Grab Your Pitchfork and Take an “American Gothic”-Themed Road Trip

A drive through eastern Iowa is the best way to appreciate one of the country’s most famous images

Visitors to the American Gothic House Center are encouraged to play the part of the famous pair from the painting. (Alex Palmer)
smithsonian.com

Beginning May 1, visitors to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, will notice some strange additions to the city streets: more than two dozen statues of the farmer/daughter duo from Grant Wood's famous "American Gothic" painting. Yes, the iconic painting is not a portrait of a husband and wife, as is commonly thought, but instead depicts a father, a daughter and a pitchfork. The statues are part of Iowa Tourism's “Overalls All Over” campaign, which will install 25 individually painted 6’ fiberglass statues throughout the state in celebration of the 125th anniversary of Wood's birth. The oft-parodied painting has gained a life far beyond its original context, but many who might be familiar with the work itself probably know less about its creator and his own backstory.

Born on a farm in rural Iowa, Wood was deeply influenced by the Midwestern landscape and cities of his home state. He was one of the major proponents of the Regionalist art movement, which flourished during the Great Depression, a time when few artists could afford grand tours of Europe to learn their craft. Wood maintained that the hills and farms of the Midwest were as legitimate a source for artistic inspiration as JMW Turner’s English seascapes or Vincent van Gogh’s wheat fields. He and other major figures in the Regionalist movement, especially John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, felt that “different sections of the U.S. should compete with one another just as Old World cities competed in the building of Gothic cathedrals,” as a 1934 Time magazine cover story on the movement said. “Only thus, [Wood] believes, can the U.S. develop a truly national art.”

Wood’s legacy may have been eclipsed in many ways by his most famous work, but his impact on the Midwestern art scene and Iowa more generally can be seen throughout the state in ways large and small. There are few ways to get an appreciation for this far-reaching impact than with a road trip through the state, with stops along the way that immerse travelers in the world of "American Gothic":

Grant Wood Studio, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Wood first moved to Cedar Rapids with his family in 1901, at the age of 10. Though he took his first art lessons here, his early paid work was often for building and crafts projects. He built two homes for his family before moving them in to this space, above a funeral home garage. Wood did odd jobs for the owner in exchange for use of the space as his studio. After adding windows and a kitchen, he started sleeping there, and soon was joined by his mother and sister, Nan (the inspiration for the dour-looking woman in "American Gothic"—the man was modeled after Wood’s dentist, B.H. McKeeby).

It was here that Wood painted "American Gothic," as well as works such as "Woman with Plants" and "Daughters of Revolution." Beyond standing in the space where the most reproduced painting in the country was created, look for details like the furnishings Wood custom-built to fit the unusual space, a bathtub that sinks into the floor, and a painted glass panel on the door with an arrow that could be moved to indicate when the artist would be back or what he was doing (such as “out of town” or “having a party”).

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