American Gothic, painted in 1930 by Grant Wood, is so often spoofed because the countenances of its subject are so unnaturally sour. The image is already comical because the husband and wife dressed in farmer and farmwife’s clothes are humorously miserable or perhaps just overly staid, as if posing for their portrait were as enjoyable as a tornado siren. The painting lends itself to satire because it is satire—or in its exaggeration seems to be—and anyone standing in the couple’s place repeats the joke. Reason searches for an explanation beneath the grim visages of the couple from the country—perhaps this is it: Wood conceived of and completed the piece during the Great Depression. The aging man and woman he painted seem to be in a great depression themselves.
In the painting and at the left of the white house with the central Gothic window is a slightly faded fictitious red barn. The man overlapping it (and the house) is dressed in overalls and holds a three-pronged hay fork as his younger wife, like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, gazes more anxiously out of the frame and into the distance. If the couple are broken farmers they are bedeviled by the 30s’ agricultural overproduction and financial depression begun in the years following the end of the First World War. The Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929 had failed to end the persistent price decline in food and other crops, and, “In the Levi Strauss warehouse in San Francisco,” writes author Steven Biel, “a six-month supply of 501 Double X denim overalls, 120,000 pairs, lay unsold in 1931 as Levi’s primary customers for their staple product—farmers, factory workers, and minors—lost their incomes.” By the early 30s strange spurts of violence crisscrossed the farms. In Iowa, where Wood lived and worked, a group of incensed farmers lifted Judge Charles Bradley from the courtroom where he decided foreclosures, tying him to a light post and stripping him naked from the waist—with threats to castrate him on the spot. By 1933 the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation standing before the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry declared that “unless something is done for the American farmer we will have revolution in the countryside within less than 12 months.”
According to biographer R. Tripp Evans, Wood, who had been born on a farm in 1891 near the small town of Anamosa, Iowa, himself never farmed. Nevertheless, an art critic visiting Wood’s studio related that the artist painted in overalls. Whether the famous painter would have dressed differently had no one been watching is hard to tell. In other ways the Cedar Rapids artist radiated a studied folksiness. After the success of Gothic, Wood, like an unstylish Andy Warhol, became his own promoter, adopting a wholesome, country image, and going so far as to refer to himself as “a simple Middle Western farmer-painter.” “All the really good ideas I’ve ever had,” he famously claimed, “came to me while I was milking a cow.” Indeed, the artist had only ever milked cows in his boyhood near Anamosa, a detail that must have considerably foreclosed on his artistic inspiration.
Enigmatic in his identity, Wood was ambivalent about the meaning of Gothic. After what Wood called a “storm of protest” from Iowa farm wives over the unflattering portrait-of-sorts, the painter told the press, “I do not claim the two people painted are farmers. I hate to be misunderstood as I am a loyal Iowan and love my native state.” Later, after the flames had cooled, Wood declared in 1933 that the represented house was “to be a farmer’s home.” This seems to be the correct, original intention: the man in the painting holds an instrument for forking hay.
What Wood positively said the painting was about was simply two serious people in a serious house, a sample of the “types of people I have known all my life.” The characters he created out of his head using his elderly dentist and middle-aged sister Nan as models; most likely he had seen the oddly stoic 19th century photographic portraits of frontier couples posing with their assembled worldly possessions. In one such photograph from 1886, by Solomon D. Butcher, the man standing beside his wife actually grips an upright pitchfork. “All that I attempted to do,” stated Wood, “was to paint a picture of a Gothic house and to depict the kind of people I fancied should live in that house.” The entire painting was to be playfully exaggerated, an invented scene, almost sheer formalism, and slightly grotesque.
If canny businessman Wood was again not telling the truth—his foregoing declamation on theme arose during the thorny “storm of protest”—perhaps Gothic still hides the painter’s intended thoughts about the Depression and its struggle to eat, work, and stay in the same place. Assuming the artist was consistent in his style of painting, in ideas and motifs, his common approach in his body of work should signal something about the true meaning of Gothic. Many of his Depression paintings are landscapes, like Stone City, Iowa (1930), Fall Plowing (1930), and Young Corn (1931). Two of the three paintings, are cloudless, almost shadowless, as if lit by a benign artificial light. Fall Plowing, an endless view of swept green hills and candy-like rows of tiny, triangular corn shocks, contains no people or animals, and an unhitched and unmanned silver plow posed in the foreground strips sod as if by a spell. In all three paintings, and many others, natural decay, bad weather, and onerous work are absent. The light on the silver plow shines forever.
Wood’s are prominently nostalgic images, backward-looking to the 1880’s—the decade in which the real Eldon, Iowa house in Gothic was built. As scholars at the University of Virginia notice, modern farm machines such as tractors are totally absent, and only one work, Death on Ridge Road (1935), includes automobiles. Travelers in Arbor Day (1932) and Stone City, Iowa follow polished roads by horseback and wagon. Wood’s romantic disinterest for contemporary issues did not go unnoticed, and Stephen Alexander of New Masses complained.
One may perhaps wonder why Wood, who certainly knows about farming and the Middle West…should paint only rich, prosperous farms, with spick-and-span new buildings, fat cattle, fine, fertile crops, and peaceful and contented farmers…when we’ve been reading so much these last several years about farm foreclosures, milk strikes, pitched battles between farmers and state troopers, sheriffs’ sales, etc.
It was not the only time Wood’s work was criticized for ignoring the Great Depression. His foremost idea of rural America, a kind of dream, seemed to exist outside the bridge of time. Perhaps he also believed the heartland was America’s best part. Gothic’s two strange neighbors may not be rich and prosperous, but neither are they burdened by national tragedies. If the solemn couple sees few dancehall parties—maybe they also think to dance would be immoral—they are protected from modernity’s impending disasters. Adrift in the monotony of an old-fashioned routine their best ideas come when they are milking the cow.
American Gothic was on view outside North America for the first time this year (through June 4) at the Royal Academy of Arts, London in “America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930’s.”
About the Author
Amanda Johnson is an independent art writer with interests in the Dutch Golden Age and commemorative monuments. She holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy with departmental honors from The University of Memphis.