Magazine | June 11, 2018, Issue

The Master of Iowa

American Gothic, by Grant Wood (Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago)

The most famous painting in the world may be Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, with its inscrutable smile, sfumato blurs, and sweeping landscape. This 500-year-old masterpiece continues to draw crowds to the Louvre as well as to inspire parodies, from Andy Warhol’s pop-art depictions in the 1960s and 1970s to those Capital One credit-card commercials today.

What’s the most famous painting in the United States? That’s easy: American Gothic, by Grant Wood, with its dour midwesterners, three-pronged pitchfork, and white house with a peculiar window in the background. It, too, has launched a thousand sendups, from the photography of Gordon Parks to the opening segment of the old sitcom Green Acres. Normally it hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, though earlier this year it moved temporarily to New York City, where the Whitney Museum of American Art has put on what it calls “the most comprehensive Wood retrospective ever mounted.” Running through June 10 — and available as a vicarious experience in a new book, Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables — the exhibition invites a fresh evaluation not only of a painting that perhaps is overly familiar, but also of a man who never quite got his due from the art establishment.

The story behind American Gothic is simple enough: Traveling around his native Iowa in 1930, Wood visited the little town of Eldon, where he discovered a two-story house with an arching window. The sight of a modest American home that gestured toward the vaulting majesty of European cathedrals struck him as a potent incongruity. In his painting, Wood heightened this subtle tension by adding the puzzling pair of people who stand in the foreground. At first glance, they’re a farm couple. Upon closer examination, he looks older. Are they a mismatched husband and wife, or a father and daughter? Why does he stare at us while she glances away? And what about those funereal expressions? If the great enigma of Mona Lisa is her smile, then the central mystery of American Gothic may be the complete lack of one.

Wood took about three months to paint American Gothic. Then he entered it in a contest sponsored by the Art Institute of Chicago. It won an award, but just barely. As Steven Biel revealed in a 2005 book on the painting and its history, a jury rejected it, only to have second thoughts when a museum trustee spotted it and urged reconsideration. “An image familiar to everyone might have been seen by almost nobody,” wrote Biel. Instead, American Gothic went on to fast fame. By the end of 1930, newspapers all over the country had published pictures of it and the painting had sparked a vigorous debate between those who thought it honored heartland values and those who sensed a satire. Were its subjects determined smallholders or sanctimonious clodhoppers? The artist’s sister posed for the picture, along with a dentist of their acquaintance — and for what it’s worth, neither seems to have cared for their cheerless depiction.

Yet even if Wood meant for American Gothic to poke fun at his fellow Iowans, it would be wrong to assume that he despised them or their way of life. Other paintings at the Whitney’s exhibit are hard to see as anything other than celebrations of rural America. The mural-like Dinner for Threshers (1934), for example, evokes Leonardo’s Last Supper, though it swaps out Jesus and the disciples for men in overalls and women in aprons. Spring Turning (1936) shows a rolling, bright green countryside that dwarfs the farmers who cultivate it. The task is massive but the painting suggests that they’re up to the challenge. Arbor Day (1932) portrays a family as they plant a tree. Today’s Iowans admire this picture enough to have put it on the tails side of their state quarter.

Art critics and historians are always trying to shoehorn artists into aesthetic categories: impressionists, surrealists, abstract expressionists, and so forth. They usually label Wood a “regionalist,” lumping him with Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John Steuart Curry of Kansas. Much of their work involves scenes from small towns or the American past. They’re often accused of romanticizing their agrarian worlds, though this is silly: Their work brims with social commentary. The most striking work at the Wood exhibition may be Death on the Ridge Road (1935). It shows a black car mounting a hill, about to collide headfirst with a red truck that barrels over the summit. Storm clouds loom in the distance. Barbed-wire fences line the road. Telephone poles with crossbeams look like crucifixes. This arresting image is no exercise in innocent nostalgia, but rather a study of approaching disaster.

When American Gothic first appeared, many critics saw it as a visual version of what Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken were trying to put into prose at roughly the same time: a mockery of midwestern moralism, from the careless conformity of Babbittry to the tedious Christianity of the Bible Belt. The idea was to sneer at this couple from the provinces, with their ridiculous pretensions and gloomy narrow-mindedness. This is perhaps the only way to explain another of Wood’s paintings, Daughters of Revolution (1932). It portrays three matrons, expressionless as fish and almost drained of color, as they stand before a reproduction of an image that is nearly as familiar as American Gothic: Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. The point, it seems, is to contrast the bold heroics of the past with the dainty self-satisfaction of these tea-sipping ladies, inviting the thought that the American project hasn’t quite lived up to its original promise.

Interpretations of American Gothic often say at least as much about viewers as they do about the work itself. I’ve generally regarded the man and the woman in the picture as earnest Iowans who mix modesty and ambition as they seek to make their way in this world and the next. But then I would: I’m a midwesterner and they look like a few of the good folks I see in church on Sunday mornings. Traditionalists, in fact, always have found a lot to like in Wood’s work. It’s no coincidence that another of his paintings, Stone City (1930), features on the cover of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2006.

The obsessions of our time have led to other varieties of observation. Although Wood was briefly married, he also may have been gay. A generation ago, even hostile critics were discreet on this point. Now everyone brings up sexuality. R. Tripp Evans, a professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, is the author of an excellent 2010 biography of Wood — but he also treats each painted tree as a phallus and each hill as a buttock. He has lots of company. John E. Seery, a professor at Pomona College, notes that in American Gothic the pattern on the woman’s apron echoes the one on the window’s drapes. This prompts him to ask a question: “And so we naturally wonder, what goes on behind those closed curtains?” It’s probably none of our business, says the old-fashioned midwesterner in me. Whatever the case, Seery pushes the word “Gothic” away from architecture and toward something lurid.

There’s also a more sinister view. Leftists who know enough to suspect that Wood wasn’t just spoofing America’s rural yahoos never have favored his work, because his proles don’t look like oppressed and disgruntled wage slaves who yearn for revolution against the capitalist masters: They’re much too content. For these and other detractors, the paintings of Wood and the regionalists signal a bigoted rejection of urban cosmopolitanism — and an embrace of blood-and-soil nativism. Around the time of Wood’s death in 1942, as war engulfed the United States and the world, the popular art historian Horst Janson even equated them with Fascism: The art of the regionalists, he claimed, grew from “the same ills that in more virulent form produced National Socialism in Germany.”

Such overheated allegations are less common now, though they do surface from time to time. A Benton mural at the Indiana University, for instance, has triggered today’s social-justice warriors because a small section of it depicts a Ku Klux Klan cross burning. What the activists fail to understand, and what’s clear to anybody who studies the image, is that the mural depicts the KKK unfavorably and celebrates the group’s decline. In the face of protests last fall, the school announced that it won’t remove or cover up the mural — but that it will stop holding classes in the room that houses it.

The Whitney had planned the Wood exhibition before the 2016 election, but to some, the unexpected result has given the event an extra dose of relevance. Curator Barbara Haskell recently told Smithsonian magazine: “The whole idea about what it means to be American — the attack against elitism, the pull between rural and urban — we’re in the same period right now.” In a review for The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl wrote that Wood emerged from “a culture war between cosmopolitan and nativist sensibilities” in the 1930s, and that the Whitney’s Trump-era show “feels right on time.” In other words, Wood is the artist of the deplorables.

Yet it’s also possible to appreciate Wood away from the noise of contemporary politics. Before going to the Whitney this spring, I’d seen American Gothic at its usual home in Chicago, where it hangs in a gallery that also includes works by José Clemente Orozco and Charles Sheeler. In New York, the Whitney gave American Gothic its own wall. In the same room, it also placed Woman with Plants (1929), from Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, which I had not seen before. It’s a portrait of Wood’s mother. A longtime friend of Wood’s once described the painting this way: “He had portrayed her indomitable spirit, her triumph over poverty and hardship, the radiance of a woman who would not be defeated by life.” The author of these words, by the way, was the writer William L. Shirer, who put them in his memoir. As a journalist, he covered the Nazis and later wrote about them in his popular book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He also never thought to connect Wood’s work to Fascism.

In Woman with Plants, Wood’s mother holds a potted sansevieria, a plant known for its hardiness. It makes a good symbol for the type of woman Shirer described. The plant also shows up in American Gothic, which biographer Evans calls “a kind of sequel” to Woman with Plants. It takes close looking, but there it sits on the porch of the house in the background, almost invisible in small reproductions.

That’s not the only connection. In the two paintings, the women wear the same cameo brooch. It’s based on a real piece, and it shows an image of Persephone, who in Greek mythology is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter as well as queen of the underworld, having been abducted and brought there by Hades. Is the cameo brooch a random decoration? Or does Wood intend the classical allusion? Could this reference explain another oft-overlooked detail in American Gothic? Behind the woman’s right ear, a loose strand of hair snakes down, hinting at chaos, as she stands beside a man who holds a weapon that’s associated with Hades’ counterpart in the Christian story.

I’m not sure how far to take this — but at any rate, the mind reels. Good art does that.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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