at Stained Glass Art
Wood's first important commission - for stained
glass art, rather than painting - came from the city of Cedar Rapids
in 1927, when he was asked to design a window for their Veteran Memorial
building. The stained glass took two years to build, including time Wood
spent in Munich where the local craftsmen still employed medieval methods.
While in Munich, Wood spent much time admiring the Northern Gothic paintings
at the Alte Pinakothek Museum.
Realism as a style was enjoying a resurgence of popularity in Germany,
it was referred to as New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), an art
style which arose in opposition to Expressionism. Members of the movement
included Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckman.
Returning to Iowa, Wood's painting turned
away from his early style of Impressionism, towards Realism and American
subjects. In Woman with Plants (1929), Wood painted his mother
as a loving frontier woman. He placed her in a rural landscape setting,
paying special attention to her dress, potted plant and other details
which were important to his mother. This was one of the first Midwest
paintings where local people felt they were depicted in a true sense.
Grant continued to work in this style, soon painting his most famous painting,
Wood burst onto the American art scene in 1930 with his painting American
Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago). The inspiration came from
a cottage he discovered, which had been designed in the Gothic Revival
style, with a distinctive upper window. He made a decision to paint the
house along with 'the kind of people I fancied should live in that house'.
The painting shows a farmer with a woman, who may be either his wife or
spinster daughter. The figures were modelled on the artist's sister and
his dentist. The couple are placed in a traditional setting, the man is
holding a pitchfork symbolising hard labour and the woman has flowers
over her shoulder implying domestication. American Gothic is one
of the most familiar images of American 20th century culture and one of
it's most parodied artworks. Woods entered the painting for a competition
run by the Art Institute
of Chicago, however the judges deemed it a 'comic valentine'. Despite
this, the museum's patron convinced the judges to award Wood the bronze
prize and to buy the painting. The painting was soon reproduced in newspapers
across the Western States. It became hugely popular, but suffered a backlash
when Iowans furiously complained that they were being depicted as 'bible-thumpers'.
However, during the years of the Great Depression, with its Social
Realism movement - the painting came to be seen a depiction of the
steadfast American pioneering spirit. At the same time Woods rejected
what he felt were snobbish East Coast art circles and aligned himself
with populist Midwestern painters, such as Thomas
Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry: (see also, Andrew
Wyeth 1917-2009). In 1931, following the success of American Gothic,
Wood created The Ride of Paul Revere (Metropolitian Museum of Art).
The painting is of an 18th century house, set in a dreamlike landscape.
Regionalism Art Movement
Wood spent much of the 1930s promoting Regionalism
in the arts, lecturing throughout the country on the subject. (Regionialism
is closely associated with the broader movement called American
Scene Painting.) Photographed regularly in his overalls, Wood promoted
hard working America and the landscape that gave birth to them. He even
painted a self portrait, wearing his trademark overalls He supervised
mural painting and mentored art students.
In 1932 he established the Stone City Art Colony near his home town to
help local artists survive the Great Depression. To Wood, Regionalism
meant artists should paint what is around them, what they know and what
they see. He took his lead from the great Flemish masters of the High
Renaissance. As for style, Wood was neutral; he encouraged students whom
he taught at the University of Iowa's School of Art to experiment widely
- Impressionist, Expressionism, Fauvism. His only dogma was subject matter.
At the same time he held regular exhibitions in Chicago and New York.
Landscape painting was
a major outlet for Wood, as exemplified by works like: Stone City,
Iowa (1930); Fall Plowing (1931); and The Birthplace of
Herbert Hoover (1931). He created scenes of rolling hills and perfect
hedges and trees as an antidote to the darkness of the Great Depression.
His style was unique, abandoning earlier attempts of Impressionism; he
was no longer interested in capturing light and shadow movement. Instead,
his hills and trees were stylised into characteristic swellings. Wanda
Corn, Art Historian, wrote of the painting Stone City, Iowa: 'this
is a seminal painting; it sets a style the artist would refine and modify,
but never fundamentally alter, for the rest of his life'. Wood's landscapes
are essentially idealised versions of American country life, rather than
contemporary snapshots. America in the 1930s was in the grip of a building
and machine age, but none of this appears in Wood's landscapes. Only on
one painting, Death on Ridge Road, do motor vehicles make an appearance.
In fact his landscapes are more nostalgic for the past and America of
the 1880s. Critics felt Wood's stylised geometric landscapes were not
truly 'Realistic', stating he had abdicated artistic responsibility. After
the artist's death, some complained that his landscapes were emotionless,
whereas others suggest his stylisation is almost akin to sculpture.
Although Wood claimed not to be a satirist, he was quickly typecast as
one by art critics, particularly in the wake of his painting American
Gothic. Although he often depicted patriotic subjects, such as The
Birthplace of Herbert Hoover and Daughters of Revolution: he
deflated nationalistic hype with irony. His painting Daughters of the
Revolution created much controversy at the time it was exhibited.
It depicted the Daughters of the American Revolution, a group of volunteers,
established in 1890 who were dedicated to keeping America strong by promoting
patriotism. Wood found the society ridiculous, calling them 'those Tory
gals'. Wood particularly disliked the organisation because they objected
to his stained glass window commission in the late 1920s, saying it was
made by enemy hands (it was constructed in Germany). The group held up
the dedication of the window, which did not take place until 13 years
after the artist's death. In the painting Daughters of Revolution,
three ladies are depicted, facing the viewer, one holding a teacup. The
one hand depicted holding the teacup is rigid, suggesting a spinster.
The ladies stare at the viewer, waiting for recognition of their inherent
glory. They are placed in front of a painting by Emanuel
Leutze, called Washington Crossing the Delaware. Although the
painting is considered a national treasure, the irony was, that Letuze
painted it in Germany using the Rhine as a model for the Delaware.
For an exemplar of the New York Ashcan school, read about the realist
painter George Wesley Bellows
(1882-1925). For another American realist painter, who preferred more
urban subjects, but whose vision also embraced dream-like genre paintings,
see Edward Hopper (1882-1967). For a
rural realist from the 19th century, see Winslow
Homer (1836-1910). See also Georgia
Reputation as an
Wood died at the young age of 49, suffering
from liver cancer. His sister Nan, the woman portrayed in American
Gothic inherited his estate. When she died, the property transferred
to the Figge Art Museum, Davenport. Wood's rise was fast, but after his
death, his fall was equally fast. A retrospective held of his paintings
in Chicago after his death received negative reviews. In the 1950s, academics
felt Wood's work was too populist, too much like American folk-art - 'always
popular among simple people'. One of his main critics, Ruth Pickering,
observed that he did not fit the image of a romantic painter. She complained
he was no Van Gogh or Cezanne. However, from the 1970s onward Wood's reputation
has again risen. (See a similar reaction to Norman
Rockwell, the populist American illustrator and portraitist.)
One of the great 20th
century painters of America, Grant Wood's works hang in many of the
best art museums throughout the United
States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute
of Chicago; the Cedar Rapids Museum, Iowa; Cincinnati Art Museum; the
Smithsonian Art Museum, Washington DC; and others.