The Case for a New Grant Wood Painting
In which the author argues that an unidentified work at a Nebraska gallery was painted by the American regionalist master
Keichel Fine Art in Lincoln, Nebraska is currently exhibiting a fascinating mystery picture, Landscape with a River and Hills, popularly known as The Bigfoot Landscape. While it has some awkward features and is not included in any of the existing publications about Grant Wood, a number of scholars believe that it is indeed by Wood. But two of Wood’s biographers, James Denis and Wanda Corn, have rejected the piece, though in a recent letter Corn has softened her stance to what I take as a “maybe.” Which way is the truth?
If it is by Grant Wood it’s an important discovery, since paintings in Wood’s mature style are as rare as Vermeers: after Wood developed this style in American Gothic, he produced only a little over 30 paintings.
Decisions like this are resolved through a sort of scholarly consensus. And while we like to pretend that our decisions are based on solid evidence, often our evidence is much less than complete. What’s interesting in this case is that while the attribution depends partly on technical considerations—the materials and techniques employed in the painting—ultimately the decision rests on something more complex and in some ways subjective. Does the picture reflect the mind of Grant Wood? Does it seem to be the product of his imagination?
Let me briefly present the case that it does: I’m one of the scholars who believes that Wood produced the painting. In fact, I wrote about the work in the 2011 Vivian Kiechel Fine Arts catalogue.
I first saw the painting during a research trip to Iowa City, for a book I’m hoping to write about Grant Wood. At that point the painting was in a private collection, and I expressed my opinion that Wood had done it. Doubtless for that reason the gallery asked me to write about the painting when it was put up for sale. I then ran through all the arguments even more carefully than before, and I became more convinced that my feeling about the painting is right.
Let me warn you, I think the artwork is unique: a painting that Wood abandoned halfway through. That would at least partly explain why it looks so odd. (Of course, the final answer to the question of the painting’s authenticity will have an enormous effect on the work’s value.)
What do we see in the work? Like several paintings by Grant Wood, Landscape portrays the sort of gently rolling terrain characteristic of eastern Iowa. There’s a river with a bridge and a road leading into the distance; sprinkled over the landscape are corn fields, corn shocks and a red silo. In the left foreground is a “dancing tree.” The oddest feature of the painting is a hill just across the river on the left, which has a shape that resembles a human foot, with eight green shrubs that seem to form “toes.” It’s precisely this bizarre feature that makes me think the painting is by Grant Wood.
The painting originally hung in Wood’s studio, according to two credible witnesses: Park Rinard, who became Wood’s publicity manager and secretary, and Dr. Titus Evans, a radiologist of international repute, who was Wood’s physician and also an amateur painter. It’s not clear when Wood first hung this painting in his studio. Rinard, who connected with Wood around 1934-35 when Wood moved to Iowa City, once commented “that painting was always around.” According to Dr. Evans’ widow, on several occasions her husband attempted to purchase the painting, but Wood refused, perhaps because he considered it incomplete. In December of 1941, shortly after a cancer operation, Wood gave the painting to Dr. Evans, and he passed away shortly afterwards, on February 12, 1942.
James S. Horns of Minneapolis, who has conserved many of Grant Wood’s paintings, reports in a letter of October 1, 2008 that the materials in the painting are consistent with other paintings by Wood. Specifically: it is executed on a rather heavy cotton canvas similar to some used by him; the canvas was covered with a white ground heavily applied with broad brushstrokes, similar to that found in many of his paintings; and the picture surface contains an uneven coating of pigment that has been partially rubbed off to leave a glaze or scumble, as is often found in paintings by Wood. While Horn notes that analysis of technical issues by itself is not sufficient to provide “absolute confirmation” of the attribution to Wood, he concludes that “the materials and technique would support an attribution to Wood and no features were seen that are inconsistent with his work.”
The general repertory of elements is one that appears frequently in Wood’s oeuvre. The slowly moving river, the gentle hills, the cornfields and corn shocks, the silo, the trees (some with autumnal foliage), the road running at a diagonal and then turning at a right angle—all form part of Wood’s fundamental grammar of expression, which he constantly rearranged, like a writer rearranging words in a sentence. The elements in the foreground are particularly close to Wood’s painting The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, executed in 1931. Interestingly, the composition of the painting seems to follow a design method that Wood employed on other occasions. It is roughly divided into three equal horizontal bands and is crisscrossed by diagonals that point to the corners or to other key points on this geometric grid. Wood taught this method of design to his students at the University of Iowa, and it can often be found in his landscapes, notably his lithograph March, of 1941, where this method is clearly demonstrated.
But Landscape completely lacks the fine detail that we generally find in Wood’s paintings after 1930: if it is a work by Grant Wood, it must be one that he left unfinished.
To me, the most compelling reason for the attribution is the curious sense of humor in the work—a sense of humor that is rather childlike. Wood’s paintings are filled with pun-like elements, which are sometimes downright naughty, as in his Daughters of Revolution, in which the three elderly women resemble Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in drag. In Landscape, the most peculiar and remarkable element in the painting is the hill in the shape of a human foot, with shrubs for toes. In some fashion I believe this is a reference to a silly hoax Wood once carried out, a prank that was significant to him and formed part of his personal mythology.
In 1916, while in his mid-20s, Wood and his friend Paul Hanson constructed two small homes in Kenwood Park, Cedar Rapids, one for the Hansons and one for himself, his mother and his sister. Around this time, after reading about the alleged discovery of human bones and a kitchen in Horsethief’s Cave, northeast of Kenwood, a hoax which brought crowds of spectators to view the cave, Wood decided to create a “Superhoax” of his own. As his first biographer Darrell Garwood reported:
He carved a foot eighteen inches long out of wood and made footprints in the ravine leading from Cook’s Pond. With his monster picture and the footprints as proof, he tried to convince the newspapers that a giant had risen up from the pond and then clumped off down the ravine. As it turned out, he didn’t succeed in luring the newspapers. But he did use the footprints: he cast them in concrete and laid them as a sidewalk from front to back of the house he was to occupy; the concrete footprints were spaced so that it looks as though a giant had just knocked at the front door and then hurried around the corner of the house.” (Darrell Garwood, Artist in Iowa, A Life of Grant Wood, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1944, page 53.)
The same story is told with slight variations by Wood’s sister Nan:
About two miles away was Cook’s pond, which Grant called “Corot’s pond.” On hot summer evenings, he and Paul Hanson would swim there. As a hoax, Grant made molds and cast some giant footprints, pressing them into the sand to make tracks leading to the pond. Then he dove in and came up with his head covered with decaying leaves and dripping mud. Paul took a picture of this horrible creature. Grant made more of the giant footprints in concrete and used them a stepping stones from our house to a rustic bridge he built over a tiny stream in our back yard. (Nan Wood Graham (with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald, My Brother Grant Wood, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1993, pages 25-26.)
My belief is that the hillside shaped like a foot in Landscape is an allusion to this hoax—or, if you wish, an extension of it into a new and somewhat different artistic statement. In other words, the huge foot visible in the hillside conjures up the fantasy that “Bigfoot” is at loose. In my opinion he was sufficiently taken with this theme to execute the work at least to the stage of under-painting the canvas; but then he ran out of energy or enthusiasm when faced with the task of perfecting the finish of his creation—perhaps because the conceit was too slight and too whimsical to justify a fully polished painting. Instead, he hung the incomplete painting in his studio, waiting for some further bit of inspiration to complete the painting—a moment that never came.
So I believe the mystery painting is by Grant Wood in part because of its provenance, in part because its materials are consistent with Grant Wood and in part because its composition ties in with known works by him. But the most compelling factor is that the piece’s strange humor fits with what we know about Grant Wood’s personality—and not with that of any other artist.
Someday, perhaps there will be a scholarly consensus. But as of today, the jury is out. Am I correct that Grant Wood made this picture? Have you been persuaded?