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Was Iowa ever American Gothic?

The house is still there, but is the much-parodied icon still relevant to the Midwest?

By Bill GlauberCorrespondent / February 20, 2009

Des Moines, Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa

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Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is as familiar and comforting as a summer sky, as accessible as a grade-school textbook.

You see it and you know it, the small farmhouse with a Gothic-style window, the dour man, the sour woman, and the pitchfork.

“It was and is the Mona Lisa of Iowa,” says Roy Behrens, a University of Northern Iowa art professor.

But to actually see the painting in Iowa is a rarity. “American Gothic” enjoys pride of place in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. It has only been exhibited in Iowa eight times since Wood, an Iowa artist, created the work in 1930 after coming upon a home with a Gothic-style window in a railroad town called Eldon.

For a few weeks this winter, Wood’s work is on display at the Des Moines Arts Center, serving as a centerpiece for an enthralling exhibition, “After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism & the Midwest.”

To stand in the packed gallery and watch museum-goers take in the work is akin to watching someone look into a mirror.

Reactions vary. People point and laugh and gape. They stand in reverence and awe. They try to absorb the image they know so well and see it in a new light.

Some say the work looks smaller than they imagined, others say it’s larger. But to most, the painting looks just right, just how they remember it, at least the memory they conjured up through books, TV, and even parodies, since Wood’s work is one of the most parodied art objects in history.

Listen to the voices of Iowans as they absorb “American Gothic.”

“It brings back a lot of memories,” says Thom Davis, a social studies teacher from Johnston. “It’s neat to think about how it captures the simplicity of the time. I think of my father, who was a farmer. He lived a simple life, yet he was a hard worker. My father died at 65. He could have passed for 80. You think of the stress of farming.”

“It’s wholesome and simple and nice,” says Anne Pederson, a nurse from Des Moines.

“It’s like an olden-time kind of thing, not very modern,” say Keenan Mayhugh, 16, a high school student from Perry.

“I was laughing at the expression of boredom on the daughter’s face,” says Cecilia Benetti, who works in the Iowa Department of Public Safety in Des Moines. “It looks like she’d rather be doing anything but standing next to her father. The father’s expression is, this is as good as it’s going to get. I’m happy. The daughter has a look of, ‘I hope there is more to life than this.’ ”

As you look and listen to Iowans discuss an Iowa icon, you wonder, though, if Wood’s work accurately depicted the Iowa of 1930, in the early years of the Great Depression, let alone the modern state and its people.

The Iowa of 1930 was agricultural and hardscrabble. Some scholars suggest Wood was satirizing a portion of Midwestern life, uptight, close-minded, a buckle in the Bible Belt. He was also looking back, instead of forward, painting the turn-of-the-20th-century Iowa of his youth.

Wood wrote in a letter in 1941, a year before his death, that he “did not intend this painting as a satire. I endeavored to paint these people as they existed for me in the life I knew.”

Wood entered the painting in a 1930 competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. It won third prize, $300.

A piece of Americana was born.

“The people of the Midwest felt the painting misrepresented them,” says Professor Behrens. “I think they sensed it depicted them as being too straight-laced and they didn’t want to think of themselves that way.”

Yet as the Depression wore on, and as the US entered World War II, the painting took on a new meaning. Wood’s protagonists were seen as hardworking, salt-of-the-earth Americans.