Quite a few artists are known by a single work. For Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa was probably both his making and his undoing, but others, like Grant Wood (1891–1942) had significantly longer careers. It’s mystifying how just one of their works becomes so famous, and the rest linger in obscurity.
Grant DeVolson Wood seems to have drawn and painted for almost his whole life. Born in rural Iowa far from anywhere you’re likely to know, he moved with his family to Cedar Rapids when he was ten. He initially trained in metalwork, then in 1913 enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He doesn’t appear to have painted much seriously until the 1920s, when he made four trips to Europe and became impressed by the paintings of the Northern Renaissance, and those of Jan van Eyck in particular.
Wood’s first and only really successful painting is American Gothic (1930). He entered this into a competition at the Art Insitute of Chicago in October that year, winning the bronze medal. More importantly, the Art Institute bought the work that November, and Wood’s painting was soon being featured in newspapers across the US.
Wood had originally intended to paint a house, and driving round Eldon, Iowa, noticed the house shown in the background, with its Gothic-style window. He obtained permission from the owners, then decided that he wanted to include “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house.” His models were his sister and their dentist, intended to be a father and adult daughter, not husband and wife. Although Wood has exaggerated the vertical, in keeping with the principles of Gothic architecture, his painting appears faithful to the house and his models.
Critics at the time saw this as a satire of small-town rural America, which it wasn’t intended to be, but it was re-interpreted during the Great Depression as showing the steadfast spirit of the American pioneer. This increased its popularity, and today it is one of the most famous American paintings, and known around the world.
In the same year, Wood painted Arnold Comes of Age, a portrait of a demure young man in the autumn, with a couple of nude figures by the river in the background. This seems to allude to the man’s coming of age experiences.
Fall Plowing, from the following year, shows a recently-developed walking plough with a steel ploughshare, which had become an important advance in cultivating the prairie in Iowa. Wood based this on a view near Viola, Iowa.
The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, West Branch, Iowa (1931) shows the farm on which Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964), the thirty-first President of the US had been born and brought up, until he was orphaned at the age of ten.
Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) was inspired by Longfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride (1860), which tells the story of the American patriot Paul Revere (1735-1818) and his midnight ride on 18 April 1775, to alert colonial militia of the approach of British forces before the battles of Lexington and Concord. This is shown using a bird’s eye view which gives it an air of unreality. Wood’s painting was bought by a couple from Memphis, Tennessee, only entering a public collection in 1950.
Appraisal (1932) is a more naturalist painting of what might best be termed a genre scene, of two women talking over a cockerel. Details of the plants behind them, and much of the surroundings, are in illustrative style and look quite flat.
During the Great Depression, Wood co-founded the Stone City Art Colony, which helped artists survive those bleak times. He was also a strong supporter of Regionalism as an artistic movement, something which was vigorously opposed by others at the time. From 1934-41, he taught painting at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
Spring Turning from 1936 is a high aerial view of rolling countryside being ploughed using a pair of horses, during the Spring. Its bright green fields seem almost endless.
Parson Weems’s Fable from 1939 is another narrative painting. The Parson Weems to whom it refers is Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825), who wrote the first biography of George Washington shortly after the latter’s death. This contains several apocryphal stories, including the legend of the cherry tree, which didn’t appear until its fifth edition.
According to this, when Washington was six, he was given custody of a hatchet, which he used to cut through the bark of a superb young English cherry tree. When this was discovered the next day, Washington’s father asked the boy if he knew who had killed the cherry tree, to which George Washington admitted his guilt, saying that he couldn’t tell a lie. His father was overjoyed at his son’s honesty. Sadly, the story is generally considered to be a fabrication.
Wood’s ingenious treatment places Parson Weems at the right, holding open a stage curtain, as if narrating the story to the viewer. The boy is depicted in the style of the Northern Renaissance, as a miniature adult, wig and all.
January (1940-41) shows a set of hare tracks emerging from a snowed-in stook during harsh winter weather in the Midwest.
That contrasts with Spring in Town from 1941, as locals get out in the warm sunshine of the Spring and tend to their yards.
In 1941, when there was the possibility of him being appointed professor at the University of Iowa, Wood became ill with pancreatic cancer. He died on the day before his fifty-first birthday in 1942.