Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic. We all know it, we all own a keychain or coffee cup that has the American masterpiece plastered on it. It is, after all, an American classic. The initial reasons for this are clear enough; completed just as the hard times of the Great Depression finally crushed any remaining optimism from the prosperous roaring twenties, Grant’s austere depiction of the humble Iowa farmer and his daughter communicate the hardship and independence that came to exemplify the American character during the 1930’s. However, as much as we like to see American Gothic as the reflection of a particular age, its ubiquity in our cultural lexicon suggests that Grant’s farmers represent something that belongs not only to periods of hardship in our nation’s history, but to the nation’s character as a whole.
This is evident when we look into Grant’s source material for the painting which comes not from the depressed 1930’s but the pioneer front of the 1880’s. Looking through old photo albums, Wood found old tintypes taken by famous photographer and homesteader Solomon Butcher during the later half of the 19th century. As Wood biographer Kate F. Jennings points out, Wood found in these photos “mythic Agrarian characters;” representations of the pioneer spirit that runs through the American identity. Wood was attracted to one photo in particular, an 1886 snapshot of pioneer John Curry and his wife in front of their sod house in Custer County Nebraska.
Wood sourced the stern, gothic quality of the photo to craft his most well known work. Using his sister Nan and the local dentist as models, Wood arranged his figures to echo the narrow vertical lines of the Gothic window placed above them in the composition. In order to communicate a sense of generational crossover, Wood had his sister put her hair up in a bun so that she resembled an ancestor from an earlier era.
The effect, of course, is somewhat chilling. There is little warmth or welcome communicated by Grant’s almost platonic depiction of the soul of the American mid-west; the austerity of the subjects and their demeanor is, in all honesty, pretty creepy to the modern eye. However, Wood’s work subtlety communicates the integrity and hard-bitten independence represented not only by the small-town Iowan farmer of the 1930’s, but by the pioneering American in general. Wood’s painting is not simply a reflection of austerity during the depression, but of the explorative element of the American identity. Because the painting touches on the basic building blocks of the American character, its prominence as a cultural icon is unsurprising. Everyone from The Simpsons to Jim Henson’s Muppets has used American Gothic to mock, celebrate and explore the elements that make up our cultural identity. So while American Gothic may have served as a moral lesson for the era in which is first achieved prominence, its expression of some of our oldest and most important values make the work an enduring part of our cultural lexicon.
Pictured: Our cultural Lexicon