Rachel Levin, a popular art lecturer who often lectures at the Bernard Betel Centre for our weekly Tuesday Lifelong Learning Lectures, has provided a lovely write-up for the Bernard Betel Centre community on the iconic Grant Wood painting ‘American Gothic’. Enjoy!
Few paintings are as iconic as Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’. ‘American Gothic’ was submitted to the 1930 annual exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago; it won a bronze medal and a $300 prize. The Art Institute acquired the painting for its collection.
Although Grant was toiling in obscurity, training in Europe taught him various techniques that led to his big break. The inspiration to ‘American Gothic’ was a real distinctive home. In the summer of 1930, Wood was visiting Eldon, Iowa to attend an Art exhibition.
While there Grant was struck by a little white cottage on American Gothic St. The house had a Carpenter Gothic window on the second floor; he found it “pretentious” for such a humble home.
Brant sketched out the house on an envelope, providing the base for what would become his most famous painting.
Seeking a model for the male in ‘American Gothic’, Wood asked his dentist, 62-year-old Byron McKeeby.
Grant found the model for the farmer’s wife close to home. His first choice for a female model was his mother, Hattie. However, Grant was concerned that posing at length would be too much for his mother. So, Grant asked his sister Nan to model. Hattie did contribute by lending her apron and cameo for her daughter’s costume. None of the models posed together. Grant painted the house, his sister and his dentist in separate sessions.
Iowans weren’t fans, to say the least. At first when the newspapers in Grant’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, presented the image of ‘American Gothic’, it sparked a backlash. This portrayal was not how the locals saw themselves, and they resented being presented this way to the world. One farm wife was so enraged by the painting that she threatened to bite Grant’s ear off.
Grant’s was stunned by the reaction, insisting he was a “loyal Iowan” who meant no offense, only homage. Grant gave this confounding statement: “There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life.”
American Gothic’s house is now a tourist attraction. Built in 1881 by Catherine and Charles Dibble; The Dibble House passed through owners for more than a century before Carl Smith donated it to the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1991. Since then, it has been transformed into a Museum celebrating Grant Wood and the painting that made him and the house famous.
The windows weren’t just pretty; they were practical. Grant may have found them pretentious, but the windows (one in the front of the house, one in the back) were hinged to allow the family to more easily move large furniture in and out, uninhibited by a narrow staircase inside. As extraordinary as they seem in a home instead of a larger structure like a church, it’s believed the Dibbles picked their distinctive windows out of a Sears and Roebuck catalog.