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

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

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”).

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

It’s a few minutes from Wood’s studio to this museum, which houses the largest collection of Grant Wood works. It offers an ideal first-hand survey of the artist’s work, including paintings like "Woman With Plant," but also "Mourner’s Bench" (Regionalism extended to craftsmanship, including jewelry, ironwork, and furniture such as this oak bench, with the winking inscription “The Way of the Transgressor is Hard”), and life-size sketches that were the basis for the massive stained-glass window of the nearby Veterans Memorial. Wood had long hoped that Cedar Rapids would have its own museum, and it was partly due to his efforts that the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art came about, making this a particularly appropriate place to visit. Unfortunately, the actual painting "American Gothic" is housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, where it has been since a keen-eyed patron persuaded the museum to award it the bronze medal and $300 in a competition and to buy the painting outright.

J.G. Cherry Building, Cedar Rapids

Near the museum is this hulking industrial plant. In 1925, Wood created a series of paintings depicting the men working at the J.G. Cherry dairy equipment manufacturing plant, such as "The Coil Welder" and "The Shop Inspector." This series of seven paintings represented an elevation of Wood’s work for Iowa-based businesses, which included less-than-artistic advertisements and promotional flyers. The 1919 building is still standing today and now houses a number of artist studios and galleries, as well as some of the factory’s original machinery. Prints of Wood’s J.G. Cherry paintings are also displayed, and the originals are exhibited at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

Veterans Memorial Building, Cedar Rapids

(This mural marked a turning point for Wood’s career in 1928, both for its scale and level of prestige. (Iowa Tourism))

As a Cedar Rapids-based artist who promised on his application  for the window-design commission to “put into the window the work and devotion” beyond what any other outsider would provide, Wood proved the obvious choice for this project. Working with his assistant, Arnold Pyle, he designed a 16-foot-tall female figure meant to represent the “Republic,” surrounded by clouds and wearing a mourning veil. The figure holds a palm branch in her right hand and a laurel wreath in her left, representing “peace” and “victory.” At the base stand six soldiers, each representing a veteran from a different U.S. war, from the Revolutionary War to the First World War. Wood brought his design to Munich, Germany, where it was fabricated by the city’s famed stained-glass makers (though he would later be criticized for going to post-World-War-I Germany to create an American memorial.) During the war, Wood worked as a camouflage designer for the Army, and the window includes camouflage design elements. This mural marked a major turning point for Woods’ career in 1928, both for its scale and level of prestige, positioning him as a well-regarded local artist who would soon be attracting a lot more attention.

Stewart Memorial Library at Coe College, Cedar Rapids

Though Wood’s high school friend and fellow artist Marvin Cone gets the greatest attention in the galleries of this expansive library, the second-floor Perrine Gallery offers a great place to see works by Wood. These include "The Fruits of Iowa," a series of oil murals of rustic scenes commissioned in 1932 by the Montrose Hotel’s coffee shop. The gallery also has displayed two sets of lithographs for Wood’s high school magazine, The Pulse, a study for his work "Daughters of Revolution," and a 1919 painting he did of Cone. Be sure to take a look at some of the other impressive works sprinkled throughout the library, from artists including Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso. 

Grant Wood Scenic Byway, eastern Iowa

Having seen the influences on Wood’s early career and home base in Cedar Rapids, tour the landscape that inspired his Regionalist works. This 80-mile drive through eastern Iowa will give you a chance to see a number of other highlights from Wood’s life and career. But it’s the landscape that’s the real attraction here, including rolling hills, cows and farmland that will transport you into Wood’s paintings. A PDF map of the Scenic Byway includes dozens of cultural and historic sites and can be downloaded here.

Stone City Art Colony, Anamosa, Iowa

(Alex Palmer)

Located on the banks of the Wapsipinicon River—a once-vibrant limestone quarry—this served as the site of an artist colony Wood founded in 1932. For a tuition of $36, artists could spend the entire summer developing their skills and learning from Wood and his artist friends. The accommodations were not exactly luxurious, with a number of students staying in refurbished ice wagons, and Wood was criticized for producing “little Woods” that merely imitated his style—which might explain why the colony only operated for two years. But it reflects Wood’s interest in not just developing as an artist himself, but creating a whole Regionalist movement of Midwestern artists. Some of the original stone buildings the colony’s attendees inhabited are still standing, notably the Stone Water Tower (nicknamed “Adrian’s Tomb” for the professor who used it as his apartment) as well as the General Store, where Wood lived for a short time (and which now houses the General Store Pub). Across from the tower sits a replica of the façade of the Eldon, Iowa, house Grant painted in "American Gothic"—the real house comes later in the road trip.

Riverside Cemetery, Anamosa

This quaint little cemetery is where Grant Wood is buried alongside his parents and siblings. Though a world-famous artist, his grave marker is surprisingly unassuming.

American Gothic House Center, Eldon, Iowa

A fitting place to end your tour through Grant Wood’s Iowa, this is the original house that served as the backdrop of the famous painting. He first saw the structure while visiting Eldon in 1930 with another painter and its unusual “Carpenter Gothic” windows, built in 1881–82, caught his eye. If you feel inspired to reenact the famous image, you can stand on the marker created by the center—or even borrow one of the aprons, overalls, or pitchforks on hand to make your selfie look even more like "American Gothic."

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.