American Gothic Meaning: Grant Wood Painting Interpretation & Analysis
by K ShabiPUBLISHED 24 December 2014
What is the meaning of the painting American Gothic by Grant Wood? Why is this piece of art so famous and popular? Read our critique, interpretation and analysis of this famous example of 20th century American regional art. You may not understand the meaning of the painting yet, but you should know that there are a few different reasons why American Gothic is "so famous."
Artist Grant Wood's American Gothic (1930): Where was the Portrait Painted?
American Gothic was in many ways a very personal painting for American artist Grant Wood. Planning to enter an art exhibition in Chicago and in search of local inspiration, in the end it was the architecture of a small house in his Midwestern home town of Eldon, Iowa that inspired Grant Wood to paint American Gothic in 1930, one of the most famous Americana paintings of all time and the inspiration of dozens of parodies. Like Wood, the man and woman in the painting are also natives of the small Midwestern town of Eldon, IA, but their relationship is open for interpretation and not what it first seems...
Up for Interpretation: Who Are the People in American Gothic?
After an initial analysis of the famous painting, many people assume that Grant Wood's American Gothic is just a portrait of a prim and proper older, local married couple, but not a very happy one. In the portrait, the hard, somewhat cold woman frowns and furrows her brow in resignation as she stares off vacantly into the distance. The tight-lipped older man, seemingly an Amish farmer, is stern and somber looking, holding his pitchfork and staring head-on, perhaps anxious to escape the limelight and retreat back to his work on the farm. Why does Wood make this couple look so sad and serious?
Though you assume the man and woman in American Gothic are husband and wife, they’re actually not even in a relationship--romantic or otherwise. The people in American Gothic are actually just the artist's sister and the town's local dentist, both recruited by Wood as artists models for the painting. The total lack of physical chemistry and warmth in American Gothic is not just because Wood's two models were bad at posing. The man and woman never physically posed for the painting together, but were actually painted on separate occasions by Wood, partly explaining the awkwardness and discomfort evident in the painting. So why did Grant Wood paint these people together if they didn't really have a relationship? Why do they look so unhappy? As it turns out, much of the meaning of the American Gothic painting comes back to satire and, surprisingly enough, that little American farm house in the background.
American Gothic Architecture & Meaning of the Satire
According to artist Grant Wood, much of his attraction to the house featured in the background behind the couple was due to its quaint architectural style: American Gothic. Also referred to as "carpenter Gothic," this suburban style of home popular during the Depression era was meant to mimic the lofty, vaulted Gothic architecture of historic European cathedrals--though obviously at a price the working class could afford to buy and live in. While cathedrals often work as symbols of timeless elegance and enduring grandeur, American Gothic homes like the one seen in Wood’s painting, on the other hand, are manufactured quite cheaply and quickly, not built to stand for hundreds of years.
In American Gothic, artist Grant Wood uses the house to paint a satire of modern American culture, what he perceives as an almost laughable and somewhat off-kilter knockoff of the real thing. Though this new form of "American Gothic" architecture was economical and much more practical than authentic Gothic architecture for the typical American family during Depression era, Wood seems to take issue with its trying to be more dignified and established than it really is. When asked about the couple posing in front of the home, artist Grant Wood said, these are "the kind of people I fancied should live in that house,” thereby insinuating that the couple and the house were both unknowingly ridiculous despite their seriousness.
"There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully--to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life." Grant Wood on American Gothic as a satire
Critical Response to Wood's American Gothic Painting
Artist Grant Wood might have thought his satire of small town Midwestern America was funny and right on target, but many art critics initially found his painting American Gothic to be mean spirited and insulting toward the simple, a low blow toward the hardworking men and women of the Midwest living through the tough economic times during the Great Depression.
American Gothic Meaning: A Critique of Midwestern Culture
Many interpreted the meaning of American Gothic to be the artist's snobby judgment on the humble people of Middle America. Like other Regionalist artists and writers, however, Grant Wood seems to critique the oppressive confines of Midwestern culture in American Gothic more than the people themselves. In terms of composition, the tightly cropped painting indicates the claustrophobic and restrictive nature of life in small town American society. One look at the grim and humorless expressions on the models' faces suggests their true feelings about their lives and environment. The ceilings in their American Gothic home might be vaulted, but the lifestyle and culture are nothing short of stifling.
“Without atmosphere a painting is nothing.” This is a quote by Dutch painter and Etcher. There have been several painters who focused on the atmosphere of the locations or spots that they chose to draw on their canvas. However, some of the painters founded themselves mysteriously involved into the environments of places that they visited. One of those painters is Grand Wood, who painted the American Gothic. Wood made certain atmosphere the bases of his painting and through his unique style of painting impressed everyone who liked good artwork. As a result, the painting stands amongst the likes of Mona Lisa and other highly famous paintings today.
American Gothic by Grant Wood
American Gothic by Grant Wood is one of the most famous painting in the history of arts. The Art Gallery of Chicago is the place where American Gothic was displayed for the very first time and it is the very gallery that still keeps the painting. In search of visiting a fine piece of art, in person, I visited the Art Gallery of Chicago. There, along with many other paintings, American Gothic was also displayed for the visitors to see.
Experiencing American Gothic through Computer VS in Person
When I visited the gallery 263 and finally looked at the American Gothic painting by myself, I realized the importance of seeing an artwork by one’s own eyes instead of looking at in on a computer or in books. The painting made that was oil painted on Beaver Board was 78 x 65.3 cm in size and there was the signature of Grant Wood on the lower right corner on the canvas along with the year 1930. Since I was there just to see and analyze the American Gothic, I stayed in front of the painting after other visitors moved towards other paintings.
Masterpiece Turned Into Senseless Parodies
As we all know there have been countless parodies of the American Gothic out there, some of which are harmless parodies while many of them are totally absurd attempts. After looking at the painting for several minutes I got a bit uncomfortable because I found the two characters (Painter’s sister and his dentist) a bit creepy. The way the lady is looking at her father, who seems to be a hardworking farmer, and way the farmer is looking at us holding a pitchfork in his hand is what gives the painting another meaning than just two individuals standing in front of a farmhouse made using Carpet Gothic style. However, creating parody after parody by different people is what I find disrespectful to the legendary art such as this one. If you praise something, you should respect it and not make fun of it or use it is a source of humor because I found everything in the American Gothic but humor.
Existence of Conflict in Concern with the Expectations of Society Earlier we have discussed themes and roles of the artist that conflicted within the expectations of society. If we talk about whether or not the American Gothic had elements that conflicted within the expectations of society, we would have to say yes. For the reason that not everyone sees a particular thing in the same way, various people perceive certain things in different manners. Same is the case with American Gothic as Lunday, in one of her most interesting articles said that; “Some perceived the work as a scathing parody of the Midwest—one outraged farm wife even threatened to bite off Wood’s ear.” (Lunday, 2012)
The Fame and Acceptance Earned By the Artwork
There is a complicit that American Gothic holds within the expectations of society. However, the amount of praise this painting has received completely outweighs the negative remarks or reviews that it received. As Lunday mentions in the very article ‘Honest and Creepy, Satire and Homage: Grant Wood’s American Gothic’: “Meanwhile, Gertrude Stein and other critics praised the painting as a cutting small-town satire, the visual equivalent of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Still others saw the painting as honoring the Midwest and its strong values.” She furthermore said; “During the Great Depression, the masterpiece gave hope to a desperate nation, and it helped shape the notion of the Midwest as a land of hard work and honest values. Today, the painting is firmly embedded in our cultural vocabulary.” (Lunday, 2012)
Without Atmosphere a Painting Is Nothing
It is apparent that Wood believed that the environment of a painting is the most important element of a painting. This particular painting proves this point as the painter chose his dentist and his sister as his subjects just because there was no other model available to pose for the painting in front of the wood farmhouse. Wood took help of his mother in making his paintings as she would agree to become the subject for many of Wood’s paintings. However, while Wood decided to paint the American Gothic, he realized that his mother won’t be able to stand in the field for that long while he paints, so he chose his sister instead. Wood chose his dentist and his sister because he couldn’t afford to lose the opportunity of painting the Carpenter Gothic style farmhouse that he came across while visiting the small town of Eldon in his native Iowa. This reminds me of a quote by Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn, which seems completely fitting to what Grant Wood was all about: “Without atmosphere a painting is nothing.”
― Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn
Wood’s imagination was wide-ranging. He foresaw the fame and acceptance that this particular painting will get by analyzing the environs around the wood farmhouse. When he saw the house’s strange yet compelling arched window in the Carpenter Gothic style, the first thing that came to his mind was to find out what sort of people lived there. However, instead of knocking on the door, the painter decided to capture the farmhouse in paint and tease out the story for himself in effort to sort through the puzzle, piece by piece. (Lunday) “I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house. – Grant Wood.
American Gothic doesn’t fall in the category of Primitive art as the elements it holds are usually found in such paintings and artworks that are related to modernism. Though countless individuals made parodies of American Gothic but actually the real artwork cannot be copied or reproduced to give another painter fame and fortune. The idea of anchoring a painting on the environs of a farm field and a farmhouse was the creativity of Grand Wood which cannot be repeated again in the history of arts. However, if one bases his art practices around the quote “Without atmosphere a painting is nothing.” there would be minor chances that we might see another painting somewhat as good as American Gothic.