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Grant Wood: A Life

Grant Wood: A Life

3.0 6
by R. Tripp Evans

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He claimed to be “the plainest kind of fellow you can find. There isn’t a single thing I’ve done, or experienced,” said Grant Wood, “that’s been even the least bit exciting.”

Wood was one of America’s most famous regionalist painters; to love his work was the equivalent of loving America itself. In his time, he


He claimed to be “the plainest kind of fellow you can find. There isn’t a single thing I’ve done, or experienced,” said Grant Wood, “that’s been even the least bit exciting.”

Wood was one of America’s most famous regionalist painters; to love his work was the equivalent of loving America itself. In his time, he was an “almost mythical figure,” recognized most supremely for his hard-boiled farm scene, American Gothic, a painting that has come to reflect the essence of America’s traditional values—a simple, decent, homespun tribute to our lost agrarian age.

In this major new biography of America’s most acclaimed, and misunderstood, regionalist painter, Grant Wood is revealed to have been anything but plain, or simple . . .

R. Tripp Evans reveals the true complexity of the man and the image Wood so carefully constructed of himself. Grant Wood called himself a farmer-painter but farming held little interest for him. He appeared to be a self-taught painter with his scenes of farmlands, farm workers, and folklore but he was classically trained, a sophisticated artist who had studied the Old Masters and Flemish art as well as impressionism. He lived a bohemian life and painted in Paris and Munich in the 1920s, fleeing what H. L. Mencken referred to as “the booboisie” of small-town America.

We see Wood as an artist haunted and inspired by the images of childhood; by the complex relationship with his father (stern, pious, the “manliest of men”); with his sister and his beloved mother (Wood shared his studio and sleeping quarters with his mother until her death at seventy-seven; he was forty-four).

We see Wood’s homosexuality and how his studied masculinity was a ruse that shaped his work.

Here is Wood’s life and work explored more deeply and insightfully than ever before. Drawing on letters, the artist’s unfinished autobiography, his sister’s writings, and many never-before-seen documents, Evans’s book is a dimensional portrait of a deeply complicated artist who became a “National Symbol.” It is as well a portrait of the American art scene at a time when America’s Calvinistic spirit and provincialism saw Europe as decadent and artists were divided between red-blooded patriotic men and “hothouse aesthetes.”

Thomas Hart Benton said of Grant Wood: “When this new America looks back for landmarks to help gauge its forward footsteps, it will find a monument standing up in the midst of the wreckage . . . This monument will be made out of Grant Wood’s works.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Deborah Solomon
…absorbing and thoughtful…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The fame of the iconic, often parodied American Gothic has long masked its creator. Much about Grant Wood's patriotism and masculinity has been read into the painting's pitchfork-holding farmer and his dour companion standing in front of a Midwestern farmhouse. Evans, an art historian at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, argues that even more has been misread, overshadowing a rich and varied artistic career. Associated with the Regionalist movement in painting, Wood (1891-1942) cultivated a hearty Midwestern image that hid his homosexuality. What Wood hid from polite society, he could not help revealing in his paintings: "the object of his desire is only partially abstracted in --for in the undeniably erotic curves of Stone City, we register the muscular outlines of the powerful male body." His mother and his sister, Nan, further protected him. The complicated relationship included living together until Nan married--perhaps a reaction to Wood's hard and detached father, who died when Wood was 10. Evans's in-depth, gendered readings of Wood's paintings situate him in the longer history of male artists' gendered self-portrayals (bracketed by Oscar Wilde and Jackson Pollock), providing a useful new insight into Wood's place in American art. 16 pages of color photos; b&w illus. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
Winner of The Marfield Prize: The National Award for Arts Writing

"[Written] with verve, nuance and the excitement of discovery. . . a fascinating, audacious and empathic portrait."
—Donna Seaman, Kansas City Star
Evans provides Wood and his work with layers upon layers of depth, creating a portrait of a fully realized, three-dimensional man whose work and life is fascinating and distinctly American.”
—Dustin Michael Harris, Chicago Sun-Times

“Absorbing and thoughtful… Evans dismisses the artist’s folksy declarations and devotion to Regionalism as a mere cover, an expedient camouflage, for his tortured private life.”  
—Deborah Solomon, The New York Times Book Review

“Sumptuous, eminently readable…” 
 —Sam Coale, The Providence Journal

“Evans’s in-depth, gendered readings of Wood’s paintings situate him in the longer history of male artists’ gendered self-portrayals (bracketed by Oscar Wilde and Jackson Pollock), providing a useful new insight into Wood’s place in American art.”
 —Publishers Weekly

"This audacious, ingenious and powerful book blows the lid off the study of Grant Wood, the creator of America’s best-known work of art, aptly titled American Gothic. Evans frankly acknowledges Wood’s homosexuality, which earlier biographers avoided entirely, and mines layer upon layer of meaning in his fascinating paintings that earlier writers completely missed. This is certainly one of the best and most psychologically penetrating studies ever written on an American artist, but it’s more than that. It is a book that transforms our understanding of what goes on in the American heartland—and of the swirling currents and undercurrents of American life."
—Henry Adams, author of Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock.

"A fascinating and heartrending portrait of an artist forced to sacrifice his right to happiness and wholeness."
Booklist (starred)

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

 Sometime in the late 1930s, Grant Wood confided to his sister that he had a double. Mistaken for the artist by Wood's lifelong friends and even his Aunt Jeanette, this shadowy figure had appeared as far away as Omaha and as uncomfortably close as the painter's home in Iowa City. The story of Wood's doppelgänger appears only briefly in his sister Nan's memoirs — the reference is casual, the mystery left unsolved — yet it raises related questions about the impression Wood made on those who knew him best, and reveals, to use Nan's words, one of the many "strange by-products" of her brother's fame. Typically more amused than alarmed by his own celebrity, Wood confessed that in this instance "the matter makes me feel a little queer."

The fact that a stranger could have fooled the artist's family and friends so easily may be explained, in part, by their occasional inability to recognize Wood himself. As the painter related in his unfinished autobiography, his father sometimes failed to register Wood's presence even when the two stood in the same room. Similarly, following the artist's return from a summer in Paris in 1920, his neighbors in Cedar Rapids claimed not to recognize the man they'd known for decades. Even Wood's mother, who lived with him until her death at 77, could not identify her son when presented with a recent photograph of him in 1929.

Wood fared little better with the general public. His popular image as the Artist-in-Overalls allowed Wood to simply vanish when he appeared in his street clothes; despite ubiquitous images of the artist that had appeared in the national press, a reporter in 1938 noted that Wood "can spend two hours in Union Station in Kansas City without exciting any notice at all." Such an uncanny talent for blending into the woodwork — reflected, rather fittingly, in Wood's brief stint as a camouflage artist during the First World War — was matched by a lifelong habit of self-deprecation. In a typical interview at the height of his fame, Wood claimed: "I'm the plainest kind of fellow you can find. There isn't a single thing I've done, or experienced, that's been even the least bit exciting."

Countless profiles of the artist in the 1930s celebrated his very ordinariness as the source of his work's appeal. For these critics, Wood's life and imagery appeared to reflect the values of a similarly unassuming, and now vanished, rural American Golden Age — a period untainted by the complexities and strident individualism of the modern world.  In 1936, the Daily Iowan went so far as to print a scientific recording of Wood's brainwaves; as uniform and predictable as a sine curve, the painter's "large, regular, and smooth" brainwaves - whose pattern, indeed, bore a striking resemblance to the rolling hills of his landscapes - were favorably compared with the "irregular and more complicated" brainwaves of a psychology professor at the University of Iowa.  Wood's physiological makeup, it seems, represented as much of an historical throwback as his work did.

Critics in our own time have often perpetuated this two-dimensional image of the artist, yet even the most cursory investigation of Wood's life calls into question its supposedly uncomplicated character. Not only do we encounter a self-proclaimed "farmer-painter" who never farmed, but a young man whose earliest vocations lay in the fields of jewelry design, interior decoration, and theatrical production. Faced with Wood's public reputation as a naïve, parochial artist, moreover, we must account for his early training in a prestigious French atélier, his ambitious one-man début in a Paris gallery, and his careful study of Old Master paintings. Finally, we must reconcile this apparent paragon of such "heartland" values as civic virtue and traditional Christian morality, with a man who often bristled at small town life, belonged to no church, and spent most of his life masking — not always successfully — his homosexuality.

Wanda Corn claims that "it has been Grant Wood's fate to be widely known but narrowly understood," yet I would argue that he is every bit as narrowly known as he is understood. Conservative champions applaud the painter as a folksy chronicler of a by-gone America, or a gentle satirist of small-town foibles, whereas his detractors claim (for the very same reasons) that he promoted a cloying, phony, or even sinister form of nationalism. Whether sympathetic or hostile to the artist's work, both camps miss the man who stands before them — and certainly, they fail to account for the arresting elements that haunt his imagery.
Wood's subtly distorted figures and tumescent landscapes, his esoteric and sometimes intentionally incorrect historical quotations, as well as his unsettling juxtapositions of scale, place, and time all belie his work's presumed legibility and communal spirit. Indeed, if we stop to consider some of the paintings for which he is best known — works like American Gothic (1930), Victorian Survival (1931), or Parson Weems' Fable (1939) — it is clear that his most successful images are also among his most unnerving and impenetrable. First-time viewers of these paintings often find it difficult to reconcile their immediate emotional response with the scenes before their eyes, and with good reason. Tickling our subconscious in unexpected ways, these images appear to provide a rather startling view of the artist's, as well.

American Gothic perfectly illustrates this phenomenon. Although the painting is often interpreted as an unmediated reflection of rural American values, most viewers feel neither warm nostalgia nor smug contempt when they first encounter the picture. Rather, they experience an indefinable dread. For a whole host of reasons, American Gothic is a profoundly creepy image — "or it can be," as Steven Biel suggested in his 2005 study of the painting, "if you look at it carefully."
The work's extraordinary fame, of course, has made it difficult for anyone to properly see it. Its composition has become an almost instantly recognizable sight gag — after the Mona Lisa, it may be the most parodied painting in the history of art — yet it is the rare viewer who can name its maker, determine its subject, or even identify the intended relationship between its figures (most audiences assume that the pair represents a married couple, but the artist himself insisted they were a father and daughter — a factor that, in and of itself, considerably complicates the work). Not only do American Gothic's innumerable recastings obscure the artist along with his intentions, but they also banish the original work's palpable sense of confrontation. It is easier by far — a great relief, in fact — to see the likes of Paris Hilton, Paul Newman, or the latest lampooned politician holding the farmer's menacing pitchfork.

To understand the discomfort that American Gothic inspires, we must strip away its parodies and reproductions and consider, instead, the unique circumstances of its creation and creator. "Every masterpiece came into the world with a measure of ugliness," Gertrude Stein once wrote; "[Raphael's] Sistine Madonna is all over the world, on grocer's calendars and on Christmas cards; everyone thinks it's an easy picture. It's our business as critics to stand in front of it and recover its ugliness." The "ugliness" Stein perceives in the Sistine Madonna, and that we may find in abundance in Wood's imagery, has less to do with notions of beauty or design than it does with the works' potential to move viewers in unexpected ways. By recovering this dimension of Wood's art we not only better understand the man himself, but we also rescue his remarkable works from the charge (or the accolade) that they are in some way "easy" pictures.

Rather than presenting Wood and his work as paradigms of Depression-era America, as so many have done, this study seeks to illuminate the profound and fertile disconnection between the artist and his period. More particularly, I am interested in the ambivalence Wood felt toward his native environment, and in the ways his allegiance to Regionalism — the movement with which he is most often associated — served important private and immediate ends, rather than political or cultural ones. As if by pentimento, I hope to reveal the indelible traces of desire, memory, and dread that lie just beneath the surfaces of his work — elements that have little, if anything, to do with national character.

Even more so than any of his critics, it is Wood himself who has hampered our full understanding of his art and its motivations. Throughout his life he attempted to present himself and his work as the reflection of "authentic" American manhood — conceived as heterosexual, hardworking, wholesome, and patriotic — precisely because he believed he had fallen short of this model himself. Not only did Wood fail to achieve his father's rather daunting model of masculinity, but his short-lived "bohemian" period in the 1920s also inspired chronic suspicions concerning his character, associations, and private life. The defensive, all-American image Wood adopted in response to this scrutiny has provided as much relief to his promoters as it has fodder for his critics, yet it has also led to their rather meager harvest from his work. If we are to make better sense of his imagery, then it is our business to recapture the compelling "ugliness" in his work — to borrow Stein's phrase — and to restore it, as well, to the man himself.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

R. Tripp Evans is Professor of Art History at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He is the author of Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820-1915 (2004). He received his doctoral degree in the history of art from Yale University and has served as a visiting lecturer at Yale, Wellesley College, and Brown University. He and his partner, Ed Cabral, live in Providence, Rhode Island.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Grant Wood 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
NicLorenzen More than 1 year ago
I was looking for a book about the artwork and the man. This book talks about his life but not so much his artwork
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent and highly readable biography of one of America's greatest artists. So much that has been written about Grant Wood is myth or relies on little that Wood himself wrote. But not this book! It is highly detailed, and contains excellent analyses of Wood's extensive artistic output. So much here is new, even Wood admirers will be surprised to learn that there was much more to the man than his hagiographers have told. I cannot recommend this highly enough. Five out of five stars!
ShutterbugMN More than 1 year ago
Disappointing. I expected an honest bio of the artist and his work. Instead the author chose to prove the sexuality of the painter by pointing out what he believed to be homo-erotic symbolism in every one of Wood's paintings. This offered no enlightenment about who Wood's was as a person or artist. I hope I am remembered for my art and not my sexuality. Baseless speculation.
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