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  • Russ Ramsey

Grant Wood's "American Gothic" in Detail

For today’s Art Wednesday, we’ll take an in-depth look at Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” (1930) which hangs in the Gallery of the Americas in the Chicago Art Institute.

American Gothic at the Chicago Art Institute

From the Chicago Art Institute: “The impetus for the painting came while Wood was visiting the small town of Eldon in his native Iowa. There he spotted a little wood farmhouse, with a single oversized window, made in a style called Carpenter Gothic.”

The Gibble House

Wood said, “I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house,” he said. He used his sister and his dentist as models for a farmer and his daughter, dressing them as if they were “tintypes from my old family album.”

American Gothic Models

From the Chicago Art Institute: “The highly detailed, polished style and the rigid frontality of the two figures were inspired by Flemish Renaissance art, which Wood studied during his travels to Europe between 1920 and 1928.”

American Gothic, Man’s face, detail

From the Chicago Art Institute: “American Gothic, often understood as a satirical comment on the midwestern character, quickly became one of America’s most famous paintings and is now firmly entrenched in the nation’s popular culture.”

American Gothic, Woman’s face, detail

I have a picture of my World War II era grandparents posing like the people in American Gothic. The picture was an early meme, but the image wasn’t poking fun at anyone. Rather it was seen as a connection point for a generation that had been through a hard season.

American Gothic, Wood’s Signature

From the Chicago Art Institute: “Wood intended it to be a positive statement about rural American values, an image of reassurance at a time of great disillusionment. The man and woman, with all their strengths and weaknesses, represent survivors.”

American Gothic, Man and Woman detail

Grant Wood focused much of his work on the American Midwest, in particular his home state of Iowa. He died at 50 from pancreatic cancer. He first displayed American Gothic in an exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute, where it won the $300 prize, and has remained ever since.

Grant Wood Self Portrait

I don’t know that American Gothic is anyone’s all-time favorite painting, but it is certainly an important one. It’s a reminder that our lives are connected, that we struggle forward together, and that there is great dignity in humble work.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930



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