Finally figuring out American Gothic’

Conversations around American Gothic at Cincinnati Art Museum

5 minute read
Expressing universal truths
Expressing universal truths

Cincinnati arts lovers are understandably thrilled that American Gothic, the iconic portrait of two stone-faced Midwestern homesteaders, will be displayed at the Cincinnati Art Museum this month, thanks to a loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. The signature work of Grant Wood, the enigmatic mid-20th-century regionalist from Iowa, has become America's answer to the Mona Lisa. As with Da Vinci's best-known portrait, everyone thinks they know Grant's 1930 painting. Everyone has seen a reproduction or a parody knockoff. And everyone sort of likes it. But why?

The answer to that lingering conundrum — one that I've wrestled with over the years — will likely be revealed when American Gothic is paired, in late August, in an exhibit titled Conversations around American Gothic, with Grant's other great work, Daughters of Revolution, one of the many jewels of the Cincinnati Art Museum's permanent collection. Think of Daughters as a pictorial road map to American Gothic: Its satirical narrative of mincing, tea-swigging old biddies can serve as a key to unraveling the rigorous, complex character study in Gothic. Together, this duality results in an unexpected epiphany, chipping away maybe — just maybe — at the Wood enigma.

What's revealed, at least, in part, is a Depression-era artist (1891-1942) who was a powerful societal critic of anti-Roosevelt Farmland, USA. As Midwest author Sinclair Lewis did for literary satire, Wood stepped forward — if sometimes only tentatively — as a regional critic. Using modern art as his form, in Gothic and Daughters, we witness Wood Unplugged.

At least, that's one way of looking at it.

A homegrown Mona Lisa

I really wasn't up to speed with Daughters until a recent visit to the Cincinnati museum, and, as a result, I've never quite known what to make of American Gothic during my visits to the Art Institute. Over time, I'd lapse into what had become, for me, an ongoing state of dazed puzzlement when tackling the picture up close and personal. Usually, I'd come away thinking not much more than Wood was just portraying the pair as dour, sour, Midwestern dust bowlers.

In the end, I always left the Gothic experience just as edified as when I brushed up against the Mona Lisa at the Musée du Louvre. In other words, feeling flat.

The paintings, of course, have almost nothing in common other than their worldwide standing as universal visual entities, something like Coca-Cola iconography. To be sure, both are surprisingly smallish. (Gothic is 30 inches by 25 inches; Mona, 30 inches by 21 inches). Yes, both pictures — as the case with all great art, whatever the medium — speak to a universal truth: Mona is an archetypal Renaissance woman, and Wood's “Ma Kettle” presents a similar universality, Midwest Division. Otherwise the paintings go their separate ways, involving, thankfully for audiences in Chicago at least, an unharried viewing experience. No crowds of camera-bedecked Chinese tourists cluster around Gothic. In fact, you can view the Wood picture almost in solitary bliss; similarly, Daughters in Cincinnati.

I'll leave others to decipher Mona.

Anti-German feeling

In a way, understanding Gothic, via a stopover at Daughters, is probably, in any case, a more interesting journey.

The two oils were created only two years apart. Wood painted Gothic just a year after the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Almost immediately, it was snapped up by the Art Institute for $300, about $4,000 today. (Wonder if the curator who bought the painting, probably worth millions today, got a promotion? Just saying.)

Daughters, the larger picture at 20 inches by 40 inches, was a 1932 work. Its narrative is simple and biting.

Some years before, in 1927, Wood had been commissioned to create a mammoth stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And so he did. But unhappy with the work of American craftsmen, Wood employed glaziers in Munich and went to Germany to supervise the work.

World War I was long over, and, of course, no one at the time could have predicted the rise of Nazi Germany. Still the local branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution protested that Germans had a part in Wood's work. Moreover, they succeeded in blocking the window's installation — until 1955, when it was finally installed, 13 years after Wood's death.

But in Daughters, Wood had sweet revenge. The painting is a cutting attack, exemplified by Wood's merciless depiction of three tight-lipped, white-bread DAR crones. There's more. Hypocrisy? For all their putative commitment to American democracy, the women are really adherents of class-driven English social mores. Note the teacup in the poultry-like claw/hand of the middle woman. Badda bing! The smug women are also proudly posed in front of what for DAR members would be an icon — yet an obvious cliché, as well — of the American Revolution, the painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware. Oops! The oil was painted by Emanuel Leutze, a German American. A German model also posed for the Washington figure. Badda boom!

Not-so-simple folk

In the end, I suspect that the same ability that allowed Wood to caustically dissect the matronly society and culture of the DAR extends to his earlier work in Gothic. Keep in mind that the couple in Gothic are no typical Depression-era farmhands (Wood's sister Nan was actually the model for the woman; Wood's dentist, the man). Both are portrayed as being rather too prosperous. Note the pitchfork, with tines and mount that really don't seem they could withstand a day's hard labor. Note the man’s gold pin and the woman’s heirloom brooch.

No, these are really two swells posing as hicks. They’re not paragons of somber Midwestern virtue. To my mind, they're just two more prissy, self-righteous types who would fit in well, thank you, at the next DAR thé dansant.

In fact, if you look closely enough, you'll see that Daughters of Revolution and American Gothic inhabit each other. For a few short months, starting in Cincinnati this month, they'll form an informal diptych, telling an integrated story of small-minded American values. American Daughters, maybe.

What, When, Where

Conversations around American Gothic, August 30 to November 16, 2014. Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, Ohio. 513-721-2787 or

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