Grant Wood's 1930 painting American Gothic is perhaps one of the most recognizable images in world painting and an emblematic work of American culture. An imagined reproduction of a 'typical' rural Midwestern family, Wood's iconic, and ironic, work is a product of his upbringing in Iowa and yet also owes a great deal to the portraiture that emerged from the Northern Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Currently housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, Wood was inspired by the extant American Gothic House in the Iowa town of Eldon, which was designed and built between 1881 and 1882 in the Gothic Revival style. The painting is a rumination on what kind of people the artist imagined would, or should, live there. In American Gothic architecture comes before national stereotype, and configures the identity politics of the midwestern United States as most acutely affected by the built environment. Showing a farmer alongside his lonely, unmarried daughter, Wood's vision is one of a warped and unsettled Americana, signalling exhaustive labor, isolation, and eccentricity.
The subject of countless reproductions and parodied continuously in popular culture, American Gothic achieved instant fame for the artist and became firmly engrained in the popular mindset of the 1930s wherein the American experience shifted from a decidedly rural one to primarily urban. When Wood spotted the little farmhouse he asked his sister and his local dentist to pose in front of the building, imagining the old daguerrotype photographs he had seen in his childhood in the family album. The rigidity, the sternness, and the sense of time having passed is achieved through the artist's use of the iconography of Northern Renaissance art, which Wood was faced with during a series of travels in the late 1920s. Surrounding himself with the traditions and folklore of the midwest, American Gothic is a majestic fusion of American values, the cold light of modernity, and the European protestant origins of many American people.
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