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AMERICAN GOTHIC by Steven Biel Kirkus Star


A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting

by Steven Biel

Pub Date: June 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-393-05912-X
Publisher: Norton

The extraordinary odyssey of America’s most loved—and reviled—painting.

American Gothic was almost sent back to Grant Wood after he submitted it in 1930, the paint still wet, to the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibition of American paintings and sculpture. Salvaged from the reject pile by a trustee, it won $300 and a bronze medal. The rest is history—and pretty amazing history at that, demonstrates Biel (History and Literature/Harvard; Down with the Old Canoe, 1996, etc.). Beginning with a present-day visit to the background house, which still stands at the edge of Eldon, Iowa, the author outlines the painting’s creation, its depiction of Wood’s sister and a local dentist (who did not pose at the same time), and the birth of its notoriety. American Gothic caused controversy almost immediately. Iowans were concerned about being depicted as sour, and moralists were concerned about the age difference between the man and the woman: Were they a husband and wife or not? Everyone assumed it was a satire, until Wood fanned the flames by claiming it wasn’t, therefore implying the subject matter was accurate. It was one of the most discussed works of art of the era. As America drew closer to WWII, the painting became transformed into an iconic image of steadfast resolution and individual freedom. Yet it has also been used to parody practically all aspects of American life; Biel sherpas us through some of the more trenchant examples in our own time, from the wedding scene of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (parodying Brad’s and Janet’s straitlaced background) to a New Yorker cartoon after 9/11 in which the figures’ “I ? NY” T-shirts suggested the heartland’s empathy for the city. Ironically, the author points out, in the 75 years since it was painted, “an image blasted for its inauthenticity [came] to assume the authenticity of folk art, the aura of genuine Americana, the authority of a national icon.”

Excellent cultural history, using American Gothic to illuminate Americans’ evolving relationship with our heartland values.