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Grant Wood

(1891-1942)

American Regionalist

By Danielle Peltakian

Grant Wood’s Regionalist paintings of bountiful farmlands and busy farmworkers starkly contrast the period of the Great Depression and wartimes in which they were created. Free from images of poverty and fear, they capture the unique, inspirational spirit of the Midwest of decades earlier. On the West Coast, Regionalist painters included Ben Messick, Paul Sample, and Dan Lutz.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

In 1891, Grant Wood was born to Hattie Weaver and Francis Maryville Wood on a farm near Anamosa, Iowa, a rural town with a population of about 2,000. After the unexpected death of her husband in 1901, Hattie Wood relocated with her four children to her parent’s house in Cedar Rapids. Removed from their idyllic family farm, Grant Wood and his siblings quickly accustomed to the new, urban setting that surrounded them.

Wood’s grammar school teacher, Emma Gratten, is credited as the first person to support the youngster’s interest in art. At the age of fourteen, Wood submitted a drawing of oak leaves to a sweepstakes and won first prize. During his high school years, he befriended artist Marvin Cone (1891-1965), and together, they designed sets for the school’s theater department. On the night of his graduation, he left for a summer course taught by nationally known architect and designer Ernest Batchelder (1875-1957) at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft.

In 1913, Wood relocated to Chicago, where he set up a jewelry and fine metalwork shop. Occasionally, he enrolled in evening drawing classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Over the next several years, he took correspondence and summer school courses in the decorative arts and even served in the U.S. Army as a camouflage designer. When his mother fell ill in 1919, he returned to the family home in Cedar Rapids and took a position as a grammar school teacher in order to support her and his younger sister.

After a brief summer trip to Paris in 1920, Wood returned to France three years later to study at the Academie Julian. On a sabbatical from his teaching position, he also traveled with artist friends to Sorrento, Italy. Looking back, Wood referred to these times as his “bohemian years.” When he returned to Iowa, he dawned a beard and adopted an impressionist style of painting.

In the 1920s, Wood earned fame as an artist in the local community. In 1919, Killian’s Department Store held an exhibition of his paintings alongside the works of his longtime friend and fellow artist, Marvin Cone. Following this exhibition, the competing major department store, Armstrong’s, hired Wood to decorate their store window displays. He also completed mural and portrait commissions for local family-owned businesses and factories. In 1927, he was commissioned to complete a stained-glass window for the new Veteran’s Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids. Upon the urging of the planning commission, Wood was sent to Germany with Cone to oversee the production of the piece at specialist workshops. During his three month stay in Munich, Wood saw early German and Flemish paintings for the first time.

His admiration for the works of the German and Flemish Old Masters is said to have been a major turning point in his career. Abandoning the Impressionist style, Wood adopted the extreme Realist style of the fifteenth and sixteenth century Flemish school. Working with a tighter brushstroke and a darker color palette, the artist completed his most memorable works upon his return from Munich. In 1930, his painting American Gothic (1930) was accepted into the juried annual exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago and won the Norman Walt Harris Bronze Medal. Wood’s painting of a woman, man and pitchfork received almost overnight success and catapulted the artist into the public eye. To this day American Gothic stands alone as the sentinel distillation of the clear, forceful and acerbic Midwestern mentality.

In the years following the exhibition of American Gothic, critics were eager to present Wood to the public as the leader of American Regionalism. He was invited to contribute paintings to numerous contemporary art exhibitions and to act as a director for several national art programs. Drawing upon memories from his early childhood spent on a farm, Wood exemplified the Regionalist style through his paintings of small-town folk and life in the Iowan countryside.

In 1932, he best expressed the regionalist sensibility when he and fellow artists Edward Rowan (1898-1946) and Adrian Dornbush (1900-1970) opened a summer art colony and school in Stone City, Iowa. The art colony proved to be successful in attracting many aspiring Midwestern artists. Lasting two summers, the colony was Wood’s most dramatic attempt yet to establish the Midwest as a significant art center. After two summers, Wood closed the art colony and accepted a position as an associate professor in the art department of the University of Iowa in hopes of giving wider breathe to his artistic vision. During his tenure, Wood gave many lectures on Regionalism and even published a tract entitled Revolt Against the City that drew comparisons between Regionalist art and literature.

For many years, Wood was known for his status as one of Cedar Rapids’ most eligible bachelors. However, in 1935, he decided to marry struggling actress and opera singer Sara Maxon, much to the dismay of his friends and family. Their marriage proved to be tumultuous, and the two divorced in 1939. Misled by his failed marriage, Wood was further embarrassed by the government’s discovery that he had failed to pay income taxes for the past three years. With the extra burdens brought on by his divorce and the government, Wood was buried in financial debt by the late 1930s.

Furthermore, a bitter argument developed between Wood and the University of Iowa’s art department, which had began to denounce his artistic talent and reject his Regionalist doctrines. Faculty members, who supported the new abstract trends that were then sweeping the nation, began to argue that Wood’s lectures and paintings were provincial at best and outdated. Feeling betrayed by the department that he had made famous, Wood requested a leave of absence in 1940. Two years later at the age of 51, he died from liver cancer at the University’s hospital.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

A son of a Midwestern farmer, Grant Wood lived his entire life in Iowa, only briefly traveling to Europe. The unique character of small-town mid-America had a lasting impression on Wood that compelled him to make it the chosen theme of countless paintings. Over the course of his career, it seems that Wood had a stock of subject matter that revolved around American folklore and life in the countryside. A farmer plowing a field, mother and child planting new crops, grandma mending, and grandpa eating freshly popped corn all became the recognizable “stars” of Wood’s creations. He is primarily known for his paintings such as these, and in particular, the painting American Gothic featuring a Midwestern father and daughter. Since its creation in 1930, it has gained an iconic stature in American culture.

In 1935, he published the essay Revolt Against the City, which defended his regionalist beliefs. Wood argued that the Great Depression was good for American art because it forced many American artist’s who could not finance a trip abroad to rely on their own tradition, rather than that of Europe. He claimed that to look toward America for artistic inspiration was neither provincial nor close-minded; instead, it creates an independent style that is both personal and narrative.

By World War II, the rise in popularity of European abstraction put the figural style of Wood and the Regionalists out of fashion. Critics began to argue that he and fellow Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and John Stewart Curry (1897-1946) made art that was provincial and nationalistic. Moreover, opponents argued that Wood’s style was far too similar to that of an illustrator.

Despite negative criticism late in his career, Wood adhered to the Regionalist style that he had made popular decades earlier. His paintings of idyllic farmlands and busy farmworkers starkly contrast the period of the Great Depression and wartimes in which they were created. Through a narrative design, Wood created a world that captured the mid-west of decades earlier. Free from poverty and fear, they capture a unique spirit of America and its idyllic history of untainted farmlands and small-town communities. While the world was looking toward Europe for answers to art, Wood examined what was before his very self with a courageous eye, imaginative mind and classicizing brush.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1891 Grant Wood born on February 13 on a farm near Anamosa, IA
  • 1910 Graduates from high school and takes a summer course at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft
  • 1911 Retunes for a second summer to the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft
  • 1913-16 Takes evening drawing classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and opens a jewelry and fine metalwork shop
  • 1916 Returns to his family’s home in Cedar Rapids
  • 1918-19 Serves in army designing camouflage for artillery
  • 1919 Teaches in public school system. Killian’s Department Store sponsors his first exhibition.
  • 1920 Travels to Paris for the summer
  • 1923-24 Returns to Paris and takes classes at the Academie Julian. Travels to Sorrento, Italy in the winter months
  • 1926 Makes last trip to Paris and holds a solo-exhibition at the Galerie Carmine
  • 1927 Commissioned to complete a stained glass window for the new Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids
  • 1928 Travels to Munich for three months with artist friend Marvin Cone
  • 1930 Wins medal at the annual exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago for his painting American Gothic
  • 1932 Opens Stone City Colony and Art School, which stays open for two summers
  • 1934 Elected director of Public Works of Art Project in Iowa and named Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa (UI)
  • 1935 Marries Sara Maxon
  • 1939 Divorces Sara Maxon Wood
  • 1941 Awarded honorary degrees from Northwestern University and Wesleyan University. Appointed Full Professor of Fine Arts at UI
  • 1942 Dies of liver cancer on February 12
  • IV. Exhibitions

  • 1919 Kilian’s Department Store, Grand Rapids, IA
  • 1926 Galerie Carmine, Paris
  • 1928 Iowa Federation Women’s Clubs
  • 1929-32 Iowa Art Salon
  • 1929 Toledo Museum Annual Exhibition
  • 1930 National Academy of Art, Chicago
  • 1930, 1942 Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1931-37 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art Annual Exhibition
  • 1935 Ferargil Galleries, NY
  • 1937, 1957 Corcoran Gallery biennial
  • 1965, 1996 Des Moines Art Center
  • 1970 University of Iowa Museum of Art
  • 1975 Brooks Memorial Art Gallery
  • 1977 Davenport Municipal Art Gallery
  • 1983 Whitney Museum of American Art
  • 1985 Elvehjem Art Center at the University of Wisconsin
  • 1987 Montgomery Art Center at Pomona College
  • 1996 Joslyn Art Museum
  • 2005 Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
  • V. COLLECTIONS

  • Academy of Art Museum, MD
  • Amon Carter Museum, TX
  • Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, IL
  • Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, IA
  • Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
  • Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA
  • Guilford College Art Gallery, NC
  • Hunter Museum of American Art, TN
  • Iowa State University, Iowa
  • Joslyn Art Museum, NE
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • Midwest Museum of American Art, IN
  • Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  • New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
  • Oklahoma City Art Museum, OK
  • Orange County Museum of Art, CA
  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
  • Pomona College of Art, CA
  • Sheldon Art Gallery, NE
  • Sioux City Art Center, IA
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
  • Southern Alleghenies Museum, PA
  • Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas
  • Swope Art Museum, IN
  • Westmoreland Museum of American Art, PA
  • Williams College Museum of Art, MA
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • Cedar Rapids Art Association
  • Mural Painters
  • National Academy of Design
  • Stone City Art Colony
  • VII. AWARDS

  • 1928 First Prize, Iowa Federation Women’s Clubs
  • 1929 First Prize, Iowa Art Salon
  • 1930 First Prize for Portrait and Landscape Genre, Iowa Art Salon
  • 1930 Norman Walt Harris Bronze Medal, Art Institute of Chicago
  • VIII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Baigell, Matthew. The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930s . New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974.
    2. 2. Corn, Wanda M. Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
    3. 3. Dennis, James M. Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986.
    4. 4. Falk, Peter Hastings ed. Who Was Who in American Art: 1564-1975. Vol. III. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.
    5. 5. Lucie-Smith, Edward. American Realism. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
    6. 6. Roberts, Brady M. et al. Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1995.

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