15 Things You Might Not Know About American Gothic

Grant Wood. American Gothic, 1930. The Art Institute of Chicago. Friends of American Art Collection.
Grant Wood. American Gothic, 1930. The Art Institute of Chicago. Friends of American Art Collection.

Few paintings are as iconic as Grant Wood's American Gothic. The piece'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. It 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. Eighty-five years later, American Gothic still calls the Art Institute home.

2. American Gothic made 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, he 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 that Wood found “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. 

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 was really a dentist.

Seeking a model for the male in American Gothic, Wood asked a favor of his dentist, 62-year-old Byron McKeeby. It's likely McKeeby felt a bit obligated as Wood's constant craving for sugar—even putting 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 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. However, he was concerned that posing at length would be too much for her. So, in her stead his sister Nan sat in. But Hattie did contribute by lending her apron and cameo for her daughter's costume. 

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.

9. American Gothic does not depict 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. 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.” 

11. 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 canvas medium (wood) and the year (1930) in a pale blue, almost illegible against its denim backdrop.

12. 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." 

However, he 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

13. 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. 

14. The windows weren't just pretty; they were practical. 

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 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 Dibbles picked their distinctive windows out of a Sears and Roebuck catalog. 

15. Every element 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.

Art

Bob Ross's Son Is Holding Painting Classes at a Tennessee Library

Bob Ross.
Bob Ross.
Bob Ross Inc.

For anyone who has ever logged on to the internet, Bob Ross needs no introduction. The painter, who passed away in 1995, spent the years 1983 through 1994 hosting the PBS series The Joy of Painting, where his soothing manner and bubbling-spring landscapes comforted viewers.

On several episodes, Bob’s son, Steve Ross, could be seen painting his own nature scenes as guest host or assisting his father in answering reader questions.

According to WVLT, Steve Ross is now set to offer painting classes at the Blount County Public Library in Maryville, Tennessee. He will be joined by Dana Jester, an artist who also appeared on The Joy of Painting. The workshops will be held March 4 through March 8 and will cost $125 per attendee, who will also be expected to bring their own supplies. The classes will last the entire day.

If locals are curious and don’t want to commit to the fee, Steve and Dana will be hosting a free demonstration on March 5 at 6:30 p.m.

After his guest spots on his father’s program, Steve appeared to retreat from public life, though clips of his appearances were apparently popular on Tumblr for their inadvertently risqué banter. (“It can be dirty, it doesn’t have to be clean,” and so forth.)

Bob Ross also taught classes even while The Joy of Painting was airing. He purportedly received no income from that show, earning a living via merchandising and appearances.

[h/t WVLT]

New Website Shows You What Synesthesia Looks Like

This is how Bernadette Sheridan, who has grapheme-color synesthesia, sees the name Aiden.
This is how Bernadette Sheridan, who has grapheme-color synesthesia, sees the name Aiden.
Bernadette Sheridan, Etsy

If you happen to find yourself seeing music, smelling color, or unusually combining two other senses, you may have synesthesia, a possibly genetic condition that affects about 4 percent of the population.

Since synesthetes perceive the world in such a unique way, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of them pursue work in a creative field. Billy Joel, Vincent van Gogh, and Pharrell Williams are just a few examples of well-known artistic synesthetes.

For the rest of us, the whole concept can be a little hard to wrap our minds around. To help us out—and to help herself make sense of her own senses—artist Bernadette Sheridan created a website called Synesthesia.Me that illustrates grapheme-color synesthesia, which causes her to see letters as colors. If you type in a word or phrase, the site will produce a row of color blocks that correspond to those letters.

synesthesia.me color-blocks for 'mental floss'
We think our color blocks match our personality perfectly.
Bernadette Sheridan, Synesthesia.Me

As Sheridan explains in a post on Medium’s health and wellness vertical, Elemental, each person’s grapheme-color synesthesia manifests itself differently, so the letter-color combinations on Synesthesia.Me are specific to how Sheridan sees words. That said, there are some common combinations across many synesthetes—the letter A, for instance, is often seen as red.

Not only is the site a fascinating foray into the mind of a grapheme-color synesthete, it could also help you bring a bright, personalized pop of color into your home: Sheridan runs an Etsy shop where she sells prints of the color blocks. She’ll email you a high-resolution, printable portrait of any name or word for just $12, or you can order an already-framed version for $96. Looking for a special engagement or anniversary gift? Sheridan also makes them with two names.

bernadette sheridan etsy synesthesia portrait
Dawn and Pete make a colorful couple.
Bernadette Sheridan, Etsy

[h/t Medium]

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