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Rethinking Grant Wood's Iconic Painting, 'American Gothic'
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Rethinking Grant Wood's Iconic Painting, 'American Gothic'

Picture of Stephanie Chang
Updated: 28 November 2016
Grant Wood’s American Gothic has been labelled “kitschy,” “campy,” and “reactionary.” Its meticulous style of fine painting harkens back to the 16th century works of Jan Van Eyck; at the same time, it is a constructed reality that has generated a half-century of heated debate.
American Gothic by Grant Wood
American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930 | WikiCommons

Grant Wood’s American Gothic is amongst the most iconic American paintings, its fame matched only by the ridicule and satirical spoofs it has generated. In the picture, a man tightly gripping a pitchfork at shoulder-height stares, tight-lipped, directly at the viewer. A woman standing to his right directs her furrowed gaze at the man. Their exaggeratedly elongated forms are repeated in the window patterns of the Carpenter Gothic style house behind them. It is difficult, looking at the picture, to determine whether the objects mimic the humans, or whether the humans mimic the objects.

The assumed couple appear uptight and defensive under the scrutiny of our searching eyes; the pitchfork, its tips glinting with dabs of white paint, is certainly an imposing and slightly threatening barrier. Gradually, however, one might feel increasingly discomfited as the realisation dawns that the picture seems to implicate the viewer as much as it does the viewed.

Gordon Parks' American Gothic
Gordon Parks’ American Gothic (1942), a parody of the painting | WikiCommons

Indeed, the spectator is key to this picture. Whilst the satires, debates, and discussions surrounding the painting have come to no clear consensus on the true ‘meaning’ of the work, it does reveal much about the perspectives and biases of its audience. At the time of its creation in 1930 when the picture was first revealed to Iowans, they found the portrayal of Iowan farmers to be a caricature, playing on stereotypes of somber, puritanical small-town folk. The sister of artist Grant Wood, who was the model for the painting, found herself embarrassed to be pictured as the wife of a much older man (based on Wood’s dentist, Dr Byron McKeeby). Others such as influential art collector and writer Gertrude Stein lauded the work is a critique of rural backwater America.

Later, during the time of The Great Depression, Wood’s painting came to be seen as a monument to the humble farmer eking an existence by thorough hard work and grim perseverance. Since then, the dour pair in American Gothic has spawned postcards, cartoons, advertisements, television spoofs, among others, primarily as parody, but also as affectionate imitation of its obscure but profound charms.