Fine Artists:  Grant Wood American Artist 1891-1942

"Young Corn" Grant Wood Painting of cornfields in IowaGrant Wood painted simple scenes of the land and people he knew best. Wood was an active painter from an extremely young age until his death, and although he is best known for his paintings, he worked in a large number of media, including lithography, ink, charcoal, ceramics, metal, wood and found objects. Grant Wood is most closely associated with the American movement of Regionalism that was primarily situated in the Midwest, and advanced figurative painting of rural American themes in an aggressive rejection of European abstraction He helped create an important, all-American style of art. Grant Wood’s paintings show the love he had for the people and customs of the Midwestern United States. Grant Wood particularly loved the farmland of Iowa.

While growing up, he enjoyed feeling the soft, warm soil between his toes as he walked barefoot through the fields. In his painting Young Corn (shown here) it seems like the round, friendly hills are protecting the farmer and his children while they work in their fields. Grant Wood was born on February 13, 1891 on his parents' farm four miles east of Anamosa, Iowa, where he spent the first ten years of his life. After his father's death in 1901, he moved to Cedar Rapids with his mother, sister Nan and brother Frank. Even though life on the farm came to an end, the sights, smells and sounds of his country childhood would be preserved forever in the faces and landscapes of his famous paintings.

"American Gothic" Grant Wood Iconic painting of Iowa farmers with a pitchforkGrant Wood was an exceptional artist from a very young age. When Grant Wood was 14, he won third prize in a national contest for a crayon drawing of oak leaves and said that winning that prize was his inspiration to become an artist. His formal art education included two summers with Ernest Batchelder at the School of Design and Handicraft in Minneapolis and three years of occasional night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.

From 1920 to 1928 Grant Wood made four trips to Europe, where he studied many styles of painting, especially impressionism and post-impressionism. But it was the work of Jan Van Eyck that influenced him to take on the clarity of this new technique and to incorporate it in his new works. From 1924 to 1935 Wood lived in the loft of a carriage house that he turned into his personal studio at "5 Turner Alley" (the studio had no address until Wood made one up himself). In 1932, Wood helped found the Stone City Art Colony near his hometown to help artists get through the Great Depression. Grant Wood became a great proponent of regionalism in the arts, lecturing throughout the country on the topic.

Grant Wood's best known work is his 1930 painting American Gothic,(shown here) which is also one of the most famous paintings in American art, and one of the few images to reach the status of cultural icon, along with Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch's The Scream. It was first exhibited in 1930 at the Art Institute of Chicago where it can still be found today; It was given a 300 dollar prize and made news stories country-wide, bringing the artist immediate recognition.

One day, while Grant was looking for something interesting to paint, he discovered a farmhouse with an unusual window. The arch-shaped window was based on a style of European architecture from the Middle Ages called Gothic architecture. Grant Wood liked the contrast of a European window on an American farmhouse. After he made sketches of the house, Grant looked for just the right people to go with it. He thought his family dentist and his own sister, Nan, would be perfect for the farmer and his daughter. With "American Gothic," Grant Wood tells the story of Midwestern life and culture through the use of many traditional symbols: the rick-rack on the woman's apron, the gothic window, the pitchfork held in the tight fist of the somber farmer.

Grant Wood "Self Portrait" painting of the artistMuch overlooked is the irony that Grant Wood seems to have included in many of his paintings; it is the irony of affection and understanding, but also of distance and sophistication. Grant Wood had seen the world outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa and had chosen to return to his home, but he surely did not forget the inevitable impressions and comparisons that come with travel. Perhaps most telling is Wood's Self-Portrait (shown here). Begun in 1932, the painter originally depicted himself in the trademark overalls; by 1940, he had painted the overalls out in favor of a v-necked shirt that appears to be something like an artist's smock. It is as if Wood wanted to leave an image of himself, not as a regionalist, nor as a farmer, but first as an artist, more complex than his regionalist rhetoric would account for. His gaze in this painting is direct and severe; there is none of the inviting friendliness of his publicity photographs in overalls. Nor, however, is there evident the protective menace of American Gothic's farmer. Wood no longer appears to be either defending or representing the mid-Western landscape stretching out behind him.

In this portrait, Grant Wood is fully the artist: a watcher, interpreter, and teller of tales, both a part of and apart from his subject matter. It seems that the showmanship for his stated cause of regionalism had given way to his true artistry: the rendering of timeless American stories through an affectionate and ironic eye. With his broad face, florid complexion, stocky build and bib overalls, Wood could easily have been mistaken for a Bohemian farm hand. Accounts by his friends say that Grant Wood was a bit of a freeloader, a typical "starving artist" type who was not always good about paying his bills. He had several benefactors, none more supportive than David Turner, who ran a local mortuary, and allowed Grant Wood and the artist's mother to live rent-free for 11 years in a loft above Turner's brick, gabled garage.

Amidst eclectic clutter and artsy decorator touches, Grant Wood held forth, executing a long succession of acclaimed works and firmly establishing himself as one of the nation's most enduring and resourceful  painters. Grant Wood taught painting at the University of Iowa's School of Art beginning in 1934. During that time, he supervised mural painting projects, mentored students, produced a variety of his own works, and became a key part of the University's cultural community. On February 12, 1942, one day before his 51st birthday, Wood died at the university hospital of liver cancer.
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Grant Wood
Artist
American painter who painted "American Gothic"