“American Gothic” & the 1930s

Grant Wood's American Gothic, 1930, Oil on Beaverboard

Upon seeing this painting, for many, various other parodies of this piece come to mind.  For example:

Miss Piggy & Kermit

Marge & Homer Simpson

Angela & Dwight from "The Office"

This great source of American parody had its foundation in some very tumultuous political and economic times, much like what we are experiencing today, over 75 years later.  The 1930s in the United States were sandwiched between two highly influential book ends: the Stock Market crash of 1929 that lead to the Great Depression, as well as the onset of WWII in 1939.  The crash of 1929 brought about mass unemployment, and the years leading up to the war were filled with feuding political fronts.

Dorothea Lange's famous photo "Migrant Mother," 1936

Amidst all of this turmoil and upheaval, many artists used their work to document the struggles of the everyday worker and common people whose lives had been most greatly affected by the dramatic changes of the times.  Photography was used widely as means to document this time period, and the frustration and suffering that it entailed.  While many various styles of painting arose, one in particular stood out in the midwest: Regionalism.  Regionalism refers to the style of painting that sought simplicity through direct storytelling and narratives, homespun naturalism, matter-of-fact style and affirmation of American values.

Grant Wood's "Self Portrait"

Seen above in his Self Portrait, Grant Wood spent most of his life in small, modern cities.  However, he spent the first 10 years of his life on a farm in rural Iowa.  His father and mother were Presbyterians who were very involved in the local church.  Life of the farm was highly traditional (no telephones, radios or cars and very little contact with anyone outside of neighbors and relatives).  When he was 10, his father passed away and his family moved closer to relatives in Cedar Rapids where Wood had to take odd jobs to help support his family.

In the 1930s, he looked back to his past for subject matter, namely these first 10 years of his life as a small town, midwestern farm boy.  He equated experiences of the humble with those of the great:

Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, you all had great moments, but you never tasted the supreme triumph; you were never a farm boy riding in from the fields on a bulging rack of new-mown hay. –Grant Wood

Grant Wood's "American Gothic," 1930, Oil on Beaverboard

Wood’s painting shows a farmer and his spinster daughter standing in front of their property, which was constructed in the “Carpenter Gothic” style (usually constructed of wood, with pointed arched windows, recalling decor of the late Renaissance).  The man stands, holding a pitchfork firmly in his right hand as he stares directly as us, the viewers, with a stern, tight lipped facial expression.  He wears traditional farm garb: denim overalls and a collarless shirt.  Wood has donned him with a nice black jacket, referring to his involvement with the church (seeing as that was a traditional article of clothing for ministers of the late 19th century).  His daughter stands slightly behind him, also wearing a traditional dress.  The houseplants over her shoulder illustrate her domesticity.  Wood used his sister and his dentist as the models for American Gothic:

Wood's Sister and Dentist: original models for "American Gothic"

While their facial expressions aren’t exactly chipper, this was not to reinforce the emotions associated with the 1930s.  In addition to highlighting their strict traditions and moral code, he based the composition on photos from late 19th century farms.  These photos were taken with long exposure cameras that were highly sensitive to movement.  This is why people have stern looks on their faces in old photos: because it was easier to keep your face still with a dull expression, than trying to maintain a smile for minutes at a time.  Bottom line: in such rough times, people needed to be reminded and reaffirmed of the notion that America was great and that things were going to be okay.  Turning back to better, simpler times offered this renewed sense of self-worth, and was a welcomed departure from the “foreign” European abstraction that had flooded the art scene after WWI.  In Grant Wood’s piece, American Gothic, this departure meant honoring his roots and the traditions of the mid-west.

While pop culture has parodied this painting time and time again, and while some critics say that this painting is Wood’s jab at the “too-traditional” mid-west, Wood maintains that he never meant to represent these people and their lifestyle in jest.  He aimed to represent the traditional mid-west and its value system as a way of life when times seemed better than they were in the 1930s.


Wanda M. Corn, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, ff Stack #759.13 W87c

Wanda M. Corn, “The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic,’” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 10 (1983), 252-275.


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