Was Iowa ever American Gothic?

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

The Art Institute of Chicago
The Mona Lisa of Iowa: Grant Wood’s 1930 oil painting – using his sister and his dentist as models – won the $300 third prize in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was not intended as a satire, the artist said. “ I endeavored to paint these people as they existed for me in the life I knew,” wrote Mr. Wood in 1941.

Des Moines, Iowa

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.

In the years since, Wood’s work has been endlessly parodied. It was an easy mark in the tumult of the 1960s, the great social and political changes sweeping the country, and sweeping away the likes of Wood’s couple.

Yet the painting and the couple – likely a farmer and his daughter – remain relevant to Iowa, despite decades of social and economic change. Iowa is still home to agriculture, but it also has diversified with financial services and insurance.

“Does it depict life today? Probably not,” says Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge. “The world has changed dramatically. People are much more mobile. Fewer people live on farms and make their living on farms. We don’t dress that way anymore. But that doesn’t take anything away in my mind from the painting. The painting is still a depiction of our heritage and something we should be proud of.”

To really understand the grip the painting has on the imagination of Iowans, and by extension Midwesterners, it pays to visit Eldon, population 956, around 100 miles southeast of Des Moines. Here are the keepers of the “American Gothic” flame, the people who live with the original home that forms the backdrop to the painting.

“The house is not only out of the way, it is way, way out of the way,” says Jerry Parker, a Wapello County Supervisor. He’s eating cheese and potato soup at a weekend fundraiser for the American Gothic House Center. Women in bibbed overalls serve soup, bread, and large slices of angel food cake. Dozens of people, mostly senior citizens, sit around banquet tables in a community hall.

The house, itself, still stands, out on the edge of town, at the bend of American Gothic and Burton Streets. The house is small, the paint flecked, the Gothic window in the front preposterously large.

Visitors can’t enter the home. The house was donated to the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1991 and has undergone more than $150,000 in renovations. It still looks as if a strong wind could blow it all down.

The story of the painting is contained inside the American Gothic House Center, the tale of how Wood came to Eldon one day in August 1930, wandered around town with fellow artist, John Sharp. They came upon the house, and Wood pulled an envelope from his pocket and made a rough sketch. He painted the work over three months, according to Wood’s early biographer, Darrell Garwood.

Wood’s sister, Nan, portrayed the woman and his dentist, Dr. B.H. McKeeby, portrayed the man.

“The woman reminds me of my grandma,” says Lucille Sapp, a volunteer at the center. “When I was a girl I was scared to death of my grandma. She was such an old woman, at least, she seemed to me anyway.”

Ms. Sapp was raised on a farm and moved to Eldon in 1943 with her husband, a railroad worker. When the Rock Island Railroad went bankrupt in 1980, the town began to wither.

“It was like a funeral, an exodus, people leaving to get jobs,” she says. “I miss the train whistle. It just about killed our town.”

But “American Gothic” helps sustain Eldon. More than 13,000 people have toured the visitor center since it opened in June, 2007.

“The postmaster used to live in the house,” Ms. Sapp says. “There’s a narrow stairway, two Gothic windows, one in front and one in back. I often wonder back in those days how they could afford to put windows like that in the house.”

Winter is the slow season. Only a few people show up each day to take photos in front of the home, to mug for the camera.

Others wander through the gift shop, picking over an assortment of “American Gothic” books, T-shirts, mouse pads, puzzles, and caps.

Sapp, and other volunteers, greet every visitor. The volunteers are a link to the past, to Wood, to small-town America.

“There wasn’t too much to be happy about,” Sapp says of 1930, when Wood created the painting. “Those were the signs of the times.”

In a few weeks, Sapp will make a journey of her own, from the small town to the big city, from the original home to a beautiful museum.

For the first time in her life, she aims to see the real “American Gothic” in all its glory.

“After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism & the Midwest” will be on exhibit through May 17 at the Des Moines Art Center. “American Gothic” will be on view through March 29.

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