It is one of the most recognisable paintings of the 20thcentury. It has been ripped off, spoofed and copied thousands of times. Among other things, it has sold pharmaceuticals, beer and biscuits.
Few people can actually tell you what it’s called or who it’s painted by. For the record, it’s “American Gothic” and it was painted by Grant Wood in 1930.
It was called that because of the Gothic window in the little wooden house. The house still stands. It’s known as The Dibble House and you can find it in Eldon, Iowa.
At the time, the picture was seen as a satirical poke at the pretensions of country folk. The picture won a bronze medal and $300 at the Chicago Art Fair of 1930. An unknown patron persuaded the Institute to buy it and that’s where it has been ever since.
Gertrude Stein (and other critics) loved it. The people of Iowa didn’t.
Wood swayed with the wind. To city slickers he said, yes, the painting is a sideways look at hicks in the sticks. But in a letter to the affronted people of Iowa he wrote, “It seems to me that they (the couple in the picture) are basically solid and good people.”
The woman on the left is his sister, Nan. The man on her right is the town dentist.
Nan was worried people would think it was a portrait of a man and his wife. She insisted it was a “father-and-daughter” picture. Wood was sufficiently apologetic to paint her portrait in 1931, looking a lot more glamorous.
Nan in 1931
Why did “American Gothic” go viral? It was an instant success and made Wood famous.
The Great Depression was ravaging rural America at the time. There is a grim resilience to the farmer that people may have admired. He was a representation of the resolute American character. But it is the sidelong look of the woman that gives the painting its psychological depth.She is fastidiously prim and yet…and yet…
The fact that it’s open to interpretation is part of its attraction. It is art. Intriguing but not intellectual. (Bear in mind what Picasso was painting at the time.) As Life magazine snootily remarked, the painting “is the epitome of middlebrow culture.” That’s why it made its way onto cereal boxes. And into hundreds of ads.
Grant died in 1942, leaving the copyright to his sister. She soldiered on until she was 91. Perhaps what kept her going was pursuing all those who repurposed the painting without permission. She sued Playboy for depicting her topless.
And she was one of the founder members of VAGA, a licensing organisation that owns her image rights to this day. It wasn’t so much that she was protecting the integrity of the painting. She was looking after an income stream.
Art and advertising may sometimes seem to be in conflict, but they are, after all, both businesses.
A few more ads
Some of the many parodies
This is what Picasso was up to in 1930M<