Grant Wood
Biography of American Realist Painter, Mid-West Regionalism.
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American Gothic (1930)
Art Institute of Chicago
.

Grant Wood (1892-1942)

Contents

Biography
Early Years
Success at Stained Glass Art
American Gothic
Regionalism Art Movement
Landscape Art
Satirical Paintings
Reputation as an Artist

For analysis of works by American Scene painters like Grant Wood,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


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Biography

An important figure in American art, the Iowan and celebrated Regionalist painter, Grant Wood, painted scenes from Mid-West America during the years of the Great Depression. One of the best portrait artists, his iconic portraits of farmers (as well as his geometric landscapes) have endeared him to generations of Americans. Although he made four study trips to Europe, where he was influenced by Flemish painting and German Renaissance art of the 15th/16th century, and by the realism and stylized precision of the 20th century New Objectivity movement (Die Neue Sachlichkeit), he was largely self-taught as an artist. He once declared - when speaking of his studies in Paris: "all the really good ideas I'd ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. So I went back to Iowa". Active in the running of the Federal Art Project during the 1930s, he later became assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Iowa. He became one of the most famous modern artists in early 20th century America before his career was tragically cut short by cancer. His masterpiece American Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago) is regarded as one of the greatest 20th century paintings of the mid-west. Other notable works include: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Daughters of the Revolution (1932, Cincinnati Art Museum). Many of Wood's paintings are available as prints in the form of poster art.

 

 

Early Years

Wood was born in Anamosa, Iowa in 1892. His father died when he was only 11. After graduating from High School, he enrolled for summers at the Minneapolis Art School in 1910. Three years later he moved to Chicago, working as a silversmith by day, while studying painting, sketching and sculpture by evening at the Art Institute of Chicago. Between 1920 and 1928 he made several trips to Europe studying the works of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists as well as the Northern Renaissance masters. Studying briefly at the Julian Academy, Wood particularly admired the realism of Van Eyck, Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein. He reportedly told his sister that "the art critics and dealers want no part of American art. They think this country is too new for any culture and too crude and undeveloped to produce any artists. You have to be a Frenchman, take a French name, and paint like a Frenchman to gain recognition". When he returned to America, Wood supported himself financially by working as an interior designer and carrying out camouflage work in his army service during the First World War. Although painting was his forte, he also worked in a number of mixed media including ink, charcoal, metal, wood, stained glass, ceramics and found objects.

 

Success at Stained Glass Art

Wood's first important commission - for stained glass art, rather than painting - came from the city of Cedar Rapids in 1927, when he was asked to design a window for their Veteran Memorial building. The stained glass took two years to build, including time Wood spent in Munich where the local craftsmen still employed medieval methods. While in Munich, Wood spent much time admiring the Northern Gothic paintings at the Alte Pinakothek Museum. Realism as a style was enjoying a resurgence of popularity in Germany, it was referred to as New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), an art style which arose in opposition to Expressionism. Members of the movement included Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckman.

Returning to Iowa, Wood's painting turned away from his early style of Impressionism, towards Realism and American subjects. In Woman with Plants (1929), Wood painted his mother as a loving frontier woman. He placed her in a rural landscape setting, paying special attention to her dress, potted plant and other details which were important to his mother. This was one of the first Midwest paintings where local people felt they were depicted in a true sense. Grant continued to work in this style, soon painting his most famous painting, American Gothic.

American Gothic

Wood burst onto the American art scene in 1930 with his painting American Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago). The inspiration came from a cottage he discovered, which had been designed in the Gothic Revival style, with a distinctive upper window. He made a decision to paint the house along with 'the kind of people I fancied should live in that house'. The painting shows a farmer with a woman, who may be either his wife or spinster daughter. The figures were modelled on the artist's sister and his dentist. The couple are placed in a traditional setting, the man is holding a pitchfork symbolising hard labour and the woman has flowers over her shoulder implying domestication. American Gothic is one of the most familiar images of American 20th century culture and one of it's most parodied artworks. Woods entered the painting for a competition run by the Art Institute of Chicago, however the judges deemed it a 'comic valentine'. Despite this, the museum's patron convinced the judges to award Wood the bronze prize and to buy the painting. The painting was soon reproduced in newspapers across the Western States. It became hugely popular, but suffered a backlash when Iowans furiously complained that they were being depicted as 'bible-thumpers'. However, during the years of the Great Depression, with its Social Realism movement - the painting came to be seen a depiction of the steadfast American pioneering spirit. At the same time Woods rejected what he felt were snobbish East Coast art circles and aligned himself with populist Midwestern painters, such as Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry: (see also, Andrew Wyeth 1917-2009). In 1931, following the success of American Gothic, Wood created The Ride of Paul Revere (Metropolitian Museum of Art). The painting is of an 18th century house, set in a dreamlike landscape.

Regionalism Art Movement

Wood spent much of the 1930s promoting Regionalism in the arts, lecturing throughout the country on the subject. (Regionialism is closely associated with the broader movement called American Scene Painting.) Photographed regularly in his overalls, Wood promoted hard working America and the landscape that gave birth to them. He even painted a self portrait, wearing his trademark overalls He supervised mural painting and mentored art students. In 1932 he established the Stone City Art Colony near his home town to help local artists survive the Great Depression. To Wood, Regionalism meant artists should paint what is around them, what they know and what they see. He took his lead from the great Flemish masters of the High Renaissance. As for style, Wood was neutral; he encouraged students whom he taught at the University of Iowa's School of Art to experiment widely - Impressionist, Expressionism, Fauvism. His only dogma was subject matter. At the same time he held regular exhibitions in Chicago and New York.

Landscape Art

Landscape painting was a major outlet for Wood, as exemplified by works like: Stone City, Iowa (1930); Fall Plowing (1931); and The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover (1931). He created scenes of rolling hills and perfect hedges and trees as an antidote to the darkness of the Great Depression. His style was unique, abandoning earlier attempts of Impressionism; he was no longer interested in capturing light and shadow movement. Instead, his hills and trees were stylised into characteristic swellings. Wanda Corn, Art Historian, wrote of the painting Stone City, Iowa: 'this is a seminal painting; it sets a style the artist would refine and modify, but never fundamentally alter, for the rest of his life'. Wood's landscapes are essentially idealised versions of American country life, rather than contemporary snapshots. America in the 1930s was in the grip of a building and machine age, but none of this appears in Wood's landscapes. Only on one painting, Death on Ridge Road, do motor vehicles make an appearance. In fact his landscapes are more nostalgic for the past and America of the 1880s. Critics felt Wood's stylised geometric landscapes were not truly 'Realistic', stating he had abdicated artistic responsibility. After the artist's death, some complained that his landscapes were emotionless, whereas others suggest his stylisation is almost akin to sculpture.

Satirical Paintings

Although Wood claimed not to be a satirist, he was quickly typecast as one by art critics, particularly in the wake of his painting American Gothic. Although he often depicted patriotic subjects, such as The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover and Daughters of Revolution: he deflated nationalistic hype with irony. His painting Daughters of the Revolution created much controversy at the time it was exhibited. It depicted the Daughters of the American Revolution, a group of volunteers, established in 1890 who were dedicated to keeping America strong by promoting patriotism. Wood found the society ridiculous, calling them 'those Tory gals'. Wood particularly disliked the organisation because they objected to his stained glass window commission in the late 1920s, saying it was made by enemy hands (it was constructed in Germany). The group held up the dedication of the window, which did not take place until 13 years after the artist's death. In the painting Daughters of Revolution, three ladies are depicted, facing the viewer, one holding a teacup. The one hand depicted holding the teacup is rigid, suggesting a spinster. The ladies stare at the viewer, waiting for recognition of their inherent glory. They are placed in front of a painting by Emanuel Leutze, called Washington Crossing the Delaware. Although the painting is considered a national treasure, the irony was, that Letuze painted it in Germany using the Rhine as a model for the Delaware.

American Realism
For an exemplar of the New York Ashcan school, read about the realist painter George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925). For another American realist painter, who preferred more urban subjects, but whose vision also embraced dream-like genre paintings, see Edward Hopper (1882-1967). For a rural realist from the 19th century, see Winslow Homer (1836-1910). See also Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986).

Reputation as an Artist

Wood died at the young age of 49, suffering from liver cancer. His sister Nan, the woman portrayed in American Gothic inherited his estate. When she died, the property transferred to the Figge Art Museum, Davenport. Wood's rise was fast, but after his death, his fall was equally fast. A retrospective held of his paintings in Chicago after his death received negative reviews. In the 1950s, academics felt Wood's work was too populist, too much like American folk-art - 'always popular among simple people'. One of his main critics, Ruth Pickering, observed that he did not fit the image of a romantic painter. She complained he was no Van Gogh or Cezanne. However, from the 1970s onward Wood's reputation has again risen. (See a similar reaction to Norman Rockwell, the populist American illustrator and portraitist.)

One of the great 20th century painters of America, Grant Wood's works hang in many of the best art museums throughout the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Cedar Rapids Museum, Iowa; Cincinnati Art Museum; the Smithsonian Art Museum, Washington DC; and others.

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