Few paintings are as iconic as Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The artwork’s staging is so embedded into American culture that even its countless parodies and homages are instantly recognizable. While this deceptively simple portrait has clearly captured the imagination of the nation, the story behind its creation and rise to fame makes it all the more compelling.
1. American Gothic was instantly a big hit.
American Gothic was submitted to the 1930 annual exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it won a bronze medal and a $300 prize. But that’s not all: The Art Institute acquired the piece for its collection. From there, a picture of the prize-winning painting ran in the Chicago Evening Post, then in newspapers across the U.S., gaining fame and popularity with each printing. Almost a century later, American Gothic still calls the Art Institute home.
2. It made Grant Wood famous.
Before this breakthrough, Wood was an unknown 39-year-old aspiring artist, living in the attic of a funeral home carriage house that he shared with his mother and sister. Although he was toiling in obscurity, artistic training in Europe had taught Wood techniques that led to his big break.
Following the success of American Gothic, Wood became a bit of a media scamp, often rewriting the history and meaning of his painting to best suit a given trend or narrative. And his fans became ravenous, sometimes traveling to his family’s home, and walking right into Wood’s quarters uninvited.
3. American Gothic’s inspiration was a real and really distinctive home.
In the summer of 1930, Wood was visiting Eldon, Iowa, to attend an art exhibition. While there, he was struck by a little white cottage with a “carpenter Gothic” window on the second floor—Wood found it “pretentious” for such a humble home. He sketched out the house on an envelope, providing the base for what would become his most famous painting.
Wood may have found them pretentious, but the windows (one in the front of the house, one in the back) were hinged to allow the family that lived there to more easily move large furniture in and out, uninhibited by a narrow staircase inside. As extraordinary as they seem in a home instead of a larger structure like a church, it’s believed the the distinctive windows were picked out of a Sears and Roebuck catalog.
4. It combined Americana with European technique.
Inspired by the window that recalled the cathedrals he’d seen in Europe during his training and travels, Wood posed his quintessentially American figures in a “rigid frontal arrangement” that recalls Northern Renaissance art, while mimicking that movement’s close attention to detail.
5. The farmer in American Gothic was really a dentist.
When Wood needed a model for the man in American Gothic, he asked his dentist, 62-year-old Byron McKeeby. It’s likely McKeeby felt a bit obligated, as Wood’s constant craving for sugar—he even put it on lettuce—made him a client worth keeping happy. All that time in the exam chair gave Wood ample opportunity to examine McKeeby’s face and strong hands. Of them, he said, “This is a marvelous hand. This has strength. This has character.”
6. Wood found the wife close to home.
The artist’s first choice for a female model was his mother, Hattie—but he was concerned that posing at length would be too much for her, so he used his sister Nan instead. Hattie did contribute by lending her apron and cameo for her daughter’s costume, though.
7. None of the models posed together.
Wood painted the house, his sister, and his dentist in separate sessions.
8. Iowans weren’t fans, to say the least.
When the newspapers in Wood’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, first presented an image of American Gothic, the painting sparked a backlash. This dour portrayal was not how the locals saw themselves, and they resented being presented this way to the world. One farm wife was so enraged by the painting that she threatened to bite Wood’s ear off. Another suggested he have his “head bashed in.” Wood was stunned by the acrimony, insisting he was a “loyal Iowan” who meant no offense, only homage.
Nan would later write to a newspaper that when she posed for her brother, “He showed me some pictures of old Gothic stone carvings from a cathedral in France, and asked me if I could pull my face out long and look like some of the women in the carvings. I told him some of my neighbors looked like that just naturally, but he explained that he couldn’t ask them to pose without hurting their feelings, so I gladly consented to pose and still consider it a great honor. … (No Iowa woman) should feel hurt about the painting if I don’t, unless as I suspect she sees some resemblance to herself!”
9. American Gothic does not depict a husband and wife ... maybe.
A popular caption for the painting in newspapers was An Iowa Farmer and His Wife, but that was not how the painting’s female model saw it. Nan told people the painting depicted a father and his daughter, perhaps because she resented being “married” to a man twice her age. Wood himself waffled on this point.
10. Wood intended to paint a companion piece.
In December 1930, Wood wrote to The Des Moines Register about American Gothic, saying that “Any northern town old enough to have some buildings dating back to the Civil War is liable to have a house or church in the American Gothic style. I simply invented some American Gothic people to stand in front of a house of this type,” adding, “It was my intention, later, to do a Mission bungalow painting as a companion piece, with Mission bungalow types standing in front of it. The accent then, of course, would be put on the horizontal instead of the vertical.”
In the same letter, Wood noted that “The people in American Gothic are not farmers but are small-town, as the shirt on the man indicates. They are American, however, and it is unfair to localize them to Iowa.”
11. Its meaning has shifted over the years.
Early on, writers like Gertrude Stein and Christopher Morley believed American Gothic satirized the provincialism of small-town America. But as the Great Depression damaged American morale, American Gothic was viewed as much-needed celebration of the nation’s fortitude and spirit. Now, its purpose transforms with each new parody.
Wood gave this confounding statement: “There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life.”
12. Wood’s signature is hidden.
Look in the bottom right corner of the farmer's overalls, and you’ll see the artist's name painted along with the year (1930) in pale blue, almost invisible against its denim backdrop.
13. American Gothic fueled the rise of “Regionalism.”
An American realist modern art movement that shunned urbanism in favor of the glories found in rural settings, Regionalism (or American Scene painting) hit the peak of its popularity in the 1930s thanks to Wood’s works as well as those of Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton and Kansas’s John Steuart Curry. Wood played into this brand, always sporting overalls, and proclaiming to the press, “All the good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”
Grant was actually repulsed by farm animals, and it has been suggested that his penchant for overalls was all PR—not just to play up his artist persona, but also to help hide (through this perceived manliness) his homosexuality.
14. American Gothic’s house is now a tourist attraction.
Built in 1881 by Catherine and Charles Dibble, the Dibble House passed through owners for more than a century before Carl Smith donated it to the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1991. Since then, it has been transformed into a museum celebrating Wood and the painting that made him and the house famous.
15. Every element of American Gothic has been mined for meaning.
Some observers have suggested that the man pictured is no farmer at all, but a preacher using the pitchfork as a prop to rail against the devil and his dangers. Perhaps the curl of the woman's hair is meant to paint her as a sharp-tongued spinster. Is the rickrack on her apron meant to allude to old-school values, or mock her as out of date? Their expressions have been read as resolute or sullen. The window’s curtains might mean a hidden secret. Do the geraniums in the background signify melancholy?
Wood never cleared up any of these points, and so the mystery and debate over American Gothic rages on decades after his passing.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.