The Right and Wrong of America

Updated: May 27, 2020

Article in The Cedar Rapids Gazette 6 September 1942

By Dorothy Dougherty (edited)

American Gothic by Grant Wood
American Gothic by Grant Wood

People are often misunderstood; pictures, too.

But out of Iowa, land of rich black soil, enormous red barns and people down to earth like young shoots of corn, came the 1930 painting that was to be the most misinterpreted in contemporary American Art - Grant Wood's "American Gothic."

Commentators once called it the most excoriating statement in painting ever produced by an American artist; critics admired it but labelled it a social satire; Iowans wrathfully denounced it.

Only after many years was the famous painting finally recognised as the sympathetic, yet realistic portrayal that the artist intended it to be.

Characteristically, the original ideas for the picture was rapidly sketched in pencil on the back of an envelope. A small rectangle two figures, a few angles, long graceful lines in mimic of a Gothic arch - there, in briefest form, on an area that could be covered by four postage stamps is the design for the Chicago Art Institute's $15,000 painting.

The picture was painted in Cedar Rapids in Grant Wood's studio loft at No.5 Turner Alley.

"I have an idea for a picture." Grant Wood cautiously said to his sister Nan one morning at breakfast, "but the woman I have in mind for the model will be mad if I suggest it."

Volunteered to Pose

He then described how he wanted to paint the portrait of stern, sober-faced, Gothic - lined Americans. His attractive blonde sister volunteered to pose for the grown-up daughter, and the delighted artist assured her, "I'll make your face very long and stern, and no one will ever recognise you."

Nan Wood Graham and Dr. Byron McKeeby
Nan Wood Graham and Dr. Byron McKeeby

"But of course, they did," Nan Wood Graham laughingly adds today.

Wood had found the Gothic architecture he wanted for background in a house at Eidon, Iowa; he now had one model. t he asked Dr B. H. McKeeby, in reality, a jovial person, not melancholy in the least, to pose for "the bald, spectacled small-town businessman, who is possibly a preacher on Sunday's."

The artist knew exactly what he wanted in the picture. He picked out brown and white printed cotton, bought white ric rac and had his sister make an apron according to his specified pattern. The begonia and snake plants in the background came from the abundance that his mother raised in the studio, and the latter is the same that appears in "Woman With Plant." The cameo, which the artist brought his mother from Italy, also is the same in both pictures.

A Three-month Job.

In three months, the canvas was complete.

The effect of the painting when first exhibited in Chicago was a chorus of critical acclaim heard from coast to coast. A masterpiece, yes; but a masterpiece generally misunderstood by critics and laypeople. The picture was even reproduced in certain Iowa newspapers erroneously titled "Iowa Farmer and His Wife."

A storm of protest beat down around Grant Wood, and Mrs Graham smilingly reveals the flood of mail he received each day - many of the letters acidulous, indignant and even violent. From Iowa farm people, particularly the women, came angry refutation of the American Gothic Spirit.

One ordinarily peaceful farm wife telephoned Wood and informed him that he ought to have his "head bashed in," much to the dismay of the artist's mother.

Although the picture was widely interpreted as devastating satire, the artist did not intend it as such at all. He explained, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement."

"These types of people have known all my life. I tried to characterise them truthfully - to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life." They had their bad points, and I did not paint these under, but to me, they were basically good and solid people. I had no intention of holding them up to ridicule."

His Real Motive

Patiently, Wood waited for the critics and the public to understand his painting and the story behind it - which was this:

For many years, he had made a study of architectural styles in connection with his other observations of the American Midwest. He had become amused and fascinated by the type of residential architecture known as "American Gothic," a style originally copied from stone Gothic churches in Europe but reduced to an extreme of unstructured absurdity in its application to flimsy framed houses in America.

To Wood, the false taste, the borrowed pretentiousness of these mock-Gothic houses symbolised something intensely significant in the attitudes of people who lived in them.

This something was narrow, false and sympathetic. Still, at the same time, by contrast, the architecture threw into sharp relief the fundamentally good and strong qualities of the people - just as the flimsiness of the houses called attention to the solidity of the ground they stood.

The artist pondered for some time a painting that would express these ideas and feelings, and one day in southern Iowa he found the exact house that he wanted; a low white farmhouse with a peaked gable and a single Gothic window.

Long Faces, Too

"I imagined Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with the house," he said. So he painted "American Gothic."

Gradually people came to appreciate the stark honesty in the picture, to see, instead of an unflattering caricature of Midwesterners a realistic but mostly sympathetic characterisation of American types, who despite all their faults and their fanaticism, are fine people.

Even formerly outraged Iowans reneged on their wrath. One woman who had written to Wood in 1930 that his painting was "an insult to farm women," wrote an apology in 1935, saying she now had an entirely different idea of the picture.

In February 1938, the London studio summarised the revised attitude towards Woods painting in this comment by Frank Rinard, who is now writing the artist's biography.

"Except for his famous bombshell 'Daughters of American Revolution,' and his drawings for a special edition of 'Main Street,' Wood has not aimed for satire in his work. He has tried to deal honestly with the types of people he knows. His portrayals are severe perhaps - as one might be strict with himself or with his relatives - but also genuinely sympathetic. In 'American Gothic' he has written into those two faces the grim fanaticism, the humourlessness, the pathetically false taste of many American lives. But look again - and you will see that he has depicted the essential worth and dignity of these people, their submerged but abundant humanity.

The crowning evidence of the about-face attitude came in 1941, however. Fortune magazine compiled a suggested portfolio of war posters based on the idea that good art would boost national morale more than mediocre art. For one of these reproductions, the editors selected "American Gothic."

Grant Wood's "American Gothic," commented Fortune "becomes a folk piece a symbol of the independent, don't-tread-on-me character that Americans recognise as particularly American.

The inscription below the reproduction on the magazine's suggested poster read "Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

The bringing together of Grant Wood's painting and Lincoln's words tells the story more eloquently than anything else could. American Gothic was at last understood.


Check out more of his paintings and prints on my Pinterest gallery

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