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American Gothic
Man and woman with stern expession stand side-by-side. The man holds a pitch fork.
Artist Grant Wood
Year 1930
Type Oil on beaverboard
Dimensions 78 cm × 65.3 cm (30¾ in × 25¾ in)
Location Art Institute of Chicago

American Gothic is a painting by Grant Wood in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Wood's inspiration came from what is now known as the American Gothic House, and his decision to paint the house along with "the kind of people I fancied should live in that house." Created in 1930, it depicts a farmer standing beside a woman that has been interpreted to be his daughter or wife.

It is one of the most familiar images in 20th-century American art, and has been widely parodied in American popular culture.

In its first showing outside the United States, the painting was displayed in Paris at the Musée de l'Orangerie October 15, 2016 – January 30, 2017 and in London at the Royal Academy of Arts February 25 – June 4, 2017.

Creation

Grant Wood
Grant Wood, Self-portrait, 1932, Figge Art Museum

In August 1930, Grant Wood, an American painter with European training, was driven around Eldon, Iowa, by a young painter from Eldon, John Sharp. Looking for inspiration, Wood noticed the Dibble House, a small white house built in the Carpenter Gothic architectural style. Sharp's brother suggested in 1973 that it was on this drive that Wood first sketched the house on the back of an envelope. Wood's earliest biographer, Darrell Garwood, noted that Wood "thought it a form of borrowed pretentiousness, a structural absurdity, to put a Gothic-style window in such a flimsy frame house." At the time, Wood classified it as one of the "cardboardy frame houses on Iowa farms" and considered it "very paintable". After obtaining permission from the Jones family, the house's owners, Wood made a sketch the next day in oil on paperboard from the house's front yard. This sketch displayed a steeper roof and a longer window with a more pronounced ogive than on the actual house, features which eventually adorned the final work.

Wood decided to paint the house along with "the kind of people I fancied should live in that house." He recruited his sister Nan (1898–1990) to model the woman, dressing her in a colonial print apron mimicking 19th-century Americana. The man is modeled on Wood's dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby (1867–1950) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Nan, perhaps embarrassed about being depicted as the wife of a man twice her age, told people that her brother had envisioned the couple as father and daughter, rather than husband and wife, which Wood seems to confirm in his letter to a Mrs. Nellie Sudduth in 1941.

Elements of the painting stress the vertical that is associated with Gothic architecture. The three-pronged pitchfork is echoed in the stitching of the man's overalls, the Gothic window of the house, and the structure of the man's face. However, Wood did not add figures to his sketch until he returned to his studio in Cedar Rapids. He would not return to Eldon again before his death in 1942, although he did request a photograph of the home to complete his painting.

Reception

Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. One judge deemed it a "comic valentine", but a museum patron persuaded the jury to award the painting the bronze medal and $300 cash prize. The patron also persuaded the Art Institute to buy the painting; it remains part of the museum's collection. The image soon began to be reproduced in newspapers, first by the Chicago Evening Post and then in New York, Boston, Kansas City, and Indianapolis.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the painting came to be seen as a depiction of steadfast American pioneer spirit.

Parodies

The Depression-era understanding of the painting as a depiction of an authentically American scene prompted the first well-known parody, a 1942 photo by Gordon Parks of cleaning woman Ella Watson, shot in Washington, D.C.

American Gothic is a frequently parodied image. It has been lampooned in Broadway shows such as The Music Man, television shows such as Green Acres and "The Dick Van Dyke Show", marketing campaigns and by couples who recreate the image by facing a camera, one of them holding a pitchfork or other object in its place.


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