In a painter's American icons, there's the power of Europe's Old Masters and the energy of a restless devotion to rural life.Book review
Grant Wood, A Life
By R. Tripp Evans
402 pp., Knopf, 2010, $37.50
Grant Wood was the people’s artist. He was one of a cadre of American Scene painters, also known as Regionalists, who created a purely American early 20th century painting style. Wood, along with Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, inspired a popular movement of young artists who enshrined waves of amber grain and fruited plains as sacred. Against a juggernaut of abstract painters that would soon overwhelm American art, Wood, Benton and Curry raised images of gently rolling hills, farmers in overalls, and quaint small towns into idealized national treasures.
In his new biography, Grant Wood, A Life, art historian R. Tripp Evans explores interpretations of Wood’s Iowa landscapes and portraits of the 1920s and 1930s, adding his own conclusions about what lies beneath the surface of Wood’s imagery. Evans’s assertions may surprise some of Wood’s longtime admirers.
American Gothic, Wood’s 1930 iconic image of two country folk standing before a farmhouse, has come to symbolize the values of the heartland of this country and inspired countless modified reproductions, the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box being one of the most recognizable. The work exudes a strong work ethic, humility, stoicism, self-reliance, and agrarian lifestyle, all character traits that cause Americans to swell with pride. But is there more?
There is much more beneath the surface nationalism of American Gothic, and Wood’s biography helps decode the mystery. During the 1920s Wood made several trips to Europe, the mecca of aspiring artists. He absorbed the bohemian life of Paris and experienced the great cathedrals and museums throughout France and Germany. After returning home, he happened upon an old farmhouse in Eldon, Iowa, with a gothic-like window that reminded him of his travels, and he decided to use the house as the setting for a new work.
After his exposure to 15th c. northern European painting, Wood’s brushstrokes changed from his early loose, impressionistic style to the hard edges and naturalism of American Gothic and nearly all of his paintings thereafter. His Dinner for Threshers, made four years later, bears the same crisp surfaces, and its three-paneled triptych format likewise recalls early European painting. It is hard to miss the similarities between the long dinner scene, flanked by two self-contained side images, and the sacred European crucifixions, enclosed by side panels of donors and saints, works that Wood undoubtedly saw on his travels.
One of Wood’s eccentricities seems to have been a fascination with death and funerary subjects. According to Evans, the gothic arch was a common 19th c. American folk art form that referred to mortality. Wood and his mother lived for ten years in a small apartment above a Cedar Rapids funeral parlor with a coffin lid as its front door, so the connection seems reasonable. The American Gothic house may also represent the place where Wood spent the first eleven years of his life, in Anamosa, Iowa, the house where his father, Maryville, died. The artist spent those early years hiding his artistic talents from Maryville, a man’s man who considered art feminine and only for sissies, an attitude consistent with his Midwestern contemporaries. Wood said, regarding his father’s disapproval of his art, “For a farmer’s son in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to say he wanted to paint pictures for his life work was as startling as a girl to announce she wanted to live a life of shame.”
Wood’s troubled relationship with his father contributes an obvious and psychologically predictable influence on many of his paintings. Although the model for the male figure in American Gothic was his dentist, his resemblance to Maryville, a stern Quaker, is striking and confirmed by Wood’s sister, Nan. The prongs of the pitchfork, echo the seams of the farmer’s overalls and form the letter “W,” to evoke Maryville Wood.
Nan was the model for the female figure; her image also resembles a portrait Wood painted of his beloved mother, Hattie. In fact, Nan wears her mother’s cameo in the picture, a gift given by Wood to Hattie upon a return from Europe. Interestingly, the image on the cameo is of the mythological Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of grains and of the harvest, a myth familiar to agrarian culture in the Midwest, according to Evans.
Because the couple are both clothed in black and bear solemn facial expressions, and the windows and curtains have been shut tight on the farmhouse, typical of a household in mourning, many have interpreted this image as a funerary painting, possibly referring to Maryville’s death. But, the idea of mourning has not dissuaded viewers from looking askance and raising eyebrows at the disparity in ages of the models, especially since Wood alternately described the pair as father/daughter and husband/wife.
When American Gothic was introduced at the Art Institute in Chicago, where it resides today, it was received in a variety of ways. Some rural dwellers considered it a mockery of their lives and a betrayal. Many urbanites found it true to their condescending beliefs about rural America. But overwhelmingly critics loved it, and the at-large impression of the painting was one of patriotism. It seemed the epitome of core Midwestern American values, an impression that still holds with general audiences.
American Gothic is Wood’s quintessential American masterpiece, but the predominant theme that runs through Evans’s biography can best be seen in the rolling hills of his idyllic landscapes, such as Stone City, Iowa from 1930. Evans notes previous scholars’ claims of erotic undertones in Wood’s images, comparing the clustered, rounded, fertile hillocks of the countryside to the female body. Evans’s ubiquitous claim is that the artist was a closeted homosexual, a label Wood dodged and feared his entire life. Evans asserts that the flowing rises in the landscape are not female bodies but the backside of male figures. He points out that while Wood painted only “desexualized” female figures and almost no female nudes, he painted numerous nude male figures in farm settings, works that Evans claims are sexually suggestive.
Evans’s repeated and zealous interpretations of homosexuality in Wood’s paintings seem at times tedious and trite, but he does make a viable case for his claim, visually and anecdotally. Confident in his assessment, he acknowledges that trying to know an artist’s motivations and intentions with certainty is at best risky. Over time, the homosexual innuendos have become a common assumption among art historians, but Evans is the first to elaborate and support his claim in writing with circumstantial evidence. Since neither Wood, nor any of those close to him, ever acknowledged his sexual orientation, the facts seem to be buried with the artist.
Whether Wood’s images are read as patriotic or homoerotic, loaded with rural pride or European symbolism, he has left a profound imprint on the American psyche. Though he may have been, “just a simple Middle Western farmer-painter,” whose only really good ideas came while milking a cow, as he describes himself, it is Wood’s complexities that have created art now ingrained in the American consciousness.