Behind the Painting: The Story of American Gothic

May 14, 2024

American Gothic painting by Grant Wood
American Gothic by Grant Wood — 1930

American Gothic is one of the most famous and iconic paintings of the 20th century. The image of a farmer and daughter standing in front of a white farmhouse, with the farmer holding a pitchfork in his hand, has been widely parodied in American pop culture. However, there is more complexity and meaning behind the painting than most would realize.

How It Started

In 1930, Grant Wood, an unknown American painter, decided to send one of his paintings to an open exhibition held every year at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was surprised to learn that his painting had been selected as one of the winners. He received $300 cash and the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal. Wood’s painting was American Gothic. Wood had no idea this painting would one day be considered a masterpiece in a new American art movement called “Regionalism,” which had been invented and promoted by a Kansas art dealer named Maynard Walker.

American Gothic grew quickly in popularity, and reproductions were found all across the nation by the mid-1930s. The iconic painting would soon find its way into the hands of newspaper cartoonists and advertisers who used it to sell a wide assortment of products. The American Gothic farmer and daughter became pop cultural icons and were dressed up to represent a vast number of groups and famous figures.

The Story Behind the Painting

Grant Wood was born and raised in Iowa, and his work conveys his Midwest upbringing. However, Wood was far from being a rural artist, even though, at times, this was the image he portrayed. He had graduated from the Minneapolis School of Design and studied under Ernest Batchelder. 

Batchelder was an American designer and educator known for his work in ceramics and tile design during the Arts and Crafts Movement, which emphasized craftsmanship, simplicity, and quality in design. Wood later enrolled at the School of Art in Chicago in 1913.

Wood earned a living by teaching art and made frequent trips to Europe. He studied life drawing in Paris at the Académie Julien, where he developed his painting style.

The inspiration behind the background of American Gothic came about because of a visit to Eldon, Iowa, a small town in southern Iowa. He saw a white cottage with a white porch built in the 1880s style known as Carpenter Gothic.

The home gave him the idea to find two people whose characters would fit in the house. He searched in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for his subjects but couldn’t find anyone among the farmers there who met the look he wanted since this house was going to be a farmer’s home.

He finally convinced his sister, Nan Wood Graham, to be one of the subjects in his painting, the daughter. He had her comb her hair straight down to her ears and part it in the middle. But Wood still needed to find a model to represent the husband. He narrowed his search and discovered his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, would be the right subject. Dr. McKeeby reluctantly agreed. Wood ordered a colonial print apron from a Chicago mail-order house for his sister to wear and overalls for his dentist. The two models never posed together when they were drawn before the painting was started or when Wood was painting American Gothic.

Interestingly, Wood initially described the two people as husband and wife, but he changed that to being a father and a daughter. There was a rumor that the change came about after he was pressured by his sister to switch the role of the female subject since she didn’t like the idea of being married to a man so much older than herself. Either way, the image portrayed in the painting remained the same.

The home still stands in Eldon, Iowa, today, though no one lives there. It has become a tourist attraction, with more people visiting the house each year than live in the town.

The American Gothic house in Eldon, Iowa, the inspiration behind Grant Wood's painting
The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa

The Meaning and Hidden Symbols Behind the Painting

Grant Wood never revealed the true meaning behind American Gothic and left it open to interpretation by the viewer. He did state that his inspiration came from people he admired and grew up around in Iowa. But the painting has been interpreted at many levels, from a celebration of hard-working American farmers to a critique of the puritanical ethics of Midwest America.

American Gothic painting showing elements of the painting
The Different Elements of American Gothic

The Hayfork

Wood’s painting has many symbolic items and meanings. The farmer holds a hayfork or three-pronged pitchfork, which mirrors the seams of the farmer’s overalls (A) and continues into the pattern on his shirt and lines on the farmer’s face (B). The hayfork is also mirrored upside down in the shape of the panes in the upstairs window (C). In a pre-painting sketch, the farmer held a rake rather than a hayfork. Why Wood switched to the hayfork is up to interpretation.

The pitchfork, a symbol of hard work and farming, is not limited to these interpretations. It is a trident in Greek mythology, associated with the devil and wickedness in Christianity. In the Hindu faith, the trident, known as the trishul, is a three-pronged spear used to ward off evil. In Buddhism, it represents the three aspects of enlightenment: body, speech, and mind. This versatility in symbolism adds depth and intrigue to Wood’s painting.

The Windows

The upper window of the home has two arches and an odd-shaped pane at the top (C). The halves of the windows mimic the way the two subjects are placed in the painting, and the odd-shaped glass above mimics how the house is displayed in the background.

The Plants

Wood did not have plants in his original sketches, and it’s unknown why he added these varieties to the painting (D). One is a beefsteak begonia, and the other is a mother-in-law’s tongue (also known as Sansevieria or snake plant).

The begonia symbolizes caution, consideration, and good communication between different parties. It is also used as a gift for a favor. The meanings come from a French diplomat and politician from the late 17th century. The mother-in-law’s tongue is native to rocky, dry habitats in tropical Africa. It has a reputation for being a durable plant in varied conditions.

It’s unclear if Wood meant for the plants to be interpreted in this specific way, but interestingly, the same plants were in another painting by Wood. In 1929, Wood painted a portrait of his mother called Woman with Plants, where she sits with a beefsteak begonia beside her while holding a potted mother-in-law’s tongue. Wood was known for reusing elements from one painting to the next.

Woman with Plants
Woman with Plants by Grant Wood-1929

The Clothing

In addition to the hayfork lines found in the farmer’s overalls, other patterns emerge from the painting that tie it together. The pattern on the curtains in the upstairs window (C) is similar to the daughter’s apron (E). She also wears a cameo brooch with the goddess Persephone (F), a Greek queen of the underworld whom Hades had abducted. Wood again used elements from the painting Woman with Plants. The edging on the mother’s apron in that painting is the same as what the daughter wears in American Gothic (G), and both women wear the same cameo brooch (F).

The Unknown

The subjects standing in front of a quaint house with a background of trees and a red barn have had their stern and serious expressions interpreted in many ways. Wood once said he was painting an “affectionate portrait” of Midwestern types, or could he have attempted to depict the harsh life working-class people had in America in the 1930s through the subjects’ expressions?

The placement of the subjects may have been based on the practice of traveling photographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who posed people in front of their homes in this manner. Photographers didn’t want people to smile because of the long exposure times needed for the film, which may explain the man and woman’s unsmiling expressions.

Other unanswerable questions arise, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusion. One is, why are the curtains closed on the upstairs window? Another question is, what is the woman in the painting looking at?

One theory that had yet to be discussed was the possibility Wood’s previous work, Woman with Plants, was connected more to American Gothic than just reused elements. Could the woman in that painting be the wife of the farmer? Was the farmer now a widow, and was the daughter wearing her mother’s cameo brooch and a similar apron? Was it a picture of two people dealing with the loss of another and attempting to move on?

This is what makes American Gothic an iconic and fascinating painting. The viewer can formulate any story or explanation about the subjects’ lives based on their perceptions and interpretations of what they see.

Grant Wood never got to watch his work’s meteoric rise in later years. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1941 and died in 1942, a day before his 51st birthday and just less than 12 years after he had painted American Gothic.

Sources: American Gothic House Center, Art Institute Chicago, Christie’s, Art Dependence Magazine, Mertz Library, The Joy of Plants

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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