Arguably, the two most recognizable paintings in the world today are Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Both have been reproduced and lampooned ad nauseam, and while most everyone can name the author of the Mona Lisa, not everyone can as easily recite the name of Grant Wood, even though they instantly recognize the image of the dour looking bespectacled farmer with pitchfork in hand and his spinster daughter. For a vast multitude of reasons, most would logically assume that these two painters have very little common, yet they do share one similar circumstance – very few oil paintings by either artist exist. For Da Vinci, there are perhaps a dozen oil paintings whereas there are hundreds of his drawings and for Grant Wood at best there are perhaps only two dozen easel size finished oil paintings from his mature (post American Gothic) period, and it is believed that of those only three are in private hands.
To some, Grant Wood’s mature paintings are the epitome of what many critics say is the only true and genuinely original American painting style – Regionalism. Yet Wood is as often misunderstood today as he was at the height of his career. The rural appearance of Grant Wood’s famous work, American Gothic, joined subsequently by several precisely rendered farmscapes led to the misconception by many that Wood was simply a provincial Iowa artist. While it is true he was born on a farm near Anamosa, Iowa in 1891, the fact is he grew up in the rapidly expanding city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, attended art school in Minneapolis directly out of high school, worked in Chicago as a silversmith for three years, enrolled in classes at the Art Institute, served in the army camouflage corps in Washington, D.C. during World War I, lived in Paris two separate summers, wintered in Sorrento, Italy, and in the fall of 1928 worked in Munich, Germany on a large stained glass window he designed for the Cedar Rapids’ Veterans Memorial Building. It was during this final visit to Europe that Wood was so inspired by northern Renaissance painters, such as Hans Memling that he abandoned his struggle with his early “impressionistic” landscapes, for highly linear and refined portraits of, for example, his mother (Woman with Plants), his dentist and sister as portrayed by American Gothic, a self-portrait, as well as highly stylized distinctive landscapes.
Far from being the naiveté rural Iowa artist he is often thought of, by age 36 Wood had much more experience through his travels and academic exposure than most artists his age. This helps set the backdrop to better understand his meteoric rise to superstar status after the unveiling of American Gothic at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Forty-third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings, October 30-December 14, 1930. The painting was an overnight success with images of American Gothic soon after appearing in papers coast to coast.
Yet at first, many saw Wood as perhaps nothing more than a rural novelty of sorts, whereas other more astute observers saw the genius in Wood’s work as a satirist and also as a technician and craftsman. In the same way as Will Rogers’ highly developed mannerisms, delivery and expression struck a collective chord with the American people at that time, so too did Wood’s imagery, and each successive work from that time forward found an overenthusiastic audience, with always more buyers than there was merchandise (paintings).
In the summer of 1932, Wood and fellow artists Edward Rowan (1898-1946) and Adrian Dornbush (1900-1970) opened the Stone City summer art colony in Stone City, Iowa. Lasting two summers, the colony was Wood’s most dramatic attempt to establish the Midwest as a significant art center. After two summers, Wood closed the colony and accepted a position as an associate professor in the art department at the University of Iowa.
In 1937, at the height of his career, Wood was commissioned to do a series of lithographs for the Associated American Artists (AAA), a New York-based group founded by Reeves Lewenthal and Maurice Liederman. According to the founders, AAA was created to support artists affected by the Depression, as well as to subsidize the public’s access to affordable original works of art, an idea that appealed to Wood. Associated American Artists sold signed limited edition lithograph prints through mail-order catalogues and department stores; production runs were limited to two hundred and fifty impressions, and the prints typically sold for five dollars or less. Marketing their venture as a patriotic enterprise, Lewenthal and Liederman employed only American scene artists in the 1930s – including Wood’s friends John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton. At the same time, Wood ended his longtime relationship with the Ferargil Gallery and signed on with the Associated American Artists to act as his sole agent, a move that proved beneficial to both parties.
For many years, Wood was known as one of Cedar Rapid’s “most eligible bachelors”, but in 1935 he married the actress and opera singer Sara Maxon, in what proved to be a tumultuous and short marriage, ending in 1939.
In a twist of ironic fate however, it was Wood’s overnight celebrity status, recognition he always desired, which more than anything else limited him to producing less than two dozen easel sized finished oil paintings following American Gothic’s debut. Indeed from that day forward, Wood was inundated by offers from far and wide requesting his presence as a lecturer, exhibition judge, instructor, and illustrator (among other things), all of which he tried dutifully to fulfill and all of which took him away from his easel, restricting his output of oil paintings to less than two a year until his untimely death just hours before his 51st birthday in February of 1942.
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