Many Americans first saw modern art at the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, now simply called the Armory Show.  Although two-thirds of the works exhibited were by American painters, their European counterparts stole the show.  Americans may have been familiar with European artists like Rembrandt, but few had ever seen – or could comprehend – works by avante garde painters like Gauguin, Duchamp, and Matisse (see Red Studio, below).

By the 1920s, many U. S.  artists felt that development of a rich American culture depended on separation from these European painters. American painters then turned turned inward, shaped by the spread of political fascism overseas and political, economic and social upheaval in the U.S. including the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

Left: Henri Matisse. Red Studio, 1911.  Oil on canvas, approx. 71″ by 86″.  Museum of Modern Art, NY. 

Three American painters – Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) from Missouri, John Steuart Curry (1897-1946) from Kansas, and Grant Wood (1841- 1942) from Iowa- founded Regionalism.  This movement rejected modernism and industry in favor of realistic portrayals of the daily life for, and scenes of, rural working Americans.

The most famous Regionalist work is undoubtably American Gothic by Grant Wood.  He visited Munich in 1928 to intensely study the works of Hans Memling and other northern European artists of the late 15thand 16thcenturies.

These works inspired Grant Wood to portray people more complexly. Whether they were portrayals of real people (such as his mother in Woman with Plants, or or fictitious Midwesterners as in American Gothic), Wood’s new portraits carefully staged not only the sitters, but also their clothing, local architecture, plants, and even the Iowa landscape that appears in the background.

Right: Grant Wood.  Woman with Plants, 1929.  Oil on Epsom board, 20 1/2″ by 17 7/8″.  Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Iowa.

Grant Wood felt that all paintings should hint at a narrative.  That way, the viewer would become emotionally and psychologically engaged.  He also used intentionally ambiguous “props” in his works, leading to differing interpretations of Grant Wood paintings.

This staging is apparent throughout American Gothic.  While often understood as a portrait of a husband and wife, Wood intended to portray the maiden daughter of an aging Iowan farmer.  The forlorn twosome, attired in old-fashioned clothing, appear to be blocking the progress of all things

Left: Grant Wood.  American Gothic, 1930.  Oil on beaverboard, 30 11/16″ by 25 11/16″.  Art Institute of Chicago.

modern.  They stand in front of a Victorian house built in a style called “Carpenter Gothic”.  Its Gothic- style window in the gable hints at the importance of religion in their lives.  The potted plants seen over the right shoulder of the daughter symbolize horticultural and domestic skills. While the farmer’s pitchfork conveys his occupation, it also makes him appear menacing.

Yet Wood also intended American Gothic to be a tribute to the values of rural America – these two farmers are clearly survivors.

Want to read about other American painters? Simply enter “American painters” in the Categories in the right hand column… and read away!

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