American Gothic appeared in public for the first time during a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, the museum where it still hangs in today. Wood had noticed the Dibble House, on which his painting is based, while being driven around Eldon in Iowa by a fellow painter, and was drawn to the tiny farmhouse’s aspirations to a style grander than its standing— built in a style known as Carpenter Gothic, in which the traditional wooden structures of rural American buildings incorporate borrowed elements from the European Gothic tradition, such as pointed arches and steep gables. Dibble House featured an over-sized, Gothic-style window in the gable beneath its steep-pitched roof.
While the man and woman of the famous painting were not the house’s actual occupants (they were modeled on his sister and dentist), Wood said that they represented ‘the kind of people I fancied should live in that house’, imagining ‘American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house’.
For a time after American Gothic shot to fame, Iowans were displeased at the demure, grim-faced way they were conveyed in the painting, which was also interpreted by art critics as a satirical piece on rural-life in the small towns of the West despite the fact that Wood, though trained in Europe, hailed from Iowa himself. However, as the impact of the Great Depression deepened across America, perspective on Wood’s painting began to change; in a time of uncertainty and flux, the tenacious, assiduous spirit of the American pioneers (the early settlers who struck out Westwards from the already established society’s on America’s eastern coast) came to be a supremely appealing symbol of American fortitude, and a source of reassurance.
It is the artistic response to this period of flux that the Royal Academy’s exhibition, ‘America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s’, will portray. Featuring 45 iconic paintings (many of which have rarely been seen together) by such renowned figures as Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock, the exhibition will demonstrate how ‘artists sought to capture those changes as mass urbanisation, industrialisation and immigration propelled the country towards becoming, in the words of James Truslow Adams, ‘the land of opportunity’’. With depictions of life in the city as well as in Midwestern farmland, the exhibitions will weave a narrative fabric that gives an invaluable insight into one of the most trying periods in USA history.
‘America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s’ will run from the 25th February – 4th June 2017 at the Royal Academy.