“All the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,” reflected Grant Wood in 1936. And – whether bovine-inspired or not – arguably none of his ideas have been as good, nor had such an impact, as his 1930 work American Gothic.

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Dubbed the US answer to Mona Lisa, American Gothic is arguably one of the most parodied artworks in the world, lampooned in films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even starring in an episode of The Simpsons. But what is it about this painting that has captured our imaginations for nearly a century?

“For me, American Gothic’s appeal lies in its sense of mystery and ambiguity,” says Sarah Kelly Oehler, Field-McCormick chair and curator of arts of the Americas at the Art Institute of Chicago. “From the identity of the sitters to Wood’s reasons for painting it, the work has an intriguing narrative blankness that has allowed it to be re-envisioned in so many different ways.

“Wood deliberately cultivated this ambiguity – mostly because it was good publicity – staying vague as to whether the duo are husband and wife or father and daughter; it is these sorts of enduring questions that have helped drive the painting’s popularity.”


Watch: Secrets of American Gothic


Midwestern outrage

Wood painted the work in the autumn of 1930 – at the outset of the Great Depression – after being inspired by a house he had seen in Eldon, Iowa, earlier that year. As he looked at the house – an outdated building from the 1880s, built in a style known as Carpenter Gothic – Wood had tried to imagine the sort of people who might live there: “American Gothic people” was his final conclusion. On his return home, Wood asked his sister, Nan, and his dentist to model – on separate occasions – for the piece, styling and dressing them as if they were “tintypes from my old family album”. Indeed, Wood instructed Nan to send away for “a prim, colonial print” apron and overalls from a mail order firm. The rickrack trim of Nan’s apron, long out of style, was ripped from some of their mother’s old dresses.

Intriguing as it is, the painting would likely have remained relatively unknown had Wood not entered it in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where, incidentally, it has hung ever since. The piece was awarded third prize, but it wasn’t long before it was being picked up in the press as an exemplar of rural Iowa. And Iowans were outraged.

What to look for

Repeating forms
Wood uses several repeating forms in the painting, linking all the elements together: the shape of the pitchfork is duplicated in the lines of the man’s overalls, and to some extent in the lines of the house. Elsewhere, the pattern of the woman’s apron is the same as the fabric of the blinds at the window. The whole painting feels elongated – from the faces to the pitchfork, to the Gothic-style window.
Black dress
Some art historians believe that this is a mourning portrait, reflected in the woman’s black dress and the closed blind in the window – a mourning custom that had been common in 19th-century America.
Masculine v feminine
The woman is associated with the domestic elements of the house – such as the plants and porch behind her – while the barn and pitchfork represent traditionally masculine farm labour.

“The painting sparked a huge backlash in Wood’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, with many Iowans taking offence at being depicted as ‘pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers’,” says Oehler. “Locals wrote to the press asserting that the painting was not an accurate representation of the Midwest, insisting that they had fashionable hairstyles and clothing and used modern farming techniques.” One particularly incensed farmer’s wife is even said to have threatened to bite off Wood’s ear.

Whether a work of satire or not – something Wood always denied – there have been countless theories about the painting over the past nine decades. To some, the unsmiling couple – exuding a formality reminiscent of 19th-century daguerreotypes – represent the grit of the pioneer spirit and a return to authentic American values. Others have been more preoccupied with their relationship. Whether he is a father or husband, the hostile stare and tightly gripped pitchfork evoke the feeling that this is a man protecting both the virtue of the woman beside him and his home.

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Concludes Oehler: “For me, who they are is not important; it’s the lack of knowing that interests me. The painting’s ambiguity, their blank expressions, leave it wide open to interpretation – and parody. It’s a big part of why American Gothic remains such a popular and well-known painting, even after all this time.”

American Gothic hangs in Gallery 263 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Visit the institute’s website for more information on the painting, and how to visit

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This article was first published in the June 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Charlotte HodgmanEditor, BBC History Revealed

Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast

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