Grant Wood, American Gothic Painter

grant wood
FotoSearch / Getty Images

Grant Wood (1891 -1942) is one of the best-known and most revered American artists of the 20th century. His "American Gothic" painting is iconic. Some critics derided his regionalist art as influenced by pernicious political theories. Others saw hints of sly camp humor impacted by Wood's closeted homosexuality.

Fast Facts: Grant Wood

  • Occupation: Painter
  • Style: Regionalism
  • Born: February 13, 1891 in Anamosa, Iowa
  • Died: February 12, 1942 in Iowa City, Iowa
  • Spouse: Sara Maxon (m. 1935-1938)
  • Selected Works: "American Gothic" (1930), "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" (1931), "Parson Weem's Fable" (1939)
  • Notable Quote: "All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow."

Early Life and Career

Born in rural Iowa, Grant Wood spent much of his childhood on a farm. His father died suddenly in 1901 when Grant was ten years old. Following the death, his mother moved their family to the small nearby city of Cedar Rapids. Along with his older brother, Grant Wood took odd jobs to help provide financial support for their family.

Wood showed an interest in drawing and painting while attending Cedar Rapids' public schools. He submitted his work to a national competition in 1905 and won third place. The success cemented his determination to be a professional artist.

grant wood boyhood home
Grant Wood's boyhood home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Bill Whittaker / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 3.0

While in high school, Grant Wood began designing stage sets with fellow artist Marvin Cone and began volunteering at the Cedar Rapids Art Association, which later became the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Following high school graduation, Wood took a summer course at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft in Minnesota. He also took art classes at the University of Iowa.

In 1913, Grant Wood moved to Chicago, making jewelry to support himself and his night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Following the failure of his jewelry business, Wood returned to Cedar Rapids in 1916 and worked as a home builder and decorator to support his mother and his youngest sister, Nan.

Rise to Prominence

After World War I ended in 1919, Grant Wood took a position teaching art at a local Cedar Rapids middle school. The new income helped finance a trip to Europe in 1920 to study European art.

In 1925, Wood left his teaching position to focus on art full time. Following a third trip to Paris in 1926, he decided to focus on the common elements of life in Iowa in his art, making him a regionalist artist. Residents of Cedar Rapids embraced the young artist and offered jobs designing stained glass windows, executing commissioned portraits, and creating home interiors.

In the wake of national recognition for his paintings, Grant Wood helped form the Stone City Art Colony in 1932 with gallery director Edward Rowan. It was a group of artists who resided near Cedar Rapids in a village of whitewashed, tidy wagons. The artists also taught classes at nearby Coe College.

grant wood midnight ride of paul revere
"Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" (1931). Francis G. Mayer / Getty Images

American Gothic

In 1930, Grant Wood submitted his painting "American Gothic" to a show at the Art Institute of Chicago. It depicts, presumably, a farming couple, either married or a father and daughter, standing in front of their frame house with a large gothic window. The models for the couple were Grant Wood's dentist and his younger sister, Nan.

The Chicago Evening Post published an image of "American Gothic" two days before the show, and it became practically an overnight sensation. Newspapers across the country reproduced the image, and the Art Institute of Chicago bought the painting for their permanent collection. Initially, many Iowans criticized the work thinking that Grant Wood depicted them as grim-faced Puritans. However, some saw it as satire, and Wood insisted that it represented his appreciation for Iowa.

grant wood american gothic
"American Gothic" (1930). GraphicaArtis / Getty Images

"American Gothic" remains one of the most iconic American paintings of the 20th century. Countless parodies from Gordon Parks' stunning 1942 photo "American Gothic, Washington, D.C." to the closing image of the opening credits for the 1960s TV show Green Acres are a testament to the enduring power of the portrait.

Later Career

Grant Wood painted most of his key works in the 1930s, including 1931's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,"—a theatrically-lit depiction of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's legendary poem—, and 1939's unique take on the George Washington cherry tree legend in "Parson Weem's Fable." During the period, he also taught art at the University of Iowa. By the end of the decade, he was one of the most famous American artists.

grant wood parson weem's fable
"Parson Weem's Fable" (1939). Amon Carter Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Unfortunately, the final three years of Grant Wood's life and career were rife with frustration and controversy. His ill-considered marriage, according to his friends, ended in the late 1930s. Lester Longman, a devotee of European-led avant-garde modern art, became the chair of the art department at the University of Iowa. After clashes with Wood and public efforts to discredit him, the university's most famous artist left his position in 1941. Later investigations discovered that rumors of homosexuality also drove some of the efforts to remove him from the university faculty.

In 1941, just as it seemed that some of the controversies were settling down, Grant Wood received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He died a few months later in February 1942.

Legacy

For many casual observers of art, Grant Wood remains one of the most popular and revered of 20th-century American artists. Along with Thomas Hart Benton, Wood is one of the most prominent of American regionalist painters. However, the controversies that began at the University of Iowa have raised questions about his reputation since. Some critics dismissed regionalism as inspired by fascist and communist principles.

grant wood daughters of revolution
"Daughters of Revolution" (1932). Francis G. Mayer / Getty Images

Art historians also continue to reevaluate Grant Wood's art in the light of his closeted homosexuality. Some see the satire and double meanings in his work as part of the camp humor sensibility in gay culture.

Sources

  • Evans, R. Tripp. Grant Wood: A Life. Knopf, 2010.
  • Haskell, Barbara. Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018.