Progression of Art
Chandelier for Iowa Corn Room, Hotel Montrose, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Using his skills in metal work, Wood created this chandelier as part of a themed interior design project for the Hotel Montrose in Cedar Rapids. The holders for lights are shaped like corn cobs, held up by corn stalk shaped arms, complete with leaves. The stem from which the fixture hangs is further adorned with corn cobs and lively, waving leaves.
The Iowa Corn Room commission came to Wood during his first years dedicated solely to his artistic career. Though he painted during this period, the cultivation of an active community and the support of local businesses led to a variety of work, including a number of interior design projects. This chandelier is part of a fully crafted environment, with panoramic murals, and this hand-crafted fixture. At the opening of a similar project at the Martin's Hotel in 1926, Wood spoke to the press of the burgeoning "feeling for the culture and art in this section of the country, which is rapidly making it a place which New York artists look to with longing."
Envy of New York or not, Wood and his colleagues were not wilting in a cultural backwater but enjoyed a thriving arts community with ample support. Wood's numerous patrons for projects such as the Iowa Corn Room hailed from the prosperous business class in Cedar Rapids and were eager to beautify the city and enhance its cultural life.
American Gothic arguably remains one of the most recognized American artworks of the 20th century. A youngish woman in conservative dress, eyes averted, stands next to an older man, who wears a dark suit jacket atop overalls and a collarless shirt. The bald-headed, bespectacled man grips a three-pronged pitchfork - an old-fashioned tool at the time - and gazes flatly at the viewer. Behind them is a modest white home, with a decorative gothic window - a common feature of the "Carpenter Gothic" style of the period - positioned between the pair's heads. The curtains in the window echo the pattern of the woman's dress. A few potted plants are visible on the porch, just over the woman's shoulder. Tidy green trees, with a hint of perhaps a church steeple, along with a red barn, fill out the background.
Two days prior to the opening of the Art Institute of Chicago's exhibition, where the painting debuted, the Chicago Evening Post published an image. The stone-faced subjects - who many assumed to be husband and wife - generated a stunning amount of interest, and Wood became known nationwide, practically overnight. Wood said of the work - which he said showed a daughter and father, not a married couple as many assumed - that he "simply invented some 'American Gothic' people to stand in front of a house of this type," essentially doing nothing to dispel the work's ambiguity. The models for the couple, though, were his dentist and his younger sister Nan. It exemplifies the remarkable, inherent instability of Wood's mature work; interpretations of his depictions of Midwestern types, American folklore, and Iowa farming activities provoked contradictory reactions in 1931 as much as they do today. As Emily Braun states, "Even those who concur that satire may have been the operative mode for the artist debate whether his debunking was gentle or biting."
The reception of the work and its life since reflect the curious ambiguity of this seemingly straightforward image. It raises more questions than it answers. It's title declares itself American, but what, exactly, is emblematically American about it? If it is a paean to the simple folk of the mid-west, why has the artist posed the couple looking miserable? Is it meant to convey irony? Is it a commentary on American identity? Or does the title simply describe the revival-style architectural detail of the house? The debates of national identity that dominated the time of Wood's mature career play an important role in the interpretation of his work. The 1930s saw a retraction from growing cosmopolitanism into what Barbara Haskell describes as "a powerful strain in popular culture" with "a pronounced reverence for the values of community, hard work, and self-reliance that were seen as fundamental to the national character and embodied most fully in American's small towns and farms." Perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, the painting's ambiguity, Wood's enigmatic couple became iconic.
Oil on beaverboard - Art Institute of Chicago
Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem inspired Wood's 1931 depiction of Paul Revere's legendary ride through Massachusetts towns, warning of the arrival of British troops. A theatrical spotlight illuminates the center of the painting, showing the town from an aerial perspective, placing the tops of chimneys in the foreground. Towards the left, a doll-like Revere on his horse speeds past a white-washed church. A few citizens emerge from their homes in his wake. A darkened road, leading though rolling hills with decoratively spherical trees extends through the background on either side of the brightly lit town.
The patriotically inspiring poem, lauding Revere's journey "To every Middlesex village and farm, A cry of defiance not of fear," had long inspired Wood. As a child Wood reported that he had imagined "warning people of a dreaded cyclone," in similar fashion, perhaps influencing the playful fashion in which he depicted the legend. Stylistically, this work shows both the forward and backward-looking tendencies in Wood's mature style. The landscape is built upon a gleefully excessive decorative geometry, reducing every object to smoothly rounded or strictly linear shapes. The precision of the paint was a newer development for the artist, but the imposition of modern design on the landscape reflects his professional roots. Though Wood had no interest in working in a Cubist or truly abstract style, he wanted his work to have a modern look. Applying contemporary design principles to his landscapes was his solution - his trees and hills have the relentless repetitive geometry of an Art Deco skyscraper. The aerial perspective recalls a common device in Currier and Ives prints, which were enjoying a resurgence in popularity in the 1930s.
The choice of subject and the decorative treatment have been interpreted in opposing manners. One reading views this work - due to the lighthearted approach to the subject and the deadpan theatricality of the setting - as irreverent and reflective of what art historian Wanda Corn refers to as the "iconoclastic debunking mind-set of the 1920s," aligning Wood with H.L Mencken, known for his ridicule of mass American tastes. Others have grouped Wood's depiction with a parallel trend of a broader colonial-era preservationist movement in the United States, emblemized most clearly by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s restoration of Williamsburg, Virginia. Although Wood gives the subject a distinctively storybook treatment, with the bird's eye view and graphic scenery, the intent is a reinterpretation of a national legend, based on the artist's conviction that America had a rich literature, worthy of preservation and appreciation.
Oil on composition board - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
A prim, stern faced woman painted in sepia tones gazes directly at the viewer. She wears a ribbon choker around her exceptionally long neck. Her hair is parted down the middle and pulled back, in mid-19th century style. The background is bare, except for a table with a rotary dial phone, which echoes the sitter's long neck.
The portrait was based on a tintype of Wood's great aunt, Matilda Peet, and its arched top and warm tonal coloration approximate the palette and shape of a 19th-century collodion print. In Wood's unfinished biography, he recalled wondering about his Aunt Matilda, "how she could shut her eyes at night," with her hair pulled back so tightly. He found her both "exciting and oppressive," in that she was more intellectual and aspiring to culture than other members of his family but was also "extremely austere." He disrupts the evocation of a 19th-century photograph with the presence of the telephone, which appears in the place where usually a bible or a vase of flowers might provide set dressing for a portrait. At the time, a dial phone was the most modern of communication tools. Its earpiece points up towards the subject insolently, and one might imagine that her tense expression results from it ringing noisily by her side.
Wanda Corn stated that this work, like many of Wood's paintings, "is about culture shock, about the unbridgeable gulf between the rural, Victorian world in which he had been raised and the modern, urban one he lived in as an adult." The woman and the phone are opposites: she is "closed to outsiders and expression of emotion," the telephone, emblematic of "a jangling, intrusive world" she would never adjust to. Artists of Wood's generation addressed the stunning pace of change in the world in different ways. While Precisionists celebrated technology, others mourned the passing of old ways of life. Wood approached the subject with humor, but like Edward Hopper and Walker Evans, he shows sensitivity towards "the sturdiness, elegance, and independence of the late-19th-century America being displaced by the modern world." In Wood's rendering, the displaced past is simultaneously an object of humor and the subject of sympathy and sentiment.
Oil on composition board - Carnegie-Stout Public Library, Dubuque, Iowa
Dinner for Threshers
This triptych-like painting was a study of a hoped-for mural commission. The commission never materialized, but the painting was exhibited widely. Both the triptych format and Wood's detailed, mature style seen in this work are inspired by altarpieces from Northern Renaissance artists such as Hans Memling and Albrecht Dürer. Dinner for Threshers depicts Wood's childhood memory of harvest season. The left section shows farmworkers tidying themselves up to join the group inside for a noon meal. Near the peak of the barn's roof, "1892" is inscribed, situating the scene in the first year of Wood's life. The center scene shows a crowd of workers gathered around the table seated on mismatched chairs. Their white foreheads contrast with their sunburned faces, as they have all politely removed their hats indoors. A woman walks in from the kitchen with a full bowl. The third section shows two women in the kitchen working at the wood-burning stove, watched over by cat.
Wood's unfinished biography describes this annual event as an exciting day for farm families. One day in late July or August, after the wheat had been cut and shocked - stacked upright for drying - the "threshing machine would arrive like an immense fire-dragon." All the neighboring farmers would come with hayracks to pick up the shocks of wheat and carry them to be threshed. This communal arrangement went on for weeks, everyone moving from farm to farm until all the wheat was threshed. Every threshing day, "at the dot of noon," the workers all flocked to the farmhouse for a feast. The work exemplifies Wood's celebration of communal effort and the social rituals of Midwestern farm life.
Wood's meticulous style invited close scrutiny. Viewers wrote him letters questioning its accuracy. The artist defended the composition as coming from his memory - down to the pattern of the china on the kitchen shelf - and wondered why viewers would allow him to bisect a house, but argue over "the position of shadows under chickens," and other details. This response recalls his early career as a middle school teacher, bringing attention to the basics of looking at modern paintings.
Oil on hardboard - Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Parson Weem's Fable
This late work by Wood is an off-kilter depiction of Parson Weems' legendary fable of George Washington's honesty. Weems, the author of George Washington the Great (1806), stands in the foreground, holding back a tassled curtain - a pose quoted from Charles Willson Peale's The Artist and His Museum, Self Portrait (1822). Behind the curtain, a scene of his apocryphal tale of young George Washington confessing to cutting down a cherry tree unfolds. The small child Washington - whose head is depicted as the "father of the nation," after Gilbert Stuart's Athenaeum Portrait - gestures towards the axe in his hand, confessing to the destruction of the perfectly round-topped tree that his stern father holds while reprimanding him for his impulsive act. A tidy brick house leads diagonally into the distance, where two workers tend to a similarly geometric tree, and hills covered in tidy foliage roll off in the distance.
Wood stated that his intention for this work was to "help reawaken interest in the cherry tree and other bits of American folklore that are too good to lose." The context of rising fascism in Europe compelled Wood towards bolstering patriotism through admiration of Washington's honesty and the model of parenting that Weems intended the tale to be. The artist is also responding to an article by literary critic Howard Mumford Jones, who called upon writers and artists to develop a "new kind of patriotism...without chauvinism, economic self-interest, or racial snobbery" that could bring back the importance of legends, myths and historical events. Wood said on this topic, "The most effective way to do this is to frankly accept these historical tales for what they are...folklore - and treat them in such a fashion that realistic-minded, sophisticated people of our generation can accept them." To this end, in this work, he makes the inherent artifice part of the presentation. Weems' fable was a fictional story-within-a-story. Wood depicts the writer as literally pulling back the curtain on his creation. Weems is also an alter ego, a fellow creator of lore, who, like Wood, had the aim of "enriching the national imagination with colorful stories of America's heritage." The scene within also contains layers. The most jarring feature - the six-year old child with the Athenaeum portrait head - introduces an element of narrative absurdity but also signals that this isn't a real story about a real child, but an "origination myth" of a Founding Father. The orderly, decorative geometry of the landscape and composition proved a jarring foil for the silly appearance of the old-man/boy protagonist.
Oil on canvas - Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
Illustration, design, and commercial work were a significant aspect of Wood's artistic practice throughout his career but gained additional importance to him for financial reasons in the mid-1930s. In 1936, he accepted an offer to illustrate a special edition of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, prompting the St. Louis Dispatch to comment that "the novelist and painter have become so well-known for their studies of rural America that such a collaboration seems more than just appropriate." The commission included nine illustrations, mostly of the denizens of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the fictional town where the novel is set. The book had a print run of 1500, each signed by the artist. These preparatory drawings on brown wrapping paper reflect the final color scheme and materials of the publication, which Wood helped choose - tan rag paper, with a blue and yellow linen binding.
Wood created generalized personas for particular characters, using costumes, gestures and attributes to identify the small-town types. Looking up at each figure from below, the illustrations exaggerate the hands and eyes to reveal the characters' personalities. The Perfectionist, for example, is Carol Kennicott, one of the more affluent characters and a "crusader and promoter of culture and beauty," looking askance out of a lace-curtained window at the small town that will never measure up to her standards. Although this frustrated housewife is a sympathetic character in the book, Wood pokes fun at her by introducing a minor flaw - her second button is coming undone.
In other drawings, such as The Booster depicts James Blausser, a member of the town's "Commercial Club," who had "recently come to town to speculate in land...He was a bulky, gauche, humorous man with narrow eyes...and brilliant clothes." He expostulates in front of an American flag - a back-slapping man of business, promoting the town in hopes of personal gain. The Sentimental Yearner, a lawyer transplanted from the city, exemplifies the once-cultured person who succumbed to the "Village Virus," who found himself reading "four copies of cheap fiction magazines to one poem," and putting off trips to the theater in Minneapolis "till I simply had to go there on a lot of legal matters." He sniffs a carnation, which, perhaps, like Proust's madeleine, evokes a memory of his cultured past.
While both Wood and Lewis were indeed associated with rural America, Wanda Corn points out that they "made their reputations portraying very different strata of provincial America." Wood's subjects were farmers and old-fashioned types, while Lewis's characters were modern, yet more complacent, conformist and narrow-minded. Lewis belonged "to a generation which revolted against the village, Wood to one which had returned to it." This difference in world view can be seen, for example, in Wood's lightly critical view of the Perfectionist - a woman who aspires to culture and refinement and sees her small town as lacking.
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Spring in Town
Set in a small town with several houses visible, a young, shirtless man readies the vegetable garden for spring planting. A woman hangs out quilts to dry on the clothesline, and a young child pulls on the branches of a flowering tree. Further in the background, a man mows a yard, a couple beats a rug, a man climbs a ladder to his roof, and a child pushes a cart down the sidewalk. Wood paints the scene with crisp, clear lines and gives the viewer the perspective from slightly above the goings-on. In this way, we see the whole panorama of small-town life and labor as well as its minute details. Wood said of this painting and another painted as its pendant, "In making these paintings, I had in mind something which I hope to convey to a fairly wide audience in America - the picture of a country rich in the arts of peace, a homely, lovable nation, infinitely worthy of any sacrifice necessary to its preservation."
While Wood's intentions are amply evident in this painting and numerous others, there is another level of meaning right below the surface. An undeniable homoerotic element is present in this work with the young man in the foreground, who was modeled on George Devine, the sun of a football coach at the University of Iowa. We immediately see his muscled shoulders and back, amplified by a farmer's tan from a sleeveless shirt, and his work pants tightly cover his buttocks, leaving nothing to the imagination as he bends over to shovel up some of the garden dirt. Towards the end of his life, rumors of Wood's homosexuality began to circulate; given that homosexuality at the time was a punishable crime, Wood was keen to keep this information under wraps, and yet there is a way in which many of his paintings are both, in art historian Henry Adams' words, a revelation and a concealment - the revelation of the wonders of Midwestern towns but also the concealment of deeper desires and fantasies. As art historian Sue Taylor argues, Wood drew on his own memories of farm life as a young boy but combined these with aspects of his present life - people he knew, houses he noticed in the neighborhood, and his feelings about family and friends.
In 1939, one of Wood's lithographs, Saturday Night Bath, ran afoul of the U.S. Post Office on the grounds that the powers-that-be felt it was pornographic. Wood could innocently claim that he was depicting two nude men bathing after a long day working in the fields, but the homoeroticism is palpable. Art historian Richard Meyer cautions about labeling Wood a homosexual artist, but he does not deny his queer aesthetic that seems to eroticize not only manual labor but often times the landscape itself, thus complicating Wood's reputation as an upholder of conservative values.
Oil on wood - Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana