simple Life. These people are being plopped into middle America and there is a clash of values. That’s the whole premise of the show.
Is the actual painting itself still relevant today?
It’s hard for a parody of this painting to really work anymore, to carry any kind of potent message. To give it some power, to make it stand out from all the other parodies, takes extraordinary creativity. Of course, it’s impossible for it to stir up the passions that it stirred up in 1930. But it’s well worth understanding its rich history and coming to see how and why, at one time, it had the power to offend people.
Artwork Credits: #1 © 1930 Grant Wood. #2 © 2005 Courtesy of WW Norton & Co. All rights reserved. #3 © 1963 Saturday Evening Post. #4 © 2003 Fox Home Video.
The article originally ran in Everybody’s magazine.