The Art Career and Legacy of Grant Wood

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THE ART CAREER & LEGACY OF GRANT WOOD (1861 -1942)
By Victoria Chick

 

Grant Wood lived a short life during which he was a master metal craftsman, jeweler, teacher, interior decorator, and a fine artist both celebrated and reviled during his lifetime.

Born in 1861 into a tight-knit farm family in Anamosa, Iowa, life was disrupted 10 years later when his father died. Wood’s mother and 3 siblings moved into the town of Cedar Rapids. He and his older brother immediately had to find jobs to support the family. The sudden reality of responsibility seems to have created a rosy memory of life back on the farm later reflected in the organized and nurturing rural scenes in much of his art. This experience also reinforced the importance of family throughout his life.  People in his mature paintings were often drawn using family members as models and family photos for reference.

 


Grant Wood was attracted to creative endeavors while still in high school, doing set designs for theater and working for local visual art organizations. After graduation, he spent two summers studying at the Minneapolis School of Design and winters in drawing classes at the University of Iowa.  The time between 1910 and 1918 saw him in a variety of activities related to art and design that included moving to Chicago to take night classes at the Art Institute and supporting himself by working in a silver smithing shop and then, opening his own silversmithing business.

His mother’s financial woes motivated his return to Cedar Rapids. He worked as a home builder, and interior decorator, and during WW1, did camouflage design, then turned to teaching art in a junior high school.

In 1920, he took the first of many trips to Europe beginning his painting career there in an Impressionist-inspired style of landscape subjects.  His 4+ year European experiences seem to have helped him coalesce his thinking of what was important for him to express and to direct his attention back to Iowa where a friend who was a mortician gave him the use of a carriage house next to his funeral home to use as a studio.

On his European travels, the Flemish painters of the Northern Renaissance and German printmakers like Albrecht Durer had impressed him with their precision and subjects that included Gothic elements. He combined that tight style with his warm familiarity with rural Iowa people, places, and architecture. Objects in paintings became icons of the changing culture in Iowa in the first half of the 20th century. The attitude of not wanting a change after two world wars was fought with the desire for modern commercial products such as telephones, cars, and kitchen appliances.

Iowa embraced his talents as did most of America because his paintings seemed to reflect stability and unity of a shared American history as in Wood’s  1931 painting, “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”, that were comforting during the Depression.

Grant Wood was an acute observer and frequently used his art to comment on his subject’s foibles. He was able to suggest character faults sharply but his sympathetic treatment gives the impression they were part of his world and he loved them despite their flaws.  “Daughters of the American Revolution” and “Woman with Plants” are good examples.

  • American Gothic by Grant Wood
    American Gothic by Grant Wood


The turning point in his art life came when he exhibited “American Gothic” at the 1930 Chicago Art Institute Exhibition where it won a medal and was purchased by the Art Institute. His renown in the art world increased dramatically.  He joined other Regionalist artists to form the Stone City Art Colony. (Stone City quarries provided granite for producing lithographs, a medium enjoyed by the Regionalists).

In 1934, he joined the faculty at the University of Iowa and was appointed director of the Public Works Mural Project for the state of Iowa.

Up to this point, his latent homosexuality was not a major issue in his quiet life. For some reason, he married Sara Maxon, a singer from Cedar Rapids, and moved to Iowa City. The marriage lasted only 3 years during which time his mother died and some critics were beginning to say his work was more “illustrational” than “fine art”.  Like a shark smelling blood, the newly installed Chairman of the University of Iowa Art Department, Lester Longman, did his best to undermine Wood’s work, openly criticizing it and all Regionalist art as reactionary, and “communazi”. He solicited art historians and art writers to pronounce Wood’s art as “Sensational” and “Provincial”. Their influence tarnished Grant Wood’s reputation aesthetically and politically. The much-used college and university textbook, The History of Art, was written by Horst Jansen who had accused Wood and other Regionalists of being Fascists and refused to mention Grant Wood at all in his textbook.

Despite Longman’s efforts, all the Regionalists remained important and their work was greatly appreciated by the public until the end of WWII  when Abstract Expressionism came to the fore which would have happened anyway.  Art styles and the appreciation of styles change with time. Some styles or versions of a style reappear cyclically as the world changes and needs a particular way to create art that represents the time and place in which artists work.

Decades have passed since Grant Wood and Regionalism expressed their time. A historical perspective lets us see more clearly the subjects and style. Aesthetic appreciation continues to show us the genius of Grant Wood.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and was awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at www.ArtistVictoriaChick.com

 

Artist Victoria Chick

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About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico.

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