October 1930, Grant Wood's American Gothic comes in third at a Chicago Art Institute exhibit

American Gothic

by Sarah Vowell

Going Home for Good

In August 1930, President Herbert Hoover appointed representatives from the Federal Reserve, the Federal Farm Board, the Red Cross, banks, and the railroads to form the National Drought Relief Committee in order to at least pretend to address what Secretary of Agriculture Arthur M. Hyde called “the worst drought ever recorded in this country.” Meanwhile, back in Iowa, painter Grant Wood went for a ride. At the moment Hyde’s department worried that dwindling stores of feed, including hay, in Southern and Midwestern states were in “critical condition,” Wood spotted an old white home in the town of Eldon and thought of painting its imaginary owners out front, with the man of the house gripping a hay fork. The pair’s outdated clothes would give them a nostalgic air. Or maybe as the 1930s wore on, they would come to appear nostalgic for a time when there was actually hay around to pitch.

By October, Wood’s painting, American Gothic, would come in third at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Forty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture. Museum boosters purchased the work for $300 for the Art Institute’s permanent collection, where it remains in the company of Caillebotte and Matisse— real artists from France. A week after the exhibition’s opening, Wood’s hero and fellow Midwesterner, Sinclair Lewis of Minnesota, would become the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Take that, France.) “They had labored, these solid citizens,” Lewis wrote in Babbitt. Not a stretch to describe Wood’s subjects that way too.

Wood, like Lewis (and F. Scott Fitzgerald of St. Paul and Ernest Hemingway of Oak Park), would ditch his hometown for Paris in the 1920s, where he would dab out the sort of blurry paintings of cathedrals he thought he was supposed to like. According to his friend there, the journalist William L. Shirer, one day Wood up and declared:

I’m going home for good. And I’m going to paint those damn cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses and all those pinched faces and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and store suits and the look of a field or a street in the heat of summer or when it’s ten below and the snow piled six feet high. Damn it, isn’t that what Sinclair Lewis has done in his writing— in Main Street and Babbitt? Damn it, you can do it in painting too!

Thus Wood gave up on painting dappled French Gothic doors and hightailed it back to Iowa to start painting his famous flat, Gothic Revival window, hung with what Lewis called “curtains of starched cheap lace” probably ordered from the same mail-order catalog as those in Gopher Prairie, the town in Main Street. (Insert obligatory mention of the word “regionalism” here, along with legally required passing reference to painters John Steuart Curry of Kansas and the swirling pictorial narratives of Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton.)

If Shirer’s memory of Wood’s Parisian outburst is to be believed, the painter made good on his pledge to depict “the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls” in American Gothic. There’s even a “damn barn” over the man’s shoulder, presumably to house a few “damn cows” he’s fixing to feed with his pitchfork. Though not if the aforementioned drought of 1930 has a say.

Let’s start with the apron. It’s a fake. The model for the farmer’s daughter in the painting is Wood’s sister, Nan. She later recalled that her brother requested that she sew an apron with rickrack, a “trim that was out of style and unavailable in stores. I ripped some off Mother’s old dresses, and after the painting made its debut, rickrack made a comeback.”

Nan’s point? This is a history painting. Three years later Wood made Portrait of Nan. In it, his sister lets her hair down. She wears makeup and a kicky, sleeveless polka-dot blouse. Compared to the fictional plain Jane in American Gothic, actual Nan verges on Veronica Lake. So that rickrack is literally a dead giveaway—that woman, and flinty women like her, according to Wood, are dead and gone so let us now praise famous whatever.

In a 1941 letter, Wood claimed he wanted the painting’s daughter to be “very self-righteous, like her father.” Her defiant cleanliness, however, is betrayed by a curl breaking free of her tight bun. Wood goes on to say that he “let the lock of hair escape to show that she was, after all, human.”

If self-righteousness was Wood’s intention, he failed. Trust the painting, not the painter. What we see here is self-doubt. All the starch in Iowa cannot stiffen the look on that woman’s face. Her sidelong glance betrays something more interesting than pain—ambivalence. Mixed feelings about her lot in life is the most modern feeling a woman can have. Just ask Carrie Kennicott: “That one word— home—it terrified her.”

Kennicott, Lewis’s protagonist in Main Street, turns down her college sweetheart Stewart’s marriage proposal because “I want to do something with life.” He rebuts, “What’s better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids and knowing nice homey people?” Corny, but a fair point. This, Lewis deadpans, is the “immemorial male reply to a restless woman.”

Though Carrie turns down Stewart, she eventually gives up her career as a librarian to marry a doctor from Gopher Prairie, a place that is about as lively as it sounds. Mid-marriage, she abandons him too for Washington, D.C., for a while, to live and work among the suffragettes. Eventually, she gives up and goes back to her husband and Gopher Prairie, though not without screeching, “I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women!” So there!

The woman in American Gothic might even have such a backstory, if not an actual inner life. To see her, however, requires actually looking at the painting. This is harder than it sounds. There’s a lot of buildup that needs to be cleaned off. Scrape away that postcard of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in rickrack and overalls. As well as Paul Newman and his daughter on a package of Newman’s Own organic cookies. Along with the couple singing backup on “Dammit Janet” in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. And the opening credits of Green Acres—go ahead and sing along while you scrub: “The Chores! The Stores!” The only thing more American than turning American Gothic into a sight gag is the way the deep, dark, Norwegian anguish of Edvard Munch’s The Scream is turned into a fun backdrop for dark chocolate M&Ms. (In America, stores almost always win out over chores.)

After she saw American Gothic, august American-in- Paris Gertrude Stein said, “We should fear Grant Wood. Every artist and every school of artists should be afraid of him, for his devastating satire.” Certain ladies of Iowa concurred. Historian Steven Biel notes, “An Iowa farmwife, irate over American Gothic, told Grant Wood, by one account, that he should have his ‘head bashed in.’”

Wood’s upstanding, folksy couple are usually the sort of characters urbanites only care about when Truman Capote writes a pretty book about how they got gunned down. To his more rural fellow Iowans, Wood was a city slicker from Cedar Rapids. So was he making fun of farmers?

Wood claimed he didn’t mean to. In that 1941 letter, the artist argues:

The persons in the painting, as I imagined them, are small town folks, rather than farmers. Papa runs the local bank or perhaps the lumber yard. He is prominent in the church and possibly preaches occasionally. In the evening, he comes home from work, takes off his collar, slips on overalls and an old coat, and goes out to the barn to hay the cow.

In fact, the model for the man in overalls was not a farmer but Wood’s dentist, Byron McKeeby. In the letter, Wood goes on to say that he “did not intend this painting as satire.” He adds, “It seems to me that they are basically solid and good people. But I don’t feel that one gets at this fact better by denying their faults and fanaticism.”

As a D.C. suffragette tells Carrie Kennicott in Main Street, “Your Middlewest is double-Puritan— prairie Puritan on top of New England Puritan; bluff frontiersman on the surface, but in its heart it still has the ideal of Plymouth Rock in a sleet-storm.” Wood’s pair lives up to that assessment—they’re a tad too churchy but they won’t give up. There are worse sentiments for a painting made in the first year of the Great Depression to have.

American Gothic asks the same question of the country it asks of its prim couple staring down the viewer: is the basic, earthy goodness and potted-plants- on- the- porch cheer of the United States weakened by its preachy, confrontational zeal? Answer: yep. But that doesn’t mean the painting—or the country—is all that funny.

Bibliography:

Steven Biel, American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting (New York, 2005). Wanda M. Corn, “The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic,” in Reading American Art, ed. Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy (New Haven, CT, 1998). Thomas Hoving, American Gothic: The Biography of Grant Wood’s American Masterpiece (New York, 2005). Jane C. Milosch, ed., Grant Wood’s Studio: Birthplace of American Gothic (Cedar Rapids, IA, 2005).