Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on April 22, 2009 with permission of the Figge Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Figge Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed
by Brady Roberts & James M. Dennis
In 1930, Iowa artist Grant Wood (1891 - 1942) was suddenly propelled into the national limelight when his painting American Gothic won the bronze medal in the Art Institute of Chicago's annual exhibition of American painting and sculpture. Wood's icon of Midwestern fortitude captured the country's imagination as it entered the Great Depression. During the isolationist 1930s, Regionalism, the movement associated with Grant Wood and contemporaries, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John Steuart Curry of Kansas, became synonymous with homegrown American painting. Ironically, all three Regionalists had formative experiences while studying art in Paris during the 1920s.
During the 1920s, Grant Wood traveled to Paris on three separate occasions, experimenting with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles of painting. On his first trip, in the summer of 1920, he accompanied Marvin Cone, an artist friend from his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who, unlike Wood, spoke French. Postcards from Wood to his mother and sister, Nan, indicate that he worked on plein air paintings assiduously, even in rainy weather.
Wood took a sabbatical from teaching in the Cedar Rapids public schools and borrowed money to return to Europe for fourteen months in 1923 - 24. He stayed primarily in Paris, studying at the Académie Julian, the Parisian art academy for foreign students, in the fall. He then traveled to Sorrento, Italy, with other artists in the winter months and returned to northern France and Paris to work on plein air paintings in the spring and summer of 1924.
An important work from these formative years was Spotted Man (1924), an academic figure study rendered in a pointillist manner that Wood created while studying at the Académie. Although the painting demonstrates little of the intense color interaction of George Seurat's "scientific" color combinations inspire by the optical treatises of the nineteenth-century physicists, Chevreul, Blanc, and Rood, this experiment with Neo-Impressionism established an approach to developing forms and compositions that remained with Wood throughout his mature period and resurfaced consistently in his late paintings.
A late oil-on-panel study, Iowa Cornfield, recalls the "croquetons" (small sketches made en plein air) Seurat made in preparation for major canvases. Like Seurat, Wood applied short horizontal brush strokes in a relatively loose and broad manner when creating crosshatched forms in his small plein air studies. Also like Seurat, as he developed his sketches into more ambitious compositions, his brushwork became finer and the work more highly detailed. In Iowa, Cornfield the touches of turquoise, yellow-green, and white on peach and green fields combine to create brilliant, but static forms, based on observation, but enhanced through color interaction. Although it is unlikely that Wood was aware of the theoretical underpinnings of Seurat's Neo-Impressionism, he did employ similar stylistic techniques.
The artist again traveled to Paris in the summer of 1926. Wood's work in France culminated with an exhibition of thirty-seven paintings at the Galerie Carmine, Paris. Few paintings were sold and there was virtually no critical response to the show, which the artist considered unsuccessful. However, the significance of Wood's three trips to Paris cannot be underestimated. His experimentation with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and his exposure to modern European art played a significant role in the development of his mature style.
In 1927, Grant Wood received a prestigious local commission from the city of Cedar Rapids to design a stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial Building. During production, the artist was dissatisfied with the quality of windows being fabricated in the United States, leading him to Munich, where the guild tradition of medieval craftsmanship continued at the Emil Frei Company. While in Munich, Wood admired Northern Gothic painting at the Alte Pinakothek Museum. Fifteenth-century Northern Gothic painting had enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in Germany during the 1920s as part of a broader return to realism or objectivity, referred to as "die Neue Sachlichkeit."
"Neue Sachlichkeit" artists Otto Dix and Christian Schad sought inspiration from the precise clarity of Northern Gothic paintings by Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Holbein -- the same artists admired by Wood. Both Wood and his German contemporaries demonstrated a tendency to render rounded forms in a simplified, schematic fashion with the clear definition of Northern Gothic painting.
Upon returning from Munich, Wood drastically altered his method and style of painting, working in a much more methodical and premeditated fashion than he had in his earlier Impressionist phase. His portraits and landscapes of the late 1920s and early 1930s demonstrate numerous similarities to contemporary German art. His portraits reflected a degree of social criticism and satire that is, though less cynical, in keeping with the figurative painting of the ''Neue Sachlichkeit" movement.
One of Wood's finest fantasy landscape paintings, Stone City, Iowa, was created during this period. The similarities between Wood's post-Munich paintings and the stylized realism of the ''Neue Sachlichkeit" were noted early in 1931, when the Frankfurt newspaper Das Illustrierte Blatt featured a large reproduction of Wood's 1930 painting Stone City, Iowa, with the caption ''Neue Sachlichkeit in Amerika."
Although Stone City, Iowa was based on a direct study of a place with which Wood was thoroughly acquainted, he turned this village and its river valley site into a fantasy of curving contours, ornamental trees, and brightly patterned surfaces. Wood considered the "decorative adventures" of his commonplace rural surroundings -- their inherent elements of abstraction -- as the true origin of the most lasting quality in his work.
Wood's most brilliant satirical work, painted shortly after his return from Munich, offers a composite of the people he knew best and with whom he maintained an affectionate yet ambivalent relationship -- rural midwesterners. Wood used his sister, Nan, and a Cedar Rapids, dentist, B. H. McKeeby, as the models for American Gothic, the 1930 painting that captured the somber mood of the Depression era and thrust the artist into international fame.
In this iconic portrayal of a simple, hardworking farmer and wife, Wood created a subtle balance between homage and satire. The armed farmer's defensive stance, which borders on aggression, indicates a narrow-mindedness that is accentuated by his elongated gothic features, literally suggesting a narrow, simple, and direct point of view.
Wood's affinity for his German contemporaries is further obvious in Return from Bohemia, where Wood portrays himself as an intense but stoic recorder of the world around him, echoing Dix's 1926 Self-Portrait with Easel. The composition of Dix's painting, particularly the positioning of the hand, refers to Dürer's famous oil-on-panel self-portrait from 1500 in the Alte Pinakothek Museum -- a painting Wood was no doubt familiar with, and that he may have had in mind when working on Return from Bohemia.
Dix's self portrait, part of a series of paintings inspired by Dürer and Lucas Cranach, employed a glazing of thin, translucent layers of paint on a smooth, flat panel to achieve an Old Master-like finish that was also in keeping with the machine age aesthetic of the ''Neue Sachlichkeit." In a broader sense, Dix's renewed interest in the Northern Renaissance related to the "return to order" of the late 1910s and 1920s and the impulse to create an artwork with the lasting solidity of an Old Master painting.
After his return from Munich, Wood also began using oil glazes on panels in compositions alluding to Northern Gothic portraiture. His 1932 Self-Portrait, combines the format of Northern Gothic portraiture with the added surface vibrancy of pointillism. The skin tones are built up with a complex web of blue, green, red, and peach paint that blends together when viewed from a distance. Wood's mysterious record of himself, which he kept in his studio until his death, suggests a more complex individual than the simple "farmer in overalls" persona he presented publicly.
Grant Wood's interest in modern trends of composing a picture originated with the Arts and Crafts movement, with its emphasis on ornamental patterning. He first became familiar with this aspect of design in his late teens through a correspondence course offered by art educator Ernest A. Batchelder in Gustave Stickley's Craftsman Magazine. This initial exposure led him to another American source of modernism, Arthur Wesley Dow, whose manual Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers was to influence American art education for decades.
From these sources, Wood learned the modern principles of design, which emphasized surface clarity, or, more specifically, flat-patterned design. This emphasis on a decorative surface is particularly evident in Wood's floral still-life paintings from the late 1920s. In Delphiniums in White Vase, the energetically impastoed flower, stem, and leaf forms burst beyond the outer edges of the picture plane. Large cast shadows and illuminated areas of the wall refuse to remain behind the flowers, creating a "push-pull" surface tension, a concern central to modern painting.
In the wake of imported modernism, ostensibly on the wane by 1930, Wood claimed that a revival in depiction of American subject matter was taking place throughout the country. Although this was to be applauded, artists would need to distinguish themselves as inventive individuals and reject any return to outworn nineteenth-century academic techniques. A powerful tendency of the revival, according to Wood, would be toward a "literary feeling," the "story telling picture" being the "logical reaction from the abstraction of the modernists." As he hastened to point out, therein lay its greatest danger. The general public would continue to demand illustrations that it could understand without "mental exertion."
1 Wanda M. Corn, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 104.
2 James M. Dennis, Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture (New York: Viking Press, 1975), p. 67.
3 "Grant Wood Helps Young Artists Develop Technique," Daily Iowan, November 3, 1935.
4 "An Iowa Secret," Art Digest 8 (October 1933): 6.
5 Wood never finished the painting, unable to resolve the formal arrangement of his overall straps with the competing patterns created by bands of fields in the background. Wood painted over the straps at some point and left the shirt unfinished. Late in his career, he signed the painting with the note "sketch."
About the authors
Brady M. Roberts organized several nationally touring exhibitions for the Davenport Art Museum (now the Figge Art Museum) where he was curator of collections and exhibitions. He holds a B.A. in art history from Illinois University at Champaign-Urbana and an M.A. in art history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied under James M. Dennis.
James M. Dennis is professor emeritus of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written extensively on Grant Wood, inclusive the award-winning book Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture and Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on April 22, 2009, with permission of the Figge Art Museum, which was granted to TFAO on February 3, 2009.
It appeared in the February-March 1996 issue of American Art Review. It was adapted from the fully illustrated catalogue to the exhibition Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed, which was organized by the Davenport Museum of Art, Davenport, Iowa (now the Figge Art Museum). The exhibition was on view at the Joslyn Art Museum (winter 1996), the Davenport Museum of Art (March 23 - September 8, 1996) and the Worcester Museum of Art (October 6 - December 31, 1996).
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Brady Roberts; James M. Dennis; Sue O'Malley and
Andrew Wallace of the Figge Art Museum; and Shana Herb Johannessen for their
help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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