Friday, August 5, 2005

American Gothic

Most of you probably recognise the painting above, even if you might not know its name. It is American Gothic by Grant Wood. This year it celebrates its 75th anniversary. The inspiration for the painting came from a house in Eldon, Iowa, built in a Gothic Revival style. The house had been built in 1881 and is still standing today.

As to the people in the painting, they are supposed to be a farmer and his daughter, not a farmer and his wife as so commonly thought. Just as the house is a real house, so too were the farmer and the dauthter of the painting real people. The man was Wood's dentist, Byron H. McKeeby, who took a bit of persuading before he would pose for the painting. The woman is Wood's own sister, Nan Wood Graham.

Grant Wood entered American Gothic in a competition held by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. Curiously, the competition's judges initially rejected what would become the most famous American painting of all time. It was only when one of the museum's trustees saw the painting and intervened that it was finally allowed in the competition and exhibited at the Art Institute. In October 1930 Grant Wood was awarded third place in the competition, winning $300. The painting then appeared in newspapers across the United States, which carried stories on the competition. While American Gothic only took third place in the competition, it was the painting that caught the public's fancy.

That is not to say that everyone initially adored the painting. At first Wood's Iowa neighbours thought that he was poking fun at them with the painting. It was only after he explained that the models for the painting were his dentist and his own sister that they realised he had not intended to parody Iowa natives. Of course, the misguided assumptions of Wood's Iowa neighbours have been shared by art critics as well, some of who have thought that American Gothic was satirsing the puritanical values of the Midwest. Wood always denied this, and it seems more likely that instead his intention was the exact opposite--Wood meant to glorify the sort of moral fortitude found in the Midwest.

Regardless, American Gothic would go on to become possibly the most famous painting ever created by an American. It has been parodied endless times, with Wood's dentist and sister being replaced by Jed and Granny of The Beverly Hillbillies, Kermit and Miss Piggy of the Muppets, the Frankenstein Monster and his Bride, so on and so forth. With the possible exception of the Mona Lisa, it is probably the painting used more in advertisements and commercials than any other. American Gothic became a part of American pop culture almost immediately upon its unveiling. I suspect it will remain part of American pop culture as long as there is an America.

No comments: