grant wood feature offical whitney museum site

How To See Grant Wood: American Gothic & Other Fables At The Whitney

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American Gothic…everyone knows American Gothic. It’s an iconic painting, as familiar as the Mona Lisa or The Scream. Here’s your chance to see it in New York City, and what’s more, learn the story behind the painting, and the man who painted it.

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Installation Image, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, USA

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To see this exhibit, I took a trip to the Whitney Museum of American Art, along with the rest of my art class, which was lead by our fearless leader, Chris Mallin. She had made all the arrangements for us ahead of time, including reserving a private tour with a Whitney Teaching Fellow. It was an expensive endeavor ($200 for the group, in addition to our $25 per person admission fee), but I’m glad we splurged, because our guide was simply terrific…knowledgeable, personable, and extremely interesting. You can make a similar arrangement if you book ahead, and if you are interested in art history, it is really a wonderful opportunity to benefit from the expertise and guidance of a scholar.

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american gothic house shutterstock
Dibble House, AKA American Gothic House, Eldon, Iowa, USA

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So, American Gothic: as we learned from our guide, Grant Wood happened upon the house now immortalized in the famous painting, and found the architectural feature of the gothic-style window utterly preposterous in its context. Today, perhaps a cultural critic would take a quick cellphone picture and mock it on Facebook, or maybe submit the image to McMansion Hell. This technology was not available to Grant Wood, so instead, he knocked on the door, asked the owners for permission to sketch the house, spent a few hours doing so, and then painted it with the people he imagined should live in a such a place (not the actual residents, who apparently had the wrong look). The woman in the picture was modeled after his sister, Nan, and the model for the man was their dentist. He described the painting alternately as a depiction of a husband and wife, and as a father and daughter. Nan, in her twenties at the time, much preferred the latter interpretation, and was (with some justification) quite horrified at her portrayal therein. (There’s another portrait of Nan on display here, which is known as the “apology portrait”: she’s wearing contemporary clothes and a contemporary hairdo and looks considerably more appealing.)

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American Gothic
Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Oil on composition board, 30 3⁄4 x 25 3⁄4 in. (78 × 65.3 cm). Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection 1930.934. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photograph courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY

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But what does it all mean? American Gothic has been seen as a mockery, a satire of provincial life, and also as a depiction of an authentic and strong American spirit. Maybe it’s both…a criticism of rural America’s puritanism, and a nostalgic appreciation of the better parts of our cultural heritage. Grant Wood, we come to learn, contains multitudes.

He was a decorative artist (and his early works are on display in a wide variety of media here) before he began producing fine art. He had a bohemian existence for several years in Europe, where he learned about art history and impressionism, which he later expunged from his public image. His work seems to be full of coded references to homosexuality, but he maintained a Midwestern-farm boy public persona.

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Grant Wood (1891-1942); Parson Weems' Fable; 1939; oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 1970.43
Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939. Oil on canvas, 38 3⁄8 x 50 1⁄8 in. (97.5 × 127.3 cm). Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1970.43. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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I found his painting Parson Weems’ Fable absolutely fascinating: it’s a theatrical image showing Weems demonstrating the familiar (and false) tale of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. Washington is depicted as a small figure with an adult head (the same image that is still on our $1 bills), while his father in a red coat is a reminder of America’s English heritage, and the slavery on display in the background is a subtle, and somewhat subversive (it seems), reminder of the many historical stories that aren’t mythologized.

A close look at Wood’s work reveals all kinds of interesting details: sexual references, some possibly sly commentary on gender roles, fictitious landscapes, anachronisms, fine details, and all manner of complexities.

The exhibition is on display until June 10th and it’s well worth your time to check it out.  I asked our guide if she thought Wood was being a bit sneaky in his references and his allegiances, and she explained that the historical record was full of ambiguities…so I concluded that yes, he was being disruptive (for those who looked closely, in any case), but that he maintained, throughout his career, a plausible deniability.

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Spring in Town
Grant Wood, Spring in Town, 1941. Oil on wood, 26 × 24 1⁄2 in. (66 × 62.2 cm). Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana 1941.30. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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After you’ve soaked in the career of Grant Wood, you’ll likely be hungry. The restaurant on the first floor of the Whitney, Untitled, although a bit lacking in ambiance, has excellent food and a good wine list…it’s a fine way to end your visit. Talk about ambiguity, the Arts and Crafts movement, authenticity, oppressive culture then and now, and how good your dinner is, and you’ll be quite content.

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com.

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PHOTO CREDITS

  • Installation Image – Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Dibble House (AKA American Gothic House), Eldon, Iowa – Scott Cornell / Shutterstock.com – “American Gothic House designed in Gothic revival style, known for backdrop of the 1930 painting American Gothic by Grant Wood, on June 19, 2013 in Eldon, Iowa.”
  • Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Oil on composition board, 30 3⁄4 x 25 3⁄4 in. (78 × 65.3 cm). Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection 1930.934. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photograph courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY
  • Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939. Oil on canvas, 38 3⁄8 x 50 1⁄8 in. (97.5 × 127.3 cm). Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1970.43. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
  • Grant Wood, Spring in Town, 1941. Oil on wood, 26 × 24 1⁄2 in. (66 × 62.2 cm). Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana 1941.30. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY