‘The American Gothic in the Art Institute Chicago’


Your assignment, which is to write a five- to seven-page Research Paper on a work chosen from the European collection at the AIC, is very similar to the assignment outlined in Appendix IV. Pay special attention to "Doing the Research," "The First Draft" and "The Final Paper" and note the many steps that can turn a first, rough draft into a final, finished paper.


The painting ‘American Gothic’ is the work of an American artist ‘Grant Wood’ and it was a very personal painting to him in many ways. It has the architecture of a small house in the Midwestern hometown of Eldon. It was painted in 1930 and since then it has become one of the most famous paintings and has inspired many parodies. Similar to the artist Wood, the man and the woman shown in the painting are the natives of the Midwestern town of Eldon ("American Gothic"). The relation between them seems to be a husband and wife, and many have interpreted them like this but in reality, the artist portrayed his sister in the painting along with his dentist. These figures have been created realistically in the painting. The way they have been dressed up reminds of some tintypes from an old album. The painting is highly detailed; it has a polished style, and the frontality of the two figures is also very rigid. These minute things were studied by Wood when he was traveling to Europe between1920-26. It is said that the models in this work of art did not pose either before the making or when the painting was being made (Sperling, "Painting The Dark Side: Art And The Gothic Imagination In Nineteenth-Century American Art"). 
The house that is shown in the painting seems to be of Midwestern types, but it is well known that the house is in Eldon and is real. This house is the inspiration of the painting ‘American Gothic’ as it has been shown as surviving the sketched for the painting at preliminary stages. A man and a woman are placed in front of that house who seems to be having some relation between them,  maybe they are a  couple and the owners of the house too. The artist selected this arrangement on the basis of the early centuries of the late nineties and early twenties where the traveling photographers had a practice of capturing the posing subjects near or in front of their houses. It was the choice of either the owner of the house or the photographer about where they wish to stand. This testifies to the association between Americans and their houses as they view the houses as extensions of themselves (http://www.americangothichouse.net/about/the-painting/). The significance of home in rural America is of family, the mutual hard work of the family members and the greatest possession of the family. There is no clarity about the choice of this house as there is a window in this which may be due to the choice of the owner of the house or it was painted just to make the house look bigger than it actually was. The compositional elements have been used here with the utmost care, and it is giving importance to the choice of the house by the artist (Wood, "American Gothic").

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The window in the painting shows some important compositional elements. There are two arches in the window that are equal and an oddly shaped pane is capping it which joins the arches together from the top. When somebody looks at the entire painting, the window seems to be duplicated with two halves that are repeated by the two figures of the humans who stand side by side. The man and the woman in the painting are joined visually by the roof in the similar way the pane at the top that has an odd shape joins the two arches of the window (Sperling, "Painting The Dark Side: Art And The Gothic Imagination In Nineteenth-Century American Art").  
In the pre-painting sketch that survived, the male held a rake and not the hayfork that has three tins. But this could not be regarded as an idle choice.  The antic sense of Wood’s humor was well known, and it endlessly speculated the hayfork’s significance (Wood, "American Gothic"). The shape of the hayfork was considered important in the painting as it got repeated in the form of stitching on the male figure's bib overalls (continuing the pattern on the shirt). It also functions compositionally, as it mirrors (upside down) the shape of the panes in the window upstairs. This kind of repetitive pattern enlivens the composition and gives it rhythm.
When the artist created the sketches, plants were not there. They have symbolic meanings. Here Geraniums are used that signifies melancholy and ineptitude. A leading scholar on Wood, ‘Wanda Corn’ and the author of ‘The Regionalist Vision’ speculated that Sansevieria's hardiness made it famous for the early women, and the use of plants maybe just an allusion to the early women hardiness.  The Geraniums that have been used here tell about the shape of the tree that is there behind the house. The same plants are there in the portrait that the artist has painted in 1929 and had his mother in it. From that painting only, Wood took the elements in the current painting. They have compositional importance and symbolic meaning (http://www.americangothichouse.net/about/the-painting/). 
In the composition, the pattern continues together. The pattern on the curtains is most notable that is displayed in the window on the upstairs, and there is a similar pattern on the apron of the woman too. It is worth noting that these are pure patterns. The apron and the curtain lack the realistic distortion that occurs from the folds in the fabric. The edging in the apron of the American woman in the painting that is rickrack is similar to the pattern on the apron of the mother in the painting ‘Woman with Plants’. In both the paintings of Wood, the women wear a cameo brooch. 

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One of the most important things in the painting is the expressions of the figures that are there in the painting (Wood, "American Gothic"). The woman and that man seem to be dour and ill-humored. This is contradictory to the claim of the artist that in the painting he has tried to make a portrait that is affectionate and very much type of the Midwest. The characters of the man and woman are looking like ‘no-nonsense’ characters. The early photographs give an explanation of the stoic expressions that these men and women give in this portrait. The artist has not made the figures smiling in this because then long exposure times would have been required. If the artist would have borrowed the practice of photography from that concept, then it could have resulted in the unsmiling faces of people. When the human touch is added to the figures in the painting, the sternness of the subjects is softened. There is an errant curl that is hanging from behind the right year of the lady, and it has softened the severity of the woman’s hairdo. The gold collar button of the man is a bit showy for a dentist who is considered to be a sober and conservative man. The portrait shows that there are mixed feelings about the people that the artist wishes to portray (Wood, "American Gothic"). 
It can be concluded that the painting ‘American Gothic’ is one of the finest paintings in American Art history. It is an example of Regionalism which is a movement that opposed the Abstract art of Europe aggressively. It preferred the rural America descriptions that were rendered in the subjects of the painting in a style that is representational. It is now a part of the popular culture of America, and the couple that is shown here has been the subject of endless parodies. It is believed that Wood used this painting to satirize the narrow-mindedness and repression that has been said to characterize Midwestern culture, an accusation he denied. The painting may also be read as a glorification of the moral virtue of rural America or even as an ambiguous mixture of praise and satire.


  • 2016. http://www.americangothichouse.net/about/the-painting/.

  • "American Gothic". Design 45, no. 1 (1943): 8-8. doi:10.1080/00119253.1943.10742146.

  • Sperling, Joy. "Painting The Dark Side: Art And The Gothic Imagination In Nineteenth-Century American Art". J American Culture 27, no. 4 (2004): 454-456. doi:10.1111/j.1542-734x.2004.148_24.x.

  • Wood, Grant. "American Gothic". Design 36, no. 2 (1934): i-i. doi:10.1080/00119253.1934.10740821.

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