An ever-changing analysis. A father and daughter another. Farmers using a Casio calculator to calculate their egg-selling profit in one ad. Paul Newman and his daughter Nell in another as seen in the Smithsonian article, “This Side of Parodies”. By now, the painting that made Grant Wood famous may be popping in one’s head. American Gothic, a work from the 1930’s, was an instant hit in all areas of the media. Popular with art critics, museums, and especially advertising, this painting jump started Wood’s career and Regionalism, the artistic movement that would inspire Wood’s following works. Grant Wood, born in Anamosa Iowa, grew up on a family farm with his two older brothers, younger sister, father, and mother. Early on in his childhood, Wood’s father died unexpectedly, resulting in his family relocating from their farm to the big city of Cedar Rapids.
This is where, “he found the source of inspiration for his entire artistic career” (Corn, Wanda). He was inspired by the politics, land, and people of small towns in the Midwest, in particular, the interwar period between the end of the First World War in November 1918 and the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939. During this time, there was controversy concerning the involvement of the U.S. in other countries surrounding the establishment of peace. In addition to these new ideas, another part of American society was evolving. American art formed two very influential developments, Regionalism and Social Realism. Grant Wood was associated with Regionalism, which was classified by regional landscape, and local history and culture. It was nostalgic, not unlike most of Wood’s paintings which featured aspects of his childhood, living in the farmlands of the Midwest. Social Realism was the other development during this interwar period, and consisted of more critical works of art that addressed societal issues to cause a social change and were much more provocative than that of Regionalism.
In terms of Wood’s training, he was always interested in art and dabbled in it until 1910, when he graduated from high school and finally enrolled in art classes. He studied under Ernest Batchelder, who was both an educator and tile maker. While Batchelder’s concentration of artwork may seem completely unrelated from Grant Wood’s, his influence can be seen clearly in Wood’s works. His use of geometric design and attention to shapes is a direct reflection of the teachings of Ernest Batchelder, where geometric shapes are prevalent in tile making. He later studied in Paris, but it is argued by Jane C. Milosch, an art director and author, that, “The most important event for the future direction of Wood’s painting was a trip in 1928 to Munich” (Milosch, Jane) when he was commissioned to do a stained-glass window. Knowing very little about stained glass, Wood went to Germany to learn about stained-glass technique, but was intrigued by the detailed paintings of German and Flemish artists of the 15th century.
This astonishing art influenced Wood’s style to evolve into a more detailed, realistic manner, also mentioned in Milosch’s writing. He was always open to new forms of expression, and throughout his rather short life of 51 years, he was able to overcome criticism from many art critics while experimenting with new mediums and techniques. One of Wood’s most known paintings is “Spring Turning” from 1936. This painting depicts a memory from Wood’s childhood in Anamosa, Iowa. The tone of this painting is optimistic, contrasting with the mood of the Great Depression, the period in which it was painted when the farm economy was collapsing as mentioned by Dennis in an article about Grant’s painting during this time. In addition to the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl impacted this midwestern region of the United States, with windstorms causing soil erosion, leading to the loss of vegetation on many pieces of land. As explained by in an article written by Ginalie Swaim, “Grasshoppers thrived in the dry, hot weather. They attacked the few crops still growing. Ruby Howorth recalled how grasshoppers on their Crawford County farm seemed to devour everything.” (Swaim, Ginalie). Wood received criticism for his upbeat depiction of the land, as the colors, shapes, and title suggest.
However, it was an optimistic view from his memory as well as what he and others hoped for in the future — fertile, plentiful land. The name, “Spring Turning” gave a sense of hope for change, growth, and positivity all from the word “turning”, as if a new period was beginning. This connects to the idea of the manmade change taking place in the painting. Interestingly enough, it has been noted that Wood rarely included humans in his landscape paintings. The only exception to this precedent was in his paintings of spring-time. The necessary involvement of humans during the Spring for a plentiful harvest was always depicted in these paintings. The literal turning of the land and of Spring is occurring in conjunction with the work of humans by the progression of a plough through the fields. The plough by itself is nothing but a plow, but in a certain context, like in this painting, it is understood as a symbol for much more than farming technology.
Before the first agricultural revolution, farming had been a predominantly female practice; however, once farming became a main source of income, the men took over. Thus, this plow has become a symbol for sexism and an insight on the origin of the wage gap that formed many years ago. Raj Patel, a writer, academic, and activist explains that, “Spring ploughing and autumnal harvesting involved heavier labor and were also often coded as men’s work.” (Patel, Raj). The women would be pushed to the commons to work with the cattle, as seen in “Spring Turning”, while the men would take care of the work that produced an income in the fields, ploughing land for a future harvest as seen in Wood’s “Spring Turning”. It can also be seen in the most visible way that men would be in control of the more physical and masculine job while the women would be involved in a more nurturing and feminine hobby.
Returning to the idea of the geometric shapes in Wood’s painting, connected to Wood’s previous instructor, Ernest Batchelder give the oil painting a more modern feel. As Wanda Corn explains, “With his [Wood] irrepressible sense of humor, his love of patterns and simple geometries, Wood transformed the annual rituals of rural Midwestern life into light-hearted legends” which is prevalent in “Spring Turning” with its light-hearted landscape. The way Wood uses linear perspective where the shape and size of an object is determined by lines converging at a point on the horizon keeps the viewer looking at the broad geometry of the landscape, rather than the details of brush stroke and shade of color which take longer to pick up on. Although these details are harder to see, every detail he painted was as precise as it was purposeful. He would even create scale models in clay before painting to truly understand the shadows that would be created so that his paintings could accurately represent the lighting and lack thereof. Even with his thorough detailing, he invited the viewer to focus more on the broader perspective of the piece. This idea can be connected to a remark made by Arthur Wesley Dow, a painter with whom Batchelder was familiar.
He mentioned, “Take any landscape that has some good elements in it, reduce it to a few main lines, and strive to present it in the most beautiful way” which is explained in The Reynolda House’s description of “Spring Turning”. This is connected to Batchelder, and thus connected to Grant Wood. The way Wood forms the fields and creates rectangular clouds parallel to the ground rather than rounded scattered clouds reinforces the significance of geometric design in his art. Critics have looked at Wood’s meticulous fields surrounded by evenly placed fence posts as stitches holding together the pieces of a quilt as explained in an article in the Yale University Press by Wanda Corn who states, “Like artists or seamstresses, the farmers make abstract art out of their fields. In Spring Turning, farmers guide horse-drawn plows to fashion the earth’s surface into a gigantic quilt” (Corn, Wanda). If this is the case, this quilt can be seen as a symbol of Wood’s family and childhood back in Anamosa, Iowa. Another explanation is that this quilt represents the use of something old to create something new. In the painting, the old grass is being turned into something else to create new growth and crops during the spring and fall, just as old fabric is joined to create a new piece of fabric, a quilt.
This idea arose from pioneer women in which, Christina Walkley, a writer and lecturer on costume and textiles explains that, “You can’t always change things…Hail ruins the crops, or fire burns you out. And then you’re just given so much to work with in a life and you have to do the best you can with what you’ve got. That’s what piecing is. The materials is passed on to you or is all you can afford to buy -that’s just what’s given to you. Your fate. But the way you put them together is your business” (Walkley, Christina). There is a sense of growth and new beginnings as the stitches continue and as the fence posts are hammered in to form new fields for farming. This quilt shed light unto the experiences that one has had, as seen in the quote from quilt restorer, Betsey Telford-Goodwin, who describes speaking to many women who had lived through the Dust Bowl, “I listened to their stories–the tears that went into them, the lives. A lot of these women had lived through the Dust Bowl, so they had these amazing histories.
These quilts were their expression of what they’d experienced’ (Ian Aldrich). The quilted fields are an expression of the farmer; he decides how they look and what they will grow. While being a form of art, they take time to create, just like the ploughing and farming of multiple fields. Throughout the public viewing of Wood’s life through his artwork, Grant Wood created many paintings showing all of the seasons of farming; “spring planting, summer hoeing, fall plowing, and fallow fields in winter”, as explained by the Reynolda House Museum (“Spring Turning.”). Even though his paintings surrounded farming and as stated by, “He wished to be known as a “farmer-painter” and purposely costumed himself in overalls despite the fact that he hated farming”.
The overalls became a statement, and now looking back on his life, critics believe that they could have been a way of forwardly displaying the masculinity he did not obtain internally. It was eventually concluded that Wood was most likely gay. While it was once thought that “Spring Turning” looked like a farm landscape draped over a female body, it was later theorized that the draping was over a man’s behind. This painting has thus been acknowledged as erotic. Now, Howard E. Wooden, a director of art in Kansas catalyzes the understanding of “man’s inseparable link with nature and the cyclical dimension of human existence” (Wooden, Howard) through Wood’s “Spring Turning”. Like the overalls, this painting was another way for him to hide his sexuality behind the fields of his hometown in which he was so comfortable. “Spring Turning” enveloped all of his past lessons into one piece, while never neglecting his emotional past and midwestern childhood.
- ALDRICH, IAN. “What Stories Does a Quilt Tell Us?” Yankee, vol. 78, no. 2, Mar. 2014, pp. 78–79. EBSCOhost, go.libproxy.wakehealth.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=94656678&site=ehost-live.
- Berman, Avis. “Who Was Grant Wood? -.” ARTnews, 2 June 2014, www.artnews.com/2010/11/01/who-was-grant-wood/.
- Corn, Wanda. Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1983.
- Corn, Wanda. The Painting That Became a Symbol of a Nation’s Spirit. Smithsonian, Nov. 1980.
- Dennis, Grant Wood, pp. 206, 208; Corn, Grant Wood, p. 90.
- Milosch, Jane C. Grant Wood’s Studio: A Decorative Adventure.
- Patel, Raj, and Jason W Moore. “#7CheapThings: Cheap Care.” UC Press Blog, 5 Oct. 2017, www.ucpress.edu/blog/31744/care-7cheapthings-raj-patel-jason-moore/.
- “Spring Turning.” Reynolda House Museum of American Art, 25 Oct. 2018, reynoldahouse.org/collections/object/spring-turning.
- Swaim, Ginalie. “Dry, Dusty 1936.” IPTV, 13 Mar. 2017, www.iptv.org/iowapathways/mypath/dry-dusty-1936.
- Walkley, Christina. “Quilting the Rocky Road.” History Today, vol. 44, no. 11, Nov. 1994, p. 30. EBSCOhost, go.libproxy.wakehealth.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9501273918&site=ehost-live.
- Wooden, Howard E. Grant Wood: A Regionalist’s Interpretation of The Four Seasons.