When considering Grant Wood, the man and the artist, one must begin with fields, the open gently rolling landscape of deep rich soil from which emerged life as that artist saw it. It was the land, mother earth that was Grant Wood's inspiration. The land was the good garden. the green glory. The sky was the blue infinity that energized the process of living. The environment was pure. Only a simple plow or a distant windmill were allowed into this idyllic setting. The place was Iowa, the fields were corn, the buildings were incidental. It was simply beautiful and delightfully naïve.
How could this be? America had been involved in a major war overseas, the stock market had crashed and the winds were blowing the top soil away. The sky was dirty brown and no blue birds were to be found singing in that landscape. Yet Grant Wood defiantly painted his landscape with clarity of vision and the spirit of the good life abounding. Perhaps it was reaction, perhaps he illustrated what we needed or wanted – that controlled fantasy land of clean fields, happily bulbous trees, virginal atmosphere and hope. Was his now famous couple in American Gothic standing in blank amazement at what they really saw, or perhaps what they saw to be the artist's distortion of the true facts? One must ask, however, is what one feels in his heart a distortion? What did Grant Wood in fact paint and what relevance did his work have in the art world at a time when its major thrust was exploration of abstraction?
Grant Wood wore overalls. He was born on a farm in a rural area. He worked with his hands. He could build a house, shape metal, make furniture – and he could also daydream.
As a child, Grant Wood revealed an interest in drawing. One of his teachers was struck by his artistic talents and was wise enough to retain some examples. His rendering of an iris flower is sensitive and accurate. A watercolor illustration of a rooster's head reveals the young artist's powers of observation, and a poetic painting of daffodils by a pond accompanied with a quote from Wordsworth is testament to an artistic temperament. And for a boy in the 6th grade, his ability to render the human figure was remarkable. His destiny seemed apparent. On the very evening of his high school graduation, Grant boarded a train for Minneapolis where he was to begin formal study in art school.
How was he to now then that not only would he become one of America's outstanding regionalists artists but that one of his paintings, a double portrait posed in front of a small house with a gothic shaped window was to become the most famous, most recognized, most satirized painting in America? How was he to know that he would travel to Europe four times, initiate an artist's colony in Stone City, teach in a one room country school and later in the public schools of Cedar Rapids and finally at the University of Iowa? Would he have envisioned receiving a commission to design a monumental stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids or serve as Director of the Public Works of Art Projects in Iowa? Would he ever have dreamed of the national recognition that was to be his within his lifetime? All of this came to pass. And it goes without saying that Grant Wood had probably only begun to reach the full potential of his artistic production when in 1942 at the age of 50 he died. In the fall of that year, the Art Institute of Chicago that had purchased American Gothic, held a special memorial exhibition of 48 of Wood's works. The boy who lived in the fields of Iowa had achieved a permanent place.
Around Cedar Rapids, which was Grant Wood's home the majority of his life, he was just another fellow, generally liked, struggling along with art. Many remember him as a young man building a house for his mother and sister. His father had died when Grant was a child. It was perhaps difficult for someone to comprehend the value of a grown man spending much of his time painting pictures, at least here in the Midwest where a man was expected to be a heavy laborer or at least out earning a "honest dollar". Anyone today, however, would be most fortunate to own an original Grant Wood painting or lithograph. Small paintings that were for just a few dollars, or even given away are worth perhaps $10,000 (1977 price). The large major paintings could now be purchased only for prices in six figures, if any were available. The lithographs that were frequently given away or sold for small sums today will bring $700-$2000 apiece.
Can you imagine what the town would have thought had they been awake to see Grant moving a caravan of old ice wagons through the streets of Cedar Rapids on their way to Stone City to be used at the Art Colony? Frances Prescott, the principal at McKinley School where Grant was teaching, told of having to call the artist once to remind him to come to school; his class was sitting waiting for him. Well, regardless of what anyone was thinking then, Grant Wood is a hero today.
Not only did Grant Wood become known for his idealized landscapes, but especially for his portraits. These were done with both the deepest sensitivity to his subject and, in some cases with a great sense of wit and satire. Even his magnificently reverent portrait of his mother, Woman With Plants, cannot escape its strong compositional similarity to Mona Lisa. Grant was always smiling in life; he loved his neighbors, but could also see their humorous nakedness. His illustrations for Sinclair Lewis' Main Street were a succinct visual synthesis of life styles. And in Daughters of Revolution he tenderly muses over the slightly affected righteousness of dedicated patriots. In a seldom seen work Victorian Survival he achieved a classic understatement of dry wit. If he was a humorist, he was also capable of seeing the beauty and joy of innocence. His portraits of children are superb statements. Notable are Portrait of Gordon Fennell Jr., Susan Angevine Shaffer, and Plaid Sweater. And in drawing the young military figures for the memorial stained glass window, he combined signs of early manhood with the awesome effects of military involvement. In other major portraits – John B Turner, Pioneer, and Self-Portrait – wood paints with authority and directness, capturing the unadorned subject without additional commentary.
What about the evolution of is style? To see works Wood produced in his early career and those from the European travels, one can hardly recognize the artist who later worked only in tightly delineated design. The early works are brushy and move the pigment with a freedom not unlike the looseness associated with the impressionists. The paintings were generally small scale, painted on board. Many appeared to be – and probably in fact were – simply "painted sketches" intended to capture the general essence of color and forms of the subjects. Simple scenes of trees, streams, streets, farm buildings, and sometimes a figure were characteristic. Several curious elements periodically stand out, however. In works such as Paris Street Scene, Church Ste Genevieve 1920, there is an strong interest in geometric design as stated in the pronounced verticals and horizontals of the buildings. The same appears in several other works.
Another interesting effect is seen in works such as Fountains of the Medici, Luxembourg Gardens 1924, and the Runners 1920. Here we note that in several isolated areas in each painting Wood seemed to be involved with the sheer joy of combining contrasting colors in abstract pattern. This repeats itself in other works. The point of this observation is to raise speculation that the artist might have been capable of being a happy abstract painter had circumstances not encourages his development in other directions. (It should be noted, of course, that the modern movement of total abstraction was underway by the time Wood reached Europe. In fact Picasso had already explored and abandoned Cubism.) The Iowa heritage gave Wood little incentive or preparation to become a radical.
But what did inspire the strange puzzle-like delineations that took over Wood's compositions and in their own way became abstractions. In my opinion the necessary design processes of producing the stained glass window amplified an interest in patterns.(Similar interest on the part of other artists resulted in movements such as Art Deco or perhaps even Art Nouveau.) The design character of Wood's fireplace screen should not be overlooked I this regard. As the artist returned to his native Iowa, he profoundly defended painting "What You Know" – in this case the rolling plains of the Iowa landscape and idealized life. But he equally – and, perhaps subconsciously – was attracted to the patterns of geometric fields, parallel rows of corn, cubical farm buildings and contrasting angles in general. It is easy to see the diagonal grid systems Wood employed in composing his landscape compositions.
Thus we have a paradox. Here was an artist not able to escape his rural heritage but probably more interested in abstractions than he could even admit or realize. I'm left to wonder that, had the artist lived longer, might not his work have evolved into total abstractions as did that of his great friend and colleague Marvin Cone? At any rate, Grant Wood gave us a clarity of vision about ourselves and our regional landscape that few other artists have succeeded in doing.
Art Institute of Chicago, IL