American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting, by Steven Biel. W.W. Norton, 215 pages, $21.95. American Gothic: The Biography of Grant Wood’s American Masterpiece, by Thomas Hoving. Chamberlain Bros., 165 pages, $13.95.
Grant Wood’s American Gothic, a picture fascinating even in its bleakness, has become the best-known work of art created in this country. Seventy-five years have passed since it was first shown to the public, and that anniversary is the occasion for the publication of the two books at hand. Both writers have distinguished credentials: Steven Biel is the director of Harvard’s History and Literature program, and Thomas Hoving, perhaps the better known of the two, was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977. The writers make use of many of the same sources and consequently repeat each other in part. Mr. Biel, it must be said at the start, appears to be the more conscientious of the two in his report on the painting, its origin and history.
Wood was born in Iowa in 1891 to parents who owned and worked a farm near the small town of Anamosa. After the death of his father in 1901, he moved with his mother, sister and two brothers to Cedar Rapids, where he grew up. In high school, he made a commitment to a life in art. He painted scenery for the school’s plays and created drawings for its publications. After graduation, he studied handicrafts at a school in Minneapolis and drawing and painting at the University of Iowa and the Art Institute of Chicago. Between 1920 and 1926, he made three visits to Paris. During the second and third of these, he studied at the Académie Julian, where he tried, without much success, to turn himself into an Impressionist. He made a fourth trip abroad in 1928, to Munich, where he was introduced to the cool, precise line of the German and Flemish Old Masters. What he saw in their work went into the development of his mature style. His portrait of his mother, Woman with Plants, undertaken after his return, was the first of his paintings to reveal this influence. American Gothic was the fourth.
Although to the spoiled residents of America’s coastal cities the central Midwest (the “Bible Belt,” in H.L. Mencken’s derisive phrase) may have seemed a cultural backwater, it didn’t suffer from a lack of museums and galleries. Even before his enlightening experience in Munich, Wood had arrived at a decision to paint what he found at home. The farms, the houses, and the men and women of his native state provided him with material in plenty. By chance, in 1930, he saw for the first time the house that appears in American Gothic. A Cedar Rapids art dealer had opened an extension of his gallery in the small town of Eldon. Wood drove with a friend to see it, and there in Eldon he noted a neat white house with a pointed window in its second storey—just such a house as he’d been intending to paint. He sketched it in oils on the spot and made a pencil drawing of it at home in Cedar Rapids.
He then set out to find models for the man and woman who would stand at attention in front of the house. For the man, a farmer, he chose Byron McKeeby, his dentist, whose height and thinness would help to justify the title American Gothic. Nan Wood, Grant’s sister, suggested herself for the woman. Grant originally intended them to be a married couple, but later said that they were father and daughter.
Even before beginning work on the painting, Wood had decided to enter it in the 43rd annual exhibition of American art held by Chicago’s Art Institute. It won third prize, $300—not much even then. But thanks to the prodding of a trustee, the Art Institute’s Friends of American Art came through with another $300 to secure the painting for the permanent collection. In its long life as an icon, American Gothic has been analyzed and reinterpreted by critics of art and of society in much the same way that the Supreme Court has analyzed and reinterpreted the Constitution. During the Depression, it was seen both as a sign of American fortitude and as an attack on provincialism. Later, in the Second World War, it came to represent American hardiness and invincibility, and thus played a part in stiffening the nation’s morale. The pitchfork held firmly in the grip of the farmer was a weapon protecting the nation from its enemies. In 1942, Gordon Parks, just setting out as a photographer, illustrated social injustice by posing a black charwoman clutching a broom in her hand with the American flag as a backdrop.
We can now safely say that there will be no end to the ever-changing attitudes expressed in print. Nor will there be an end to the parodies that cartoonists, painters and photographers have created. Mr. Hoving offers a few of the parodies by way of illustration, most of them too poorly reproduced to be helpful. Mr. Biel gives us 11 in full color and 24 in crisply printed black and white. Rich and poor alike have been portrayed in these parodies. Yuppies, film stars and the ever popular Ken and Barbie dolls have turned up in them. At least eight Presidents and First Ladies have been spoofed, and we may be sure that future occupants of the White House will be given the same treatment. From all this, a caveat emerges: If you wish to keep your social and political opinions to yourself, try to avoid any conversation in which American Gothic comes up.
When two books on the same subject appear at the same time, comparisons—whether invidious or otherwise—are inevitable. Rarely are two books of equal value; one of the authors becomes the loser in a contest that was never meant to be. Here, Mr. Hoving is the loser—and by a wide margin. Although he offers a rundown of the principal events in Wood’s life, along with a useful crash course in connoisseurship, his book seems hurried, as though he’d not looked deeply into the subject, whereas Mr. Biel gives proper weight to all its aspects. Moreover, Mr. Hoving’s jocular style will seem patronizing to readers whose interest in art goes beyond this one work. Most curious, too, are the five pages devoted to the high points of Mr. Hoving’s career; after all, the book is about Grant Wood, not Thomas Hoving. A paragraph on the cover would have adequately taken care of this matter.
But let’s be fair: It comes as a jolt to find Mr. Biel referring, on page 87, to the year 1933 as the “height” of the Great Depression, when what he means is precisely the opposite. That glitch is the only one you’ll find in this very admirable book.
Malcolm Goldstein is the author of Landscape With Figures: A History of Art Dealing in the United States (Oxford).