Today is the 125th birthday of probably the most famous American artist that you cannot name. Yes, exactly, he painted that painting. He is a part of the American experience. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
BEST KNOWN FOR: One of the most famous American painters of all time, Grant Wood is popularly known for the iconic work, American Gothic.
Grant Wood is Iowa’s most famous artist and his painting American Gothic is one of America’s most famous paintings. Wood was born on a farm near Anamosa in 1891 but moved to Cedar Rapids when he was ten years old after the death of his father. From then on, Wood lived most of his life in Cedar Rapids or Iowa City, dying of cancer the day before his 51st birthday.
Wood came to Eldon in 1930 with fellow artist and Eldon native John Sharp and Edward Rowan. He was inspired by the contrast of the modest little house with its (as he described it) “pretentious” Gothic style windows (there is one in each gable end).
Regionalism in art may be in any style and defined as painting what an artist lives with, in, or around. During the Great Depression, few artists could afford travel costs to study in Europe and consequently the Regionalist movement arose at an opportune time.
Grant Wood became the spokesman for the Regionalist painting movement, when he famously and (somewhat outrageously) remarked that he “got all his best ideas for painting while milking a cow.” As part of playing that role, he frequently wore bib overalls in photos. Even if he did milk cows when he was a young boy, as an adult, this was not a part of his life.
In his uncompleted autobiography, he states that he always remembered his life on the farm and drew from those memories for his paintings. It is important to understand he was using the farm life of the past for his inspiration and ideas. Evidence of modern life on the rural landscape, like telephone poles and tractors, rarely appear in his work.
In its Dec. 24, 1934 issue, Time magazine ran a cover story about Regionalist artists and featured their work in the first ever color spread in that magazine. Time proclaimed that a “truly American art” was being born at last and asserted that these Regionalist painters were creating it. It spoke of an art form free of the strange “isms” of modern European art (cubism, surrealism, etc.), and a print of American Gothic accompanied the article.
The article focused primarily on: Missourian, Thomas Hart Benton (1889 – 1975) who painted Missouri scenes among other things, but lived and worked in New York City. It also touched on Iowan Grant Wood and Kansan John Steuart Curry (1892 – 1942), who painted pictures of life in Kansas, but lived and worked in Connecticut. Wood was the only one of these three artists who really “walked the talk,” – that is, he was the only one of the three who really lived in the place he was painting.
Eventually, Benton returned to Missouri from New York and Wood helped Curry land an artist-in-residence position in Wisconsin, thus leading all three artists to live their lives more closely to their public persons and to their subject matter.
The article also included Wood’s theory on Regionalism: “…regional art rests upon the idea that different sections of the U.S. should compete with one another just as Old World cities competed in the building of Gothic cathedrals. Only thus, [Wood] believes, can the U.S. develop a truly national art.”
Regionalism was not, however, exclusively about making art nor was it an invention of Wood’s. In Iowa, poet and writer Jay Sigmund suggested the idea of Regionalism to Wood. Sigmund, along with author Ruth Suckow, reasoned that artists of any medium should focus on what they know rather than trying to emulate artists from New York and the East.
Wood eventually became a principal spokesman for Regionalism in art for two reasons: first, because his painting American Gothic achieved almost instant fame and second, in the summers of 1932 and 1933, Wood ran the successful art colony at Stone City, which received a great deal of attention from the national press. This too gave both Wood’s ideas and the concept of Regionalism a national audience and legitimacy in the art world.