Thursday, April 14, 2011

American Gothic House Appears in Multiple Paintings

Grant Wood sketched the American Gothic House in 1930, and we all know the story that followed. The house is one of the most recognizable houses in America and is by far the most well-known of any house Wood painted. Still, it is one building among many in Wood’s large body of work. Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, Arbor Day, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Stone City and Parson Weems' Fable all include architecture. But variations of the American Gothic House appear repeatedly, and not just throughout the numerous American Gothicparodies.

In 1931 Wood painted Appraisal, an artwork whose main characters are a chicken and two women from different backgrounds. Much has been said about this image—some have pointed out that the woman in the fur coat has a facial profile closely resembling the chicken’s, others have drawn conclusions about why the chicken has the fanciest coat of the three. I would like to direct your attention to the background, where Wood has placed a familiar front porch on a simple white house. Based on Wood’s sketch of the house (click the images to enlarge them), it’s hard to say what color the front screen door was when he visited Eldon in 1930. Older photographs of the house do show its door painted the same color as the one in Appraisal. Probably just a coincidence, but interesting nonetheless.

Nine years after he painted American Gothic and just three years before his death, Grant Wood again referred to the house in Eldon. Fertility, a lithograph, contains an almost exact recreation of the American Gothic House. The small home is painted white and has a simple front porch and a peaked roof with a Gothic window.

Wood’s 1942 painting Spring in Town depicts all the activities of preparation for warmer months. Tilling the garden, giving the winter blankets a wash, and trimming trees take place in the foreground. The shape of the central green house, based on an Iowa City home, echoes the shape of the American Gothic House. An even more striking similarity sits just beyond. Two men work hard in the yard of another little white house with a front porch.

Wood's style used repeating patterns, shapes, and objects. The brooch worn by his sister Nan in American Gothic and his mother Hattie inWoman with Plants actually belonged to his mother, a souvenir from Grant's travels. It follows that the American Gothic House, referenced again and again in his paintings, held some kind of important meaning for Wood.

The rural Anamosa home where the Wood children were born was destroyed by a fire in 1974. I was able to find one photograph of the house (not an online version, unfortunately), and sure enough, I saw a white home with a front porch. Although much larger than the house in Eldon, Wood's childhood home has a tall square window as the centerpiece in a peaked roof above the porch.

I don't like to assume I understand any artist's intentions. Maybe Wood was remembering his birthplace, maybe he was paying tribute to the house that helped launch his career, or maybe it was just a common style of building. Whatever the case, the little house in Eldon continues to prove its significance not only to Wood but to all who visit it, live in it and near it, and care for it.

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