Formal Analysis on American Gothic, Essay Example

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Essay

Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930)

This painting is probably America’s most recognizable one, known even to those who do not know its age, locale, title, or name of its painter. Its worldwide fame is on par with that of the Mona Lisa and The Scream. Like those latter two iconic works, American Gothic has been endlessly copied, parodied, and interpreted over the years. Grant himself was ambivalent on what it meant, if anything. Initially some Iowans (the painting’s locale) hated it and Wood both.

Being a portrait, it has an entirely different look from the hyper-rounded, almost cartoonish appearance of Wood’s landscapes, some of which look like they could almost have been done by Thomas Hart Benton in a mellow mood. There is nothing outwardly exaggerated about the farmer and his wife (or daughter — the relationship is unaddressed), nor the house behind them. (However, a photo of the pair in modern dress taken some time after the picture was taken shows that the woman’s face in the painting is much narrower than the actual model’s. The man’s face, by contrast, is virtually a photographic likeness.) The other elements — its composition, line, space, light, color, and overall impression are organized, tight, and terse — and almost entirely a depression-era plains derivative (called Carpenter Gothic) of the Northern Renaissance, particularly the Flemish school. Grant studied that branch extensively during his early trips to Europe, and basing American Gothic on that artistic template necessarily limited his options. But this was not a problem. The arched window at the center of the picture, above and behind the couple, is the inspiration for the entire painting. It provides its focal point and title, the latter because its design is clearly derived from classic European Gothic-era Church windows (Douglas, 2011). There is nothing else remarkable about the building. The window is everything.

Wood saw that window from his car one day, and was struck by it. He thought it somewhat pretentious, yet artistically affecting. Next he thought of who would likely inhabit the house. And these are the three fundamental elements the picture is built from. In other words, it’s a triptych, a Renaissance staple of European art, updated and transplanted with a wry but serious twist to the American Midwest.  However, the window is not realistic in the sense of reporting exactly what the painter saw: it’s actually noticeably wider than its painted version. That artistic narrowness is also central to the picture. It is reinforced by the vertical slat-construction showing on both floors of the house and red barn, as well in the subtle but emphatic narrowness of the man and woman. She shows sloping shoulders, flat chest, a long neck,  narrow face, and hair pulled back tightly around it. The man’s head is, if anything, even narrower, so much so that it counters the effect of his rectangular shoulders. The final emphasis on narrowness is the weird mirroring of the man’s pitchfork (which itself echoes the triptych) on his bib overall and shirt. All this is obvious, as what it all connotates: the couple were as narrow-minded as their faces.

Whatever more that narrowness was actually meant to convey (if anything), the colors used are another expression of that design and sentiment. The only pronounced ones are dark — either black or brown — and white. I think this harkens back to the Northern Renaissance effect as well, and in this particular painting he achieves a typical supporting effect by putting the darker colors well in front of the contrasting pale blue sky. Some commentators have also noted the corpse-like look of the man. Whether that was deliberate or not, the combined effect of the two dour faces in dark and old fashioned clothing (the woman’s rickrack was already old-fashioned) does lend a funeral sense to the picture; the man’s black coat indicates he is a minister of the local church; the woman looks turned away, as if in grief; and the shaded windows in day was a mourning tradition. But as for their faces, Grant may simply have been mimicking 19th century photographs, where long exposure required people to stand perfectly still and maintain the same expression — that being the commonly given reason as to why few of the subjects ever smiled. (However, in Wood’s other portraits, almost none of the subjects smile.)

Once Wood saw the window, he had a difficult choice to make: how many people to put in the picture. It seems obvious now, but a look at Grant’s other portraits, both before and after this one, show that he preferred to paint a single person. Woman with Plants (1929) is a close precursor to American Gothic (the woman even wears a cameo), but it is unknown to the public. Having decided on a presumably married couple (and there is no reason to think of them as other than married), next came the choice of how to place the couple — which on the left and the right? If we assume the man to be right-handed, then had he been on the left (looking at the picture), he would have had to hold the pitchfork in his left hand to keep the pitchfork in the center of the picture, which is probably a design imperative. Interestingly, during traditional weddings, the groom is on right (looking at them from behind as they stand facing the minister) in order to keep his right “sword hand” free to fight off enemies (Stritof). In this picture, then, the pitchfork is in the man’s sword hand. Had Grant composed the picture with the man on the left side and holding the pitchfork in his left hand, we may be sure it would be resulted in a good deal of earnest interpretation and endless questions about it.

There has been a good deal of earnest interpretation and endless questions anyway. But that is probably the fate of all great art when it is seen by thousands, then (in modern times) millions. This increases with longevity of relevance. American Gothic has it. This is the central fact of  a great work of art: it simply is. No one really knows why. It keeps its secrets from us.

Works Cited

Douglas, Chad. Connect Tristates. Trip to American Gothic House. 2011.Web.

Stritof, Sheri. About.com. Marriage: Groom on the Right, Bride on the Left. 2012. Web.

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