American Gothic is a book that is about the painting titled “American Gothic” that was painted by Grant Wood. The painting is famous for several reasons, and has generated more controversy over the years than I’d realized.
Those of you without a background in art history probably recognize the painting from the multitude of parodies that have been based on it. Those with a background in art history will enjoy the vast amount of details in this book that put the painting into context artistically, historically, and socially.
I was fortunate enough to have seen “American Gothic” in person, more than once, when I visited the Art Institute of Chicago. My immediate impression was that it was so small – much smaller than I’d imagined. How could a painting so well known, so often imitated, and so often described as the epitome of Midwestern America – be not much bigger than the largest size of a typical school portrait photo?
“American Gothic” is an impressive painting, despite its small size. It is the type of painting that causes people to presume that it was meant to depict whatever it is they say it does. At times, this presumption has led to controversy. When the painting first became famous, there were people who felt that it was making fun of the farmers in Iowa. Women who lived in Iowa felt that the frumpy farmer’s wife in the painting reflected badly on the real wives of the farmers.
Backing up a moment, and without giving anyway too much, I’ll point out that “American Gothic” was drawn into controversy from the very beginning. It was entered into a contest. Some people who were involved in that contest finagled behind the scenes to ensure that “American Gothic” ended up in the Art Institute of Chicago. The artist who painted “American Gothic”, Grant Wood, was not involved.
The book tells the story of the painting itself; why it was painted, what the artist was initially thinking, and how it all came together. In addition, it places the painting in context with what different groups of people thought about it.
Over the years, there has been a group of people who loved “American Gothic”, and a group that hated it, at the same time. Oddly enough, there was a point in time where this painting, which was seen as depicting Iowa farmers in an unflattering light, was later embraced as being the iconic portrait of American values. Today, there are people who dislike this painting because of the big age difference between the two people in it – whom they believe are husband and wife.
The man and woman you see in the painting did not live in the house that is behind them. They are not married to each other, and neither one posed in front of the house while the painting was being made. In fact, they posed separately, in different locations, and were placed into the painting side by side. I also liked that the book pointed out that Grant Wood himself, over the years, changed his mind about just how the two people in the painting related to each other.
I found this book to be very interesting, especially since it discussed how the painting was perceived over the years. That being said, I think a person needs to have an intrinsic interest in art history in order to get the most from the story told in this book.