American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood
Meaning and Interpretation of American Scene Painting

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American Gothic
By Grant Wood.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

American Gothic (1930)


Interpretation of other Modern American Paintings


Name: American Gothic (1930)
Artist: Grant Wood (1892-1942)
Medium: Oil painting on beaver board
Genre: Portrait Art
Movement: American Scene painting
Location: Art Institute of Chicago

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of paintings
by Regionalist painters
like Grant Wood, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of American Gothic by Grant Wood

Among the most influential 20th century painters of the American Midwest, Grant Wood is famous for his unique contribution to Regionalism (c.1925-45) - the American reaction to the country's dependence on European modern art which flourished during the interwar period. Like other Regionalists his detailed, polished style of painting reflected traditional old-fashioned values found in small town America - an America with which he himself was very familiar. He was born on a farm in Iowa, where he remained for most of his life, teaching art in Cedar Rapids. On visits to Europe between 1920 and 1926 he encountered the highly detailed realism of 15th-century Flemish painting, as well as works of the German Renaissance of the time. Applying this to his idiosyncratic depictions of rural America he earned himself the nickname of "the Hans Memling of the American Midwest." See also his history painting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

American Gothic is unquestionably Wood's masterpiece and ranks among the finest portrait paintings of its day. Like the Mona Lisa, it remains an enigmatic composition, but one which has become an icon of American art of the 20th century as well as one of the greatest paintings of Midwest Americana.

The picture depicts a middle-aged couple (usually interpreted as a farmer with either his wife or daughter) standing in front of their home, a wooden farmhouse built in the 1890s architectural style known as Carpenter (or American) Gothic. Little of the background is visible however, because the figures are so close to the viewer. Wood based the farmhouse on Dibble House, a building he saw in the small Iowan town of Eldon, and used his sister Nan (1899–1990) and Dr. Byron McKeeby (1867–1950) his dentist, as models for the couple, dressing them in traditional clothes.

Their resemblance to the stereotypical image of Midwest rural folks, complete with pitchfork and dungarees, led many art critics to interpret the work as a satirical commentary on small-town culture. In fact, it raised a storm of protest when a copy of the image appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Readers were outraged by Wood's portrayal of them as grim-faced, puritans. But in fact Wood created American Gothic as an affirmative statement about traditional American values: as an act of reassurance just as the Great Depression was beginning to bite. The two people, living in their sturdy well-crafted wooden house, armed with their down-to-earth qualities of resilience, fortitude and pride, represent those who are most likely to overcome the hardship of the 1930s. As it happens, encouraged in part by Wood's close association with populist Midwestern painters, such as Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), opinion rallied behind the painting which has become an iconic pictorial statement of American pioneer culture.



The values championed by Wood are alluded to throughout the work. The man's hay fork and overalls, for instance, represent manual labour, while the woman's colonial print apron symbolizes 19th-century America. The flowers and plants on the porch represent domestic husbandry and small-holding cultivation. The couple's expressions are more ambivalent. They appear to suggest a stoic and rather joyless life, leavened only (perhaps) by a pinch of Biblical evangelism. Or is Wood merely underscoring the serious hardships faced by rural dwellers of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Another slight mystery involves the perceptible degree of formality in the picture. The woman's black dress and brooch, the man's dark blue jacket and clean-shaven face, the drawn curtains at the window, the clean prongs of the fork - all this lends the work a slightly surreal quality, which is at odds with other iconic images of interior America. At any rate, viewed from the vantage point of the 21st century, the documentary photography of Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), and Ben Shahn (1898-1969), with its gritty portraits of sharecroppers, small farmers and migrant workers - see, for instance, "Portrait of Floyd Burroughs, Alabama sharecropper" (1936) by Walker Evans - has a more authentic feel.

In other respects, the painting is rigorously planned. To begin with, it is imprinted with a complex matrix of vertical and horizontal lines, juxtaposed with the crescent of the woman's apron-top, the rounded shapes of the trees and the pattern on the apron, as well as the man's circular spectacles and vest buttons. Also, the prongs of the hay fork are aligned with the window bars of the farmhouse and also the seams of the farmer's dungarees. The Gothic window finds an echo in the farmer's face (nose and mouth); the inverted 'V' of the roof is echoed by the woman's white collar.

Interpretation of other Modern American Paintings

Black Abstraction (1927) by Georgia O'Keeffe.
Organic abstraction at its best.

Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929) by Edward Hopper.
Seaside landscape from the master of urban genre paintings.

Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe.
Symbolist art from New Mexico.

Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper.
Urban genre painting with cinematic quality.


• For the meaning of other American Scene or Regionalist paintings, see: Homepage.

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