Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables
by Joe Stanfield
On March 2, 2018, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City opened its much anticipated exhibition, Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. While the title piece for the show is Wood’s masterpiece (perhaps the most famous image in the history of American Art), the exhibition enlightens viewers on far more than American Gothic. It is a comprehensive exhibition spanning Wood’s entire, yet brief, career and details over 100 works in a variety of media including silver, wrought iron, glass, prints, book illustrations, drawings, paintings, and even furniture design.
American Gothic, which resides permanently at the Art Institute of Chicago, is an icon of 20th-century American art. When it debuted in 1930, Wood received a great deal of acclaim such that he became a celebrity artist. While his famous image of an Iowa farm couple (modeled by Wood’s sister and his dentist) is part of our cultural fabric, few visitors to the show will likely know details about Wood’s life and early career.
Wood began as a decorative artist working in the Arts and Crafts style. He was a member of the Kalo Arts and Crafts community and co-founder of the Volund Crafts Shop with Kristoffer Haga. The exhibition starts with examples of hand-wrought sterling silver Volund holloware and flatware as well as chandeliers and mural studies by Wood. The Whitney has arranged Wood’s works chronologically, so after the rooms dedicated to Wood’s decorative material, his early impressionistic paintings follow. These were heavily influenced by his multiple trips to Europe and depict still lives of flowers, interior scenes, and landscapes.
Even more than the Impressionists, Wood’s oeuvre was critically influenced by his exposure to paintings of the Northern Renaissance. In particular, he sought to emulate the Flemish masters. All of the paintings that are today considered part of Wood’s mature period embody the technical skill, precision, and detail that was epitomized in paintings by artists such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling.
Wood’s Woman with Plants from 1929 and Arnold Comes of Age (Portrait of Arnold Pyle) from 1930 perfectly illustrate the effect that paintings from 15th-century Flanders had on his portraiture with rigid figures set in front of rolling landscapes. This was a common subject for artists in 15th-century Bruges and nearly perfected by Memling, whom Wood studied meticulously.
Both of these portraits feature subjects with whom Wood was intimately acquainted: the first was his mother and the second his studio assistant. Along with showing Wood’s technical skill that he developed in the 1930s, each work transmits a sense of melancholy that is felt in many of his mature paintings.
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables contains several of Wood’s most famous paintings, prints, and drawings. In addition to American Gothic, visitors have a chance to view Wood’s two most recognizable landscapes, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and Stone City.
Anyone looking to experience some of the most visually stunning works created in America in the 1930s should be sure to attend the exhibition. Ultimately, however, the show goes far deeper than the aesthetics of a famous American artist. It helps illuminate that Grant Wood was a very complex and unique individual whose works were influenced by a variety of factors, including his repressed homosexuality, a deep love for his native Iowa, and his nostalgia for an idyllic American era that never existed.
The exhibition continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art until June 10, 2018. If you would like to learn more about Grant Wood and see some of his works that Toomey & Co. has handled over the years, we invite you to visit his dedicated artist page.