Everyone knows the painting, with the two farmers and a pitchfork, but do they know the story behind it? Host Steve Curwood talks with Steven Biel whose book, “American Gothic,” is about the cultural history of this work of art.
CURWOOD: It’s a simple painting. A plain, rather stoic looking couple in front of a small white house with a gothic window and a red barn in the background. He’s holding a hay fork, and stares straight ahead. She stands beside him, looking up and off a bit into the distance.
Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” has become an icon of Americana, played out in parodies from Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson to Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. As one critic said of the original painting, it could be anywhere in America, but only in America.
And now the history of this painting is explained in a new book penned by Steven Biel. He’s the director of the History and Literature program at Harvard and he joins me. Hi, Steven.
CURWOOD: Ever since this picture was painted, people have wondered about the couple in the painting. What their lives must be like, what the relationship is. So, tell me, what’s the real story here? How did Grant Wood, the painter of “American Gothic,” how did he find his subjects?
BIEL: He was traveling in south central Iowa in the summer of 1930, down in a town called Eldon. He was out driving with a local painter named John Sharp and he happened upon this house, which caught his fancy, and he said, "Stop the car. I want to paint that house." And he got out his paints and his pad, and he painted the house on the spot. Then he went back to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he lived, and he decided that he would use his sister, Nan Wood, as the model for the woman, and his dentist, Bryon McKeebie, as the model for the man in the painting. He thought that they fit the house.
CURWOOD: I understand it was almost a stroke of luck that the “American Gothic” painting came to national attention at all. What’s the story there?
BIEL: The story is that Wood took a shot at entering it into this competition at the Art Institute. Critics really liked it, and plastered it in newspapers, and it became incredibly famous incredibly quickly. But a few years later, a trustee of the Art Institute told the story that, in fact, the jury for the prize competition had initially passed over “American Gothic,” and that this trustee had seen it in a pile of discarded canvases and brought it to the jury chairman’s attention and said, "you neglected this. This is something you should consider." And so it almost got sent back to Iowa without anybody having seen it.
CURWOOD: What exactly was the perception of the Farm Belt at the time that “American Gothic” became quickly so famous?
BIEL: Well, the ‘20s was a time when a lot of people self-consciously identified themselves as modern, which they associated with the city, with an emerging consumer culture. And so there was a kind of popular position toward the Farm Belt of ridicule.
One of the reasons it became so famous so quickly is because it produced an outcry among Iowa farm wives, who saw it as an insult to them. They thought of themselves as being more up-to-date, more modern. They didn’t stand around with hay forks outside their houses.
But the idea that the original image would have ticked anyone off is really pretty stunning to me. And yet it did. It was seen as being bitingly satirical. So that’s why it initially caught on.
CURWOOD: So how has the farm family changed over the years? From the 1930s, when this was painted, up till the present?
BIEL: The 1920 census famously said that most Americans were now living in urban areas. This was painted at a time when there were about seven million farms in the US; now there are about two million. It kind of spoke to a moment when there was a pretty serious farm crisis. It was painted right at the beginning of the Great Depression. Over the course of the Depression it fairly quickly changed into a celebratory image of wholesome American values, of stability, of a particular relationship to the earth. So instead of being these repressive Puritan types, these became kind of idealized Jeffersonian Americans.
CURWOOD: To what extent was this painting perhaps a romanticization of American farmers in the 1930s? At this time when most people had left farms?
BIEL: Critics at the time accused him of evading the harsh realities of the Depression and its effects on agriculture. That’s the most interesting thing, to me, about the early history of this image – is that it transformed extremely rapidly from anything but a romantic image of rural life into a highly idealized portrait. It’s the same image; it’s what people brought to it.
Initially, I think they were bringing a kind of debunking ethos of the ‘20s, a view of rural life and small town life as being the way of the past. But not in a good way, not in a nostalgic way. The kind of cultural impulses produced by economic hard times shifted that, so that there was a real recovery in the ‘30s of the American Folk, of small town life, of rural life, as being the repositories of stable values.
CURWOOD: To what extent do you think we still believe that?
BIEL: In a way, nostalgia for self-sufficient, small-scale farms may never disappear. It’s deeply embedded in our national mythology. There’s a sense that this is where the nation comes from, this is where our virtues derive from. That the simple life rooted in the land will always have a kind of appeal to us, no matter how far away from that in reality we get.
CURWOOD: Steven Biel is director of the History and Literature program at Harvard University, and author of “American Gothic: The Life of America’s Most Famous Painting.” Steve, thanks for taking this time with me today.
BIEL: Thanks for having me.
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