This painting by America Artist Grant Wood is one of the ten most famous paintings in the world and one of the most parodied (along with “The Scream”). Wood painted it in 1930. First he came upon the Gothic Revival-style house in Eldon, Iowa, then he used his own sister Nan and his dentist as models for the couple painted in the foreground. (They never actually stood in front of the house. He painted the elements separately.)
Wood entered the painting in a competition sponsored by the Art Institute of Chicago and though the judges first called it “comic valentine”, a museum patron (according to Wikipedia) convinced them to award the painting the first prize of $300 and to buy it for the Museum.
When the instant fame of the painting reached Iowa, the natives of the state were outraged at being portrayed as “pinched, grim-faced puritanical Bible thumpers”, but by the time the Depression hit the country, people began to see the painting as a depiction of the steadfast American spirit..
The artist’s sister, Nan, was upset at being pictured as the wife of a man twice her age (the dentist who served as the model for the pitchfork-toting farmer), so she and Grant Wood told people this was meant to be a picture of a farmer and his spinster daughter. But everyone who sees the painting sees it as a married couple—pinched and solemn, hardworking and humorless, who have undoubtedly been married for so long they’ve started to look alike.
In my collection of antique photos I have two couples I’d like to nominate as stand-ins for the American Gothic couple—or, since they pre-date the Grant Wood painting by at least 30 years if not more, let’s call them the original American Gothic.
This pair appeared together in a leather photo case I bought. The images are so clean and vivid that I nearly jumped when I opened the case to find these two sixth- plate ambrotypes on ruby glass. For some reason, I’m convinced this is the only portrait this couple ever had taken of themselves. They look like a no-nonsense pair who would not waste money on frivolity like photographs.
The thing that fascinates me about this pair is the woman’s hair. (And her square granny glasses.) I’m pretty sure her real hair color would be white, not black, but she doesn’t look like someone who would color her hair (which was considered shocking and almost never done in the 19th century.) Maybe she’s wearing a wig? Also, those crazy banana curls may be made of chenille—I believe I read something about that being a fad back in the 19th century.
This other pair hang in my bedroom, and every time I look at them I smile. (I’m sorry I couldn’t get a clearer photo of the man but the light and reflections totally foiled me on the day I snapped the photo.)
These two are examples of painted tintypes, a format that combines two of my great loves—photography and folk art. Painted tintypes like these usually began with a full plate (about 8 by ten inches) tintype photograph. Then someone—either the photographer’s staff or an artistic housewife—would paint over the image, sometimes to the point that you could no longer tell it’s a photograph. Many hilariously non-realistic portraits were created this way.
But just painting over the photograph wasn’t enough. The mat and frame of the painting were also hand-made and painted to embellish the original photograph.
In this pair, you can see that the lady’s clothing and the flowers in her hair have been painted in, and her cheeks tinted. The man’s hair and beard have been enhanced.
Then, as is common with painted tintypes, the maker, convinced that “More is More” embellished the mat and frame. In this case someone did an oval of gold glitter on top of another oval of red paper under the white mat and the three-layered wood frame, which is almost like a shadow box.
These couples clearly have been together so long they started to look alike, and their stern visages embody, like the Grant Wood portrait, the best qualities of the steadfast American spirit. They are the salt of the earth.