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Grant Wood’s 120th Birthday

Gothic1 Grant Wood, most famously known as the painter of American Gothic, became one of the United States’ most famous artists in the 1930s when the canvas made its splash at the Art Institute of Chicago’s forty-third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture. Although it won the bronze medal that awarded $300, it did not win the top medal or prize (which awarded $2500 and $1500 respectively). However, it was by far the most the most popular work in the show and gained much attention. It was purchased for the Chicago Art Institute and remains one of that museum’s most popular and famous works of art.

The famous painting depicts a Midwestern farmer and his daughter (or possibly wife) standing in front of a “Carpenter Gothic” style house, named for the so-called gothic style of the window. Using his sister and a local dentist as models, Wood created the penultimate salt-of-the-earth couple that resonated with a nation in the midst of the Great Depression. As a result, the painting has served and continues to serve as the basis for parodies (e.g. Hillary and Bill Clinton) and ads (Newman’s Own). The hundreds of variations that show up with search in on Google Images for “American Gothic” reflect the continuing resonance of this image in America. The house that served as a background for the couple is still standing in Eldon, Iowa and is visited by thousands of visitors annually.

Grant Wood was born on a farm near Anamosa, Iowa on this day in 1891 and lived most of his life in his home state. At age 10 his father died and Mrs. Wood took her children to Cedar Rapids. He quickly became drawn to painting and drawing and after high school he studied at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft.  He took other classes when he had the opportunity and traveled to Europe on several occasions to study abroad including a stint at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1923. He experimented with different styles that he encountered in Europe, including Impressionism, but he ultimately would return to a more traditional style and become one of the most well-known artists of Regionalism. This art movement focused on very traditional, small-town American imagery and was a perfect fit for Wood’s homey Iowan setting. With the success of American Gothic, the artist continued to work in this traditional style and enthusiastically embraced Regionalism.

Gothic2 In 1932 he helped establish an art colony in Stone City, Iowa that lasted for two summers and Wood lectured and promoted the formation of other regional art centers. In 1934 Wood joined the faculty of the University of Iowa. His tenure there was never comfortable, for he was ultimately seen as a traditionalist and an illustrator rather than a true artist incorporating the  Modernism that was the influence for a large part of the faculty. He was also targeted with rumors that he was gay which would have ruined him both as an instructor as well as the established paragon of the corn-fed Midwestern answer to corrupting “European” Modernist tendencies. Ultimately Wood was given a new title at the University in order to help diffuse the opposition, but lived for less than a year later before he died in February 1942, survived by the sister who served as one of the models in his most famous painting.

Grant Wood is one of the artists featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibition with the inclusion of his painting Arnold Comes of Age from the Sheldon Museum of Art. This work can be observed in the gallery walkthrough of the exhibition at 0:32 of the video. The Library for the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery has close to 40 books on Wood and also holds the catalog for the 43rd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture the exhibition where American Gothic was first exhibited and Wood's fame was established.

Doug Litts

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