Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Portrait of an artist

American Gothic by Grant Wood

Professor’s book explores life of Grant Wood
Even before Professor of Art History R. Tripp Evans’s new biography Grant Wood: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) R. Tripp Evanswas released on October 5, it had a favorable review in the New York Times—one of many high-profile reviews. The New York Times, which called his book “provocative,” focused on the fact that the professor gets behind the façade of the artist who is best known for his painting “American Gothic.” Who doesn’t know that iconic couple with the stern faces and the pitchfork? Before Evans went on his 16-city book tour, we talked with him about the book.

What initially inspired you to start writing it?

Whenever I taught Wood in my American art surveys, I always felt there was something more to his paintings than the literature seemed to explain. His best work has an uncanny quality that moves you in ways that are difficult to pinpoint. I wanted to know more about Wood’s relationships with his sitters, and about how his closeted homosexuality influenced his work. Wood’s sexuality has been an open secret for years, but no scholar had ever examined this dimension of his life.

Why is this artist so fascinating?

I find the story of Wood’s rise to fame particularly compelling. Here’s this ambitious, small-town painter who ached for success (he traveled back and forth to Paris throughout the 1920s) but who only achieved it in the place he’d been trying to escape all along. By the mid-1930s, when he had become linked with the Regionalist movement, his fortunes depended upon the chauvinistic and often homophobic rhetoric of his fellow Regionalist, Thomas Hart Benton. Wood’s whole life is a cautionary tale about answered prayers.

What does your book reveal about the artist that most people don’t know?

The three undercurrents that I explore in Wood’s private life—his closeted sexuality, his relationships with his family, and his ambivalence about Iowa—all represent, to varying degrees, a Grant Wood that most people don’t know. Wood’s tyrannical father, who deeply distrusted his son’s interest in art, died suddenly when Wood was 10. He then proceeded to share a single room with his mother and sister for much of his adult life. Wood’s surprise marriage to Sara Maxon in 1935 is certainly known to scholars, but I was the first to locate her unpublished memoir—a goldmine of information, and one that laid to rest any speculation about Wood’s homosexuality.

Why are people so intrigued by that one painting (“American Gothic”)?

It’s the painting’s ambiguity, I think, that captures viewers’ imagination. Even in Wood’s day, audiences were divided over whether it was a nostalgic “national portrait” or a cruel satire. The misalignment of the sitters’ ages disturbs viewers, as well. Most people assume these two are a May-December married couple, but Wood insisted they represented a father and daughter; even he seemed occasionally confused about the figures’ identities, however, because of the work’s odd substitutions (his sister replaced his mother as the female model, whereas Wood’s dentist stood in for his deceased father). You don’t have to know much about the artist to see that the work projects powerful, and conflicting, feelings about its subjects.

How does the book connect to your research and scholarship?

I’m interested in American artists’ promotion of national identity— however personal their motives may be—so I found Wood an irresistible subject. He was eulogized in 1942 as a “People’s Painter,” a man whose sole interest was the recording of a bygone America. In reality, Wood’s patriotic subjects—whether brimming corn fields, or historical paintings like “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”—were not only filtered through a deeply personal lens, but they also provided a convenient cover for a man who lived in mortal fear of exposure.

How do you plan to use the book in your courses?

Certainly, I’ll never teach Wood the same way again in my survey classes! But beyond that, the book will help me to do what I already enjoy doing in the classroom—raising questions about how national identity functions in American art (or doesn’t). In writing this book, I’ve also become interested in how conservative notions of masculinity have shaped American styles and movements, often to the disadvantage of women artists—or any artist who doesn’t fit this mold. This issue is not only important to the classes I teach, but it’s also a topic that would lend itself to a new seminar.

What are your goals regarding the book?

I hope readers will find this a compelling story in and of itself, whether or not they have any interest in art history. The flesh-and-blood man behind that pitchfork-wielding farmer is a fascinating, complex figure—and his life is a testament to the ways in which prejudice can both warp and inspire creativity.

About Sandy Coleman

Sandy Coleman is the editor of the Wheaton Quarterly and Senior Associate Director in the Communications Office.