17 Facts About the American Gothic Painting

17 Facts About the American Gothic Painting by Grant Wood

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There is perhaps no other painting that stirs the emotions of so many Americans as the American Gothic painting painted by Grant Wood in 1930. From almost its outset, the American Gothic painting raised a host of emotions from positive to negative.

Grant Wood’s painting, the American Gothic, has a Carpenter Gothic Style house with a stoic man with a pitchfork and women staring off to the side painted outside their house. The American Gothic painting has a lot of ambiguity associated with it, which has lead to speculation about its true meaning; all this ambiguity has raised the painting’s profile over the years. The painting received a 3rd place finish in an art competition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Exploring the Mystique: 17 Intriguing Aspects of Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930)

Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” painted in 1930, stands as one of the most iconic and emotionally resonant pieces in American art. From its inception, this painting has evoked a spectrum of reactions, ranging from admiration to controversy.

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood
American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood

Featuring a stoic man holding a pitchfork alongside a woman, set against the backdrop of a Carpenter Gothic style house, “American Gothic” is steeped in ambiguity. This enigmatic quality has fueled widespread speculation about its underlying message, further elevating the painting’s stature in the art world.

Notably, it achieved third place in an art competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, a testament to its impact and enduring appeal. This exploration delves into 17 fascinating facts about the painting, shedding light on its history, symbolism, and the intrigue that surrounds it.

Grant Wood Lived In Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Grant Wood was a Midwestern American born and raised in the U.S. state of Iowa. His father died young, so his mother moved the family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After graduating High School, he enrolled in the Handicraft Guild in 1910.

The Handicraft Guild was an art school run by women in the Minneapolis area. In 1913, he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and did some work as a silversmith. Grant Wood also had some art training in Europe.

From 1922 to 1935, Grant Wood lived with his mother in a loft of a carriage house in Cedar Rapids. He later turned this carriage house into his personal studio. As the carriage house had no address, he made one up and called it 5 Turner Alley.

Grant Wood was active in the art scene in the Iowa area. In 1932, he helped form a Stone City Art Colony to help artists survive the worldwide Great Depression. Throughout his life, he taught and supervised projects like mural painting.

Grant Wood died right before his 51st birthday of pancreatic cancer. Before his death, he was an active painter and even worked in other mixed media as lithography, ink, charcoal, ceramics, metal, wood, and found objects.

American Gothic Was Not Painted on Canvas

Many assume the American Gothic painting is on canvas, but Grant Wood actually painted it using oil paints but on beaverboard instead of canvas. The beaverboard is a fiberboard building material where the wood fiber is compressed into sheets of wood.

It was used in building for things such as walls and ceilings in houses when Grant Wood painted the American Gothic painting. We are not sure why Grant Wood picked the beaverboard base instead of a canvas, but maybe it had to do with the subject matter he was painting and felt it suited better than just a canvas.

The American Gothic House Is An Actual House in Iowa

The house that Grant Wood used for the American Gothic House is an actual house in Iowa. In August 1930, Grand Wood was driven around Eldon, Iowa, by a young painter named John Sharp. They were going around looking for inspiration.

As they were driving around the area, they noticed a house that was called the Dibble House. In looking at the house. Grant Wood is said to have said:

“Who would live in this outdated house?”

Grant Wood

Grant Wood felt this house was old and outdated, so he decided it would be the American Gothic House; he used the term “American Gothic People.”

When Grant Wood first saw the Dibble house, he did not think it was beautiful or very impressed with it. His biographer, Darrell Garwood, in speaking with Grant Wood about the American Gothic House, said that:

“(Grant Wood) thought it a form of borrowed pretentiousness, a structural absurdity, to put a Gothic-style window in such a flimsy frame house.”

Darrell Garwood

The architectural style of the house is called Carpenter Gothic or also known as rural Gothic. The Carpenter Gothic style is primarily used for small buildings or houses, outbuildings, or small churches.

These houses are usually unadorned, with only some essential elements as pointed-arched windows and steep gables. But Grant also painted the house in his painting with a steeper roof and a more elongated window than the original house.

You Can Visit the Actual American Gothic House

Today, the American Gothic house is included in the National Register of Historic Places and is open for visitors. The Address of the American Gothic House is:

Address: 300 American Gothic Street, Eldon, Iowa

Those interested in visiting the house can check out the American Gothic House website by clicking here. Eldon, Iowa, is located about 2 hours outside Des Moines, Iowa.

Visitors to the house can dress up as if they were in the actual American Gothic painting and get their pictures taken outside the house. The house also has a visitor center with information about the Dibble house and the American Gothic painting. There is also a small gift shop.

The Woman in the American Gothic Painting is His Sister

The woman in the American Gothic painting is Grant Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham. In the painting, you can see that Grant Wood somewhat elongated the face of his sister Nan.

But she is also painted quite stylishly with a hairstyle that would have been created with a curling iron during that time.

At the same time, her face is quite sour and almost has meanness to it. She is not looking out in the painting but is glancing away. R. Tripp Evans, a biographer of Grant Wood, in speaking of Nan Wood Graham in painting, said:

“When American Gothic was first shown in 1930, there were critics who said that she looked like the missing link, that her face would turn milk sour.

R. Tripp Evans

Nan Wood Graham spent her life as her brother’s historian. She was the person who helped ensure the Dibble House in the American Gothic painting did not get lost and was remembered.

The Man in the American Gothic Painting is His Dentist

The man in the painting was Grant Woods, a dentist named Dr. B.H. McKeeby. We are not sure why he chose or asked his dentist to pose for this picture, except that maybe the dentist looked at the type of person he wanted to have for the painting.

Compared to the woman, the man in the painting looks much older, almost like they could be father and daughter.

The Story Between the Man and Woman is Unclear

There is a lot of speculation and ambiguity about the relationship between the man and the woman in the painting. He looks so much older than her. So, are they husband and wife? Or are they father and daughter? This upset many Iowa housewives at the time as they felt he was painting them as being with only older men.

Grant Wood could have easily cleared this up. Still, he allowed ambiguity about their relationship to remain as he understood it would only continue to pique the painting’s interest. We know the subjects never modeled together; they both modeled and were painted separately.

The Woman is on the Side with the Porch

When you look at the left side of the house where the woman is standing, you can see that she is on the side with a porch with some plants on it. This was painted like this on purpose, especially when you understand at the time period, the woman would have been associated with housework or the house itself.

The Man is on the Side of the House with the Barn

The man is painted clearly on the side of the barn. This is because as the woman would have been associated with the house, the man would have been associated with the barn or farm work.

Both The Man and Woman Have Almost Expressionless Faces

One thing that has bothered many people is that both of the faces of the man and woman are pretty much expressionless, yet there is something strong or resilient in their glazes.

It is interesting to note that the woman is looking to the side, and the man is looking a bit more forward, but neither one is looking straight at you. It is almost like they are looking at you but also, at the same time, looking past you.

It Was Painted In the Heart of the Depression

The painting was created during the Great Depression (1929 to 1939). Farmers were losing their farms, and people had no work as many lost their homes and livelihood. In speaking about the man and the woman in the painting and the perilous times of the Great Depression, it was said:

“Yet Wood intended it to be a positive statement about rural American values, an image of reassurance at a time of great dislocation and disillusionment. The man and woman, in their solid and well-crafted world, with all their strengths and weaknesses, represent survivors.”


The Painting Uses Repeating Forms

Many people fail to see that the painting uses quite a few repeating forms. In his paintings, Grant Wood was all about having rhythmic lines. It was a way for him to tie his composition together and to unify the figures. Here are some of the major repeated forms: Here are some of the major repeated forms.

  • Dots – The woman has dots on her apron and dots on the upstairs curtain.
  • Lines – There are three lines on the pitchfork, and you can also see three lines on the man’s overalls (if you look closely) and lines on the house itself.

You will notice that both men and women have on black, and the curtains in the house are drawn down, almost like someone is in mourning.

Painting Got A Third Place Award

Grant Wood entered this painting into the Art Insitute of Chicago competition. At the time, Some of the judges were unsure what to think about this painting.

But a museum patron persuaded the jury to give this painting a bronze prize or third prize and the $300 cash award. The patron also persuaded the museum to buy the painting and make it part of their permanent collection.

The Painting Caused a Public Outburst

The painting soon started to appear in some publications and newspapers. When it eventually appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowans were furious at Grant Wood for his painting for what many saw as the expressionless yet grim-faced puritanical Bible-thumping Iowans.

They felt this was a negative, not a positive, image of Iowa’s state and the farmers and the people who lived in Iowa.

Adding to this fire, some East Coast art critics said that the painting clearly shows the backwardness of the rural people, especially the people of Iowa. A group of Iowa farm women was so upset by how they were portrayed in this painting, so they started a letter-writing campaign to say they were not backward like this painting shows them but were modern women who had tractors and updated farm equipment.

All of this conflict, backlash, and feelings for the painting just added to the notoriety of the painting itself.

Nan Wood Graham and Dr. B.H. McKeeby next to American Gothic, 1942
Nan Wood Graham and Dr. B.H. McKeeby next to American Gothic, 1942

American Gothic Is One of the Most Famous American Paintings of the 20th Century.

The controversy surrounding the painting helped drive it to become very famous. But even more than that, the composition of the painting itself led it to become a kind of symbol of American life or culture.

Maybe that is because, in some ways, we see ourselves in this painting, and with the expressionless faces, we see and feel what we want to feel and see.

Recently, the American Gothic was sent on loan to some European museums. In preparation for this, Fisun Güner wrote about the iconic American painting.

“Regarding the painting’s comic tone, Wood himself gave contradictory accounts. “There is satire in it,” he once said, “but only as there is satire in any realistic statement.” Perhaps it is this ambiguity that has made the painting endure as the most iconic, and of course the most parodied, in US history. Gertrude Stein, insisted that the painting was a “devastating satire.” The modernist writer and avid collector of Picasso and Matisse even went as far as to describe Wood, apparently without a hint of irony herself, as the “foremost American painter.” Others despised it for its ‘fake-folkery’. Clement Greenberg, the towering art critic who championed Jackson Pollock, also chipped in and opined that Wood is “among the notable vulgarisers of our period.”

Fisun Güner

Whatever the reason for the parody and the meanings behind the painting, one thing is that Grant Wood would be smiling today to know that his painting was still keeping people guessing as to its true meaning and nature.

This Painting Raised Grant Wood to Fame

With all the controversy and commentary on the painting, the American Gothic painting brought Grant Wood fame. Interestingly, although he only received the Bronze or 3rd place in the competition for his painting, no one is talking about the 1st place or even the 2nd place winner, but are still talking about his painting American Gothic.

Grant Wood Formed a Trio of Regionalist

After the painting, Grant Wood became the de facto leader for the American realism movement. Grant Wood was also a very good self-promoter and marketer.

He understood many marketing principles in that having his painting talked about and the ambiguity of the painting itself would add to the allure of the American Gothic painting.

He was correct, as people today are still discussing it and figuring out its meaning.

Grant Wood also formed a group called the Trio of Regionalists with fellow artists Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry. They aimed to promote the Midwestern region as a serious place for art and artists.

They said that their art was appropriate for America and was right on trend for the time. They even had a photoshoot taken where they were dressed up in the farmer’s overalls, giving the photo a decidedly midwestern touch. Grant Wood ultimately made the Midwest a severe place for art.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting has withstood the test of time. Though painted in 1930, it still evokes feelings and commentary today. This is because it is the rare kind of painting that is ambiguous enough so that each generation has its own interpretations and meanings they can place on it.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Much is the American Gothic Painting Worth?

The painting is in the permanent collection of the Chicago Institute of Art. As the painting is an American icon, it can be said the painting itself is priceless. But other Grant Wood paintings have gone from 3 to almost 7 million dollars.

What media has the American Gothic been featured or parodied in?

As the American Gothic is such an iconic painting, it has been both lampooned and parodied a lot. Here are some of the more famous ones:
The Broadway Music Man
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Anne of Green Gables
Dick Van Dyke Show

What is “American Gothic”?

“American Gothic” is a famous painting by American artist Grant Wood, created in 1930. It depicts a farmer standing beside a woman who is often interpreted as his daughter or wife, set against a house in the American Gothic architectural style.

Who was Grant Wood?

Grant Wood was an American painter born in 1891 in Iowa. He is best known for his paintings depicting the rural American Midwest, particularly the painting “American Gothic.” He played a significant role in the Regionalist art movement.

What inspired Grant Wood to paint “American Gothic”?

Grant Wood was inspired to paint “American Gothic” after seeing a small white house built in the Carpenter Gothic architectural style in Eldon, Iowa. The house’s distinctive Gothic window and the kind of people he imagined might live in such a house inspired the painting.

Who are the figures in “American Gothic”?

The figures in “American Gothic” are modeled by Grant Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby. They are not meant to represent specific individuals but rather a type or character found in the American Midwest.

Where is “American Gothic” displayed?

“American Gothic” is housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, where it has been since shortly after Wood painted it.

What does “American Gothic” represent?

“American Gothic” is often seen as a depiction of the steadfast American pioneer spirit, characterized by traditional values and hard work. However, interpretations vary, with some seeing it as a satirical comment on rural small-town life.

Did Grant Wood create other notable works?

Yes, Grant Wood created several other notable works, including “The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover,” “Daughters of Revolution,” and “Arnold Comes of Age.” His style often involved the careful depiction of rural and small-town life in America.

Why Was Impressionism Art At First Rejected?

During the emergence of impressionism art, fine art oil painting was an essential addition to interior design, especially for the affluent and the increasing arrival of the middle classes. For these art patrons, only some particular art styles were considered acceptable for them to use for the interior design of their home, and impressionism art did not fit into any of these culturally acceptable fine art categories. 

By clicking here, you can learn more by reading Why Was Impressionism Art at First Rejected?

Similarities of Expressionism And Impressionism Art And Their Differences

Impressionism and Expressionism art movements started in Europe, but the impressionism movement started before the Expression art movement. Each movement has different looks of art which are distinguishable from each other. Even though they are both different art movements, there are still some similarities between them.

By clicking here, you can learn more by reading Similarities of Expressionism and Impressionism Art And Their Differences.

What Does Japonisme Mean?

The term Japonisme is about the influence of Japanese art on European culture and arts. Most notably, the influence Japanese woodblock prints had on the Impression art movement. Many of the prominent artists from the Impressionism art movement were inspired by the Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock print artists.

By clicking here, you can learn more by reading What Does Japonisme Mean?

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