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Saturday, October 9, 2010


It is not unheard of in show business that an early, outstanding performance is so well known and beloved that everything else the individual might attempt, often for the rest of their life, is judged against their early success and found wanting.  Producer, David O. Selznick, endured this after Gone With the Wind.  Orson Wells so became Citizen Kane it was hard for him to ever become any other character.  Leonard Nimoy had the same problem having played Mr. Spock.  It can also happen to painters.
What most people know about Grant Wood usually begins and ends with American Gothic.  A few might be able to tell you the painting depicts not a farmer and his wife but a farmer and his rapidly aging daughter, well on her way toward old-maidenhood, perhaps thanks to her father's ever-present pitch fork.  The president of the Grant Wood fan club could probably tell you the model for the female figure was none other than the artist's sister, Nan, while the farmer was in actuality, the artist's dentist, Dr. McKeeby.  And the mayor of Eldon, Iowa, could show you the tiny Gothic-Revival farm house still standing in his community.  He might also add that if you'd like to see the painting today, go to the Chicago Institute of Art.   
Beyond that, Grant Wood is kind of an enigma.  Born in 1892 in the state of Iowa, where he spent most of his life, Wood graduated from the Chicago Institute of Art then spent time studying in Europe where he was exposed to all the prevailing styles and, no doubt, studied those no longer prevailing as well.  Later, he would consider this time searching for a European art identity largely wasted.  It was back home in Cedar Rapids, teaching school, passing himself off as an interior decorator, and painting murals, that he discovered his true place as an artist.  By Iowa standards, he was an unabashed liberal, though his art critics considered him a right-wing conservative.  He was soft-spoken, yet a witty conversationalist.  However, only after the critical success of American Gothic in 1930, did this wit begin to appear in his work
Daughters of Revolution, 1932, Grant Wood
Wood's other paintings are not so well known.  Perhaps his other best known work depicts three prim, proper, geriatric ladies posed before a painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware.  It's titled, Daughters of Revolution.  Painted in 1932, Wood's dry wit is quite evident.  His penchant for idealized landscapes can be seen in Fall Plowing and his aerial view of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.  He indulged in other folk tales such as Washington's cherry tree in Parson Weem's Fable.  His wit becomes pure humor in his 1933 painting, Adolescence, in which he sandwiches a nearly nude young rooster between two fat and sassy old hens, in an amusing parable about the shyness and awkwardness of growing up.  Perhaps his best work is a large triptych in which he portrays the memory of a noon meal for threshers.  The simple, farmhouse architecture is divided into the barnyard/front porch where the workers freshen up, the dining room where they are shown eating, and the kitchen were the women prepare the huge, hearty, noontime meal.  Perhaps Wood would not be such an unknown figure in American art had he survived into the more recent "media age" to join some of his contemporaries such as Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O'Keefe, and Edward Hopper.  However, he died in 1942.  He was 49. 

Dinner for Threshers, 1934, Grant Wood

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