Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable

A conversation with Dr. Shirley Reece-Hughes, Curator, Amon Carter Museum of American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker in front of Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939, oil on canvas, 38 1/8 x 50 1/8 inches (Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, looking at one of my favorite paintings by the American artist Grant Wood. This is “Parson Weems’ Fable.”

[0:15] Most Americans looking at this painting in 1939 would have been familiar with Parson Weems and with the fable of Washington. Modern audiences, I think, are less familiar. That was one of the motivations of the artist. He wanted to reassert what he thought was an important piece of American mythology.

Dr. Shirley Reece-Hughes: [0:31] Mason Locke Weems, in his fifth edition on his biography on George Washington, incorporated the famous folklore of George Washington.

Dr. Zucker: [0:42] The story was that Washington as a boy was on his father’s farm and took a hatchet and cut down one of his cherry trees. His father confronted him and said, “Do you know who did this?” Washington’s famous response, according to Weems, was, “I cannot tell a lie, Pa.”

Dr. Reece-Hughes: [0:58] In the Weems version, the father is so grateful that his son has confessed that he applauds him for his truthfulness and is not angry but forgiving.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] There really are two moral aspects to this story. One is the importance of truth-telling, especially for the first president of the United States, for the general who is credited with winning the Revolutionary War, but the other is the forgiveness of the paternal figure.

Dr. Reece-Hughes: [1:24] In Wood’s version the father is actually not forgiving. He’s stern, he grips the cherry tree with so much force, you see the blood in his hand.

Dr. Zucker: [1:33] It’s important to understand that this was painted in 1939, this was the beginning of the Second World War, and a conversation was taking place in the United States as we were witnessing the rise of fascism across Europe, but even fascist tendencies here.

[1:47] This is the very end of the Great Depression, this is in the Midwest just a few years after the Dust Bowl had taken place, and so you had a country that was seeking its roots, its moral foundation.

Dr. Reece-Hughes: [1:57] Wood felt that American folklore was something that Americans could celebrate at this time of trauma.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] Everything in this painting is systematized, everything is a visual fable. The cherry tree is not a real cherry tree, it is a perfected cherry tree. It’s a stage prop in a certain way. In fact, the entire painting opens up to us as a kind of stage. We see Parson Weems in his green jacket, the largest figure in the painting, lifting back a curtain.

Dr. Reece-Hughes: [2:25] Wood, with his love of theatricality, wanted viewers to partake in his paintings. By drawing back the curtain, by Parson Weems pointing directly to the fable, being portrayed like a play that’s being performed, it invites the viewer in a very direct manner.

[2:44] Wood had a deep history in theater. He started in the 1920s. He organized the community players in Cedar Rapids.

[2:51] Wood was responsible for all the set construction, and you see his knowledge of set construction and also that falsehood of set construction coming through in this painting, not only in the organization of the trees looking like props, but also the lighting; a very focused spotlight hits on the story of Washington and his father.

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] One of my favorite aspects of this painting is the young Washington with the mature head that we know from the dollar bill that comes from a portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Dr. Reece-Hughes: [3:22] By using Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait head of Washington, he said it provided a means for his audience to immediately recognize Washington, which it did. But I think it also is a reflection of Wood’s humor.

Dr. Zucker: [3:36] This is a completely theatrical invention. This is a construction of American identity. It’s a construction of American memory.

Dr. Reece-Hughes: [3:43] It’s Wood conflating the ideas of theater with painting to help viewers to participate.

Dr. Zucker: [3:50] Now, Wood was one of a triumvirate of artists that were well known as Regionalists. These were artists that although versed in European traditions decided to focus their art, their subject matter, on the heartland of America. Wood left the East Coast. He went back to Iowa, and he put down roots there, declaring his separation from the European tradition.

Dr. Reece-Hughes: [4:10] Regionalism reached its height in the early ’30s, and at that moment the idea was looking at the heartland in a way to restore faith in America.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] Parson Weems, Washington’s father — and of course the young Washington — are in the foreground, but there are additional figures in this painting. At the left edge, there are two African Americans who can be seen harvesting cherries, and if we look in the extreme background, we can just make out the red and white of the clothing worn by somebody else harvesting.

[4:38] We have a sense of the productivity of these trees, but we’re also reminded of the fact that Washington’s father owned enslaved people and that we have a reference to the complex history of early America and its reliance on enslaved labor.

Dr. Reece-Hughes: [4:51] I think he’s also portraying at this moment in ’39 with the Depression, this idea of productivity that just seems to reach to the skies in this almost positive, optimistic outlook. It’s a fascinating contradiction with the sky above, which is so dark and ominous.

Dr. Zucker: [5:07] In fact, some art historians have noted the storm clouds that are gathering as an allusion to the coming of war. Washington had, late in his career, cautioned against American entanglements with European powers.

[5:20] That’s an issue that must have felt important in the 1930s when the First World War was still a recent memory and the United States was now again contemplating involvement in Europe.

[5:32] Washington was wildly popular when he left office. He could have seized permanent power, but he chose to step down. He set a model for the peaceful transition of power, in such contrast to the seizing of power by dictators in Europe at this time.

Dr. Reece-Hughes: [5:45] Wood, at this moment in 1939, is looking at the facts of history, the facts of Washington and his important role, but also the myth that became associated with him of telling the truth.

[6:00] There’s this mixture of fact and fiction, of myth and folklore that Wood has so beautifully brought together at this time of deep conflict and tension between modernity, history, and tradition.

[6:13] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Shirley Reece-Hughes, Amon Carter Museum of American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable," in Smarthistory, January 20, 2018, accessed July 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/parson-weems-fable/.