American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting


“Masterful. . . . This is cultural studies at its best.”—Chase Madar, Time Out New York

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“Masterful. . . . This is cultural studies at its best.”—Chase Madar, Time Out New York

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Editorial Reviews

John McMurtrie - San Francisco Chronicle
“In his absorbing and often funny cultural study, Steven Biel traces the life of a painting that most of us have seen countless times but haven’t given much thought to . . . [he] persuasively shows how the multiple interpretations of the work's meanings reflect cultural shifts in American society.”
Matthew Price - Washington Post
“A slim but jam-packed record of critical reaction.”
Glenn McNatt - Baltimore Sun
“A lively cultural history tracing the popular reception of Wood’s masterpiece that suggests how thoroughly the work has taken on a life of its own in the national imagination. . . . Biel argues persuasively that Wood's imaginative identification of Midwestern rectitude and repression with the American identity and character has become one of the work's most enduring legacies. . . . [A] rich, detailed portrait of a native masterpiece that is surely the most recognizable American artwork of the 20th century.”
Jeanine Basinger - New York Times
“[Biel] writes with wit and broad knowledge.”
Publishers Weekly
Probably no painting ever achieved iconic status so quickly as Grant Wood's flat, meticulous rendering of two people, a house, a pitchfork and a barn. Its title refers to the architectural style of the building in the background, but from its first appearance before the public in 1930, American Gothic has been regarded not as a work of art but as a work of rhetoric: a crafted, compelling statement about American life with which the viewer may or may not agree. Which aspect of that life and what kind of statement has fluctuated, as Biel's lively history shows. He does a terrific job laying out the various aesthetic and political preoccupations of the relentlessly self-regarding American century, and how they attached themselves to the work, which turns 75 this year. (The painting is detailed and contextualized in 30 b&w and eight color illustrations.) Because Wood was both an Iowan and a confirmed bohemian, the carefully staged composition was at first understood to be a pointed (or ungrateful?) satire of Midwestern puritanism; as the Depression sank in, the grim pair came to convey a noble tenacity that rallied a stricken nation. By the eve of World War II, "the celebration of the `native' slipped into nativism" and the painting's shift from "irony to identification" was complete: the once equivocal pair came to stand for an unironic and universal American "us" whose claim to authenticity might be questionable or objectionable, but never hesitant or insincere. Biel's confident and lucid readings recover layers of complexity from a deceptively simple work. Agent, Michele Rubin at Writers House. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Just in time for the 75th anniversary: a meditation on the multiple meanings of Grant Wood's much-parodied painting. With a three-city tour. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The extraordinary odyssey of America's most loved-and reviled-painting. American Gothic was almost sent back to Grant Wood after he submitted it in 1930, the paint still wet, to the Art Institute of Chicago's annual exhibition of American paintings and sculpture. Salvaged from the reject pile by a trustee, it won $300 and a bronze medal. The rest is history-and pretty amazing history at that, demonstrates Biel (History and Literature/Harvard; Down with the Old Canoe, 1996, etc.). Beginning with a present-day visit to the background house, which still stands at the edge of Eldon, Iowa, the author outlines the painting's creation, its depiction of Wood's sister and a local dentist (who did not pose at the same time), and the birth of its notoriety. American Gothic caused controversy almost immediately. Iowans were concerned about being depicted as sour, and moralists were concerned about the age difference between the man and the woman: Were they a husband and wife or not? Everyone assumed it was a satire, until Wood fanned the flames by claiming it wasn't, therefore implying the subject matter was accurate. It was one of the most discussed works of art of the era. As America drew closer to WWII, the painting became transformed into an iconic image of steadfast resolution and individual freedom. Yet it has also been used to parody practically all aspects of American life; Biel sherpas us through some of the more trenchant examples in our own time, from the wedding scene of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (parodying Brad's and Janet's straitlaced background) to a New Yorker cartoon after 9/11 in which the figures' "I ? NY" T-shirts suggested the heartland's empathy for the city. Ironically,the author points out, in the 75 years since it was painted, "an image blasted for its inauthenticity [came] to assume the authenticity of folk art, the aura of genuine Americana, the authority of a national icon." Excellent cultural history, using American Gothic to illuminate Americans' evolving relationship with our heartland values.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393328554
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/12/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,018,256
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Biel is the executive director of the Mahindra Humanities Center and a senior lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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