As contested as the nation

Understanding American Gothic

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaver board, 78 x 65.3 cm / 30-3/4 x 25-3/4" (The Art Institute of Chicago). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Key points

  • American Gothic is an iconic painting that has come to represent small-town middle America. In the years since its creation, it has been interpreted in many different ways. Many aspects of the painting create general, universal forms that lean towards the geometric. It allows the painting to feel both real and symbolic at the same time.
  • Grant Wood grew up on a remote farm in rual Iowa. He is considered an American Scene or Regionalist painter, a movement that sought to represent the American midwest and its values. Wood however spent time in Paris and Munich, and his art was informed by these travels. His style changed from a semi-Impressionist stlye to the hard-edged one seen in American Gothic, possibly influenced by early Northern Renaissance art as well as the Neue Sachlichkeit movement in Germany.
  • In 1930 the US had changed from going through one of its most prosperous moments to the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Fascists in Europe were just beginning to take power, and the ideology that went with that was often about going back to a rural, primitive experience. Some art historians have looked at this painting and seen an echo of anti-internationalism, but that is only one of many interpretations.

Go deeper

This work of art at the Art Institute of Chicago

About the house in American Gothic

Meet Grant Wood’s Sister, the Woman Made Famous by American Gothic,” at Smithsonian Magazine

“In Search of the Real Grant Wood,” at Smithsonian Magazine

A biography of Grant Wood at the National Gallery, Washington DC

More to think about

The video argues that one of the reasons that American Gothic has become such an icon is that its ambiguity allows the viewer to see what they want in it. What other reasons might have made the painting as famous as it has become?

What other works of art do you associate with American identity? What vision of America do those works of art promote? Are those visions of America accurate? Why or why not?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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More Smarthistory images…

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.