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Grant Wood’s painting  “American Gothic”

In August 1930, while travelling through Eldon, Iowa, Grant Wood, an Iowa-born artist with European training, spotted a trim white cottage with a gothic style window. The apposition is striking. Wood recognized the European architecture of cathedrals relocated in the design of a farm house in Midwest America. This strange construction gave the author the theme that turned into the base of a new school of art called Regionalism.

As the Great Depression swept through industrial cities leaving behind countless jobless people and hard-working farmers without their farmlands, Americans were in a great need for a positive turn, for a hopeful projection for themselves. In these times of great economic distress, Wood’s depiction provided the nation, as Elisabeth Lunday says, “a pair of ready-made secular saints of the American heartland. Following this captivating and complex idea is Grant Wood putting a new perspective on social, cultural and economical issues by creating a new iconic representation for the average American. 

Although Artist Grant Wood had an almost instant success with his painting at the Chicago Exhibition, there were critics to find his painting, American gothic, to be a mockery of the hard working, humble, simple Midwesterner farmers. Other critics saw Grant’s Wood work as a statement against restrictive social norms of life in a small town, against the oppressive culture that took captive both characters portrayed in his work of art.

Although it is clear that they are simple people, not holy figures, the solemnity of the composition puts them on a pedestal. Father and daughter are represented standing in front of their house. The whole composition is static, nothing moves, nothing is suggesting obvious cultural transformation. They are standing solemnly, posing for a composition that seems to be at first sight a simplistic representation of rural America that honors strong values. Looking deeper into this image it reveals a much more complex message.

The saddened faces of the models suggest their feelings about circumstances of their life and social status. They seem to have to carry an unnamed, not indicated what kind of burden but, as proud owners of the house and free Americans, they stand tall with dignity. Slightly elongated faces seem to suggest just this. Only one detail thou is stressing on the state of the mind and harshness of living conditions during the Great Depression of many Americans in the US. Tight lips of the father, like of someone who makes an effort to restrain himself from giving himself away seem as vocal as Edvard Munch’s work is “The Scream”.

A message of fragile hope in an almost fatalist general attitude is in the way the daughter is looking in the direction of her father but rather somewhere in blurred horizon. A shy detail but clear in its message is a squiggle at the back of her neatly arranged hairdo. It is a message about a rebel disposition of the American women at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Beside the two human characters (father and daughter) the house from behind them is very important in this composition. What should have been a humble farmer’s home in times of The Great Depression is, in fact, a bold construction with a first floor window that mimics the Gothic architecture of the European cathedrals. In the upper middle side of the painting, a Gothic window is portal between past and present. Put in the middle of a triangle attic, it resembles the all seeing eye of God in religious painting now replaced by a window. Painted partially behind the heads of the characters and above them, the attic with and the all seeing window is the new version of the religious representation. It is not the all seeing eye, but an object, a window, a medieval window, not with stained glass but with arches bent into symbols of the male and female. If a gothic cathedral, like any church, is home of God and all the saints portrayed a parallel to what Wood seems to suggest lead us to think that in front of the house we see the modern version of the American secular saints.  

Extremely popular painting, the American Gothic never stopped to fascinate. Numerous versions were made by a variety of artists for TV shows, marketing campaigns or movies. It seems that generation after generation of artists find new inspiration while scrutinize The American Gothic of Grant Wood.

The new type of farmers from the beginning of the twentieth century is proud of their work, they keep their traditions and have a high respect for their ancestors. Wood represents these ideas by putting a fork in obviously hard worked hands of the father. The fork is a versatile utensil with general utility. Machineries are for the bourgeoisie. The average farmer is not reach. Not reach does not mean not cultured or illiterate. Father is wearing glasses, most likely needed to read. Both father and daughter are very nicely dressed. Their clean and well kept clothes show clean conduct in life. Importance and respect for ancestors is expressed by the daughter who is wearing a cameo that represents her mother. The idea of clean conduct is not under any religious sign. Wood’s characters are not wearing any religious symbols.

The gothic window from between them is turned into a cultural heritage. Now, the new reference point is in the front of the painting. They are the man and the woman. More than that, they are the American farmer and the young woman. They stand tall, they are reliable because they work hard, they must have strong principles in life to present themselves most carefully and their surrounding primed. They are the model where to one should aspire.

Overall, the Midwestern farm couple in “American Gothic” is a powerful work of art that captures the essence of rural America in the early 20th century. It is a testament to the strength and resilience of the Midwestern farmers who worked the land and built a way of life that has endured for generations. Wood's painting is a reminder that the land and the people who work it are the backbone of our nation, and their contributions should never be forgotten.

Editor: Kyenila Taylor

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