Grant Wood was the American regionalist painter who rose to prominence almost overnight with his 1930 painting, American Gothic. In this episode, I spoke with Mike Divelbiss about Wood, his biography and his iconic work.
Grant Wood was born in rural Iowa in 1891. His mother moved the family to the more urban Cedar Rapids in 1901 after his father passed away. Grant Wood showed a proclivity for the arts from an early age and after high school he pursued a broad based education at the Minneapolis Institute of Design and Handicraft. While he is best known today for his painting, Grant Wood worked in diverse media including functional art designing and building furniture as well as jewelry. In 1913, he moved to Chicago where he found work as a silversmith and eventually opened his own shop. During that time, he continued his education studying at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A few years later, he moved back to Iowa to help take care of his mother and he found work as an art teacher. While teaching art, he also served as the local jack of all trades artist. He was commissioned to make a stained glass piece honoring veterans of World War I in addition to building furniture, painting etc.
In 1930, Grant Wood submitted American Gothic in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The piece was immediately popular and acquired by the museum. This elevated Wood's stature in the art world and opened opportunities for him such as teaching at the University of Iowa. He used his prominence to continue to do good in his community starting an artist colony, and during The Great Depression, he led the government jobs program overseeing artists painting murals around Iowa.
American Gothic has been an interesting icon of American and particularly midwestern art for decades. In Iowa, there was an immediate backlash to the piece by people who felt it portrayed them in an unflattering light. Of course as years went on, in the grips of the depression, the painting came to be viewed more as portraying the strength and quiet dignity of working people. Personally I would argue that there is truth in both interpretations. I would argue that Grant Wood has a deep love and fondness for his subjects and his community, but infused his work with a little bit of the caustic humor that is typical of the culture. He is a bit playful with his work on some level making fun of some of the stiffness of some of conventions of the art world and what he viewed as the absurd and pretentious "gothic" window on a small rural home (interesting fact, the window that Wood found so pretentious was actually functional and purchased from a Sears catalog) but simultaneously he has a deep love and affection for everyone and everything he is portraying in his work.