Grant Wood - Biography and Legacy
Iowa City, Iowa
Biography of Grant Wood
Grant Wood, born in 1891, was the second of Francis Mayville Wood and Hattie Weaver Wood's four children. He spent his early years on a farm in rural Anamosa, Iowa. When he was 10 years old, his father died unexpectedly, and Hattie moved with the four children to Cedar Rapids. Grant and his older brother immediately needed to take odd jobs to help support the family. His childhood on the farm remained an inspiration to him through his artistic career. This timing separated his perspective from other realists: Wood focused on the rosy, mythical memories of boyhood, and a life of simple pleasures in tune with the seasons, rather than the more adult drudgery and economic precariousness that often go hand-in-hand with farming.
Wood's interest in drawing and painting blossomed in the Cedar Rapids public schools, and he began submitting work to competitions in 1905, when he won third place in a national competition and resolved to become a professional artist.
Early Training and Work
In 1906, when he moved on to Washington High School, Wood threw himself into a variety of art-related opportunities available throughout the Cedar Rapids community. He and Marvin Cone - a fellow artist who became a life-long friend - began working together designing stage sets for local theaters, and volunteering at the Cedar Rapids Art Association (now the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art), installing exhibitions and guarding galleries. Wood also drew for the school yearbook and took on interior decorating projects, an outlet that he continued to engage in until the 1930s.
After graduating high school, Wood went to Minnesota for a summer course at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft, taught by prominent proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, Ernest A. Batchelder. He would return there the following summer, but during the school year, he took life drawing classes at the University of Iowa with Charles Cumming, a French-trained academic painter. In 1913, he moved to Chicago, taking night classes at the Art Institute while making jewelry to earn a living, first with Kalo Silversmithing, and then in his own small shop, Volund Craft Shop. The failure of that business - and his mother's increasing financial instability - motivated his return to Cedar Rapids in 1916, when he assumed financial responsibility for his mother and youngest sister, Nan. He worked as a home builder and decorator, and, during World War I, as a camouflage designer.
After the war, he began teaching art at McKinley Middle School, where he focused on collaboration and the relationship between community and creative activity. At a demonstration of a student project - a 150-foot long frieze entitled Imagination Isles (1921), presented to the school in the dramatic manner of 19th century panoramas - Wood's narration implied his absorption of modernist ideas. Telling the audience that "no human body can visit these islands....Only the spirit can come," but that artists were "trained to dwell" in the imaginative, and were there to help ordinary people "who deal with only material things" step outside of themselves, and lead them on a "spiritual tour." Art historian Wanda Corn's monograph on Wood points out that although he did not paint in the leading-edge modernist styles of the time, he shared the modernist ethos of the artist's mission as that of a spiritual guide, separate from the material and commercial world.
In 1920, Wood took a long-awaited trip to Europe for the summer. He returned to France in 1923-1924 to take classes at the Académie Julian in Paris, and continued his travels in Italy. During this period, he painted in an Impressionist-inspired style, focusing on landscapes. Though his style changed significantly over time, the decorative patterns of foliage and light seen in his early work remain a feature of his mature style.
In 1925, Wood gave up teaching to focus on his art full-time, encouraged by his friend David Turner - described by Wanda Corn as "the savvy and energetic mortician" - who acted as a sort of agent for the artist. Turner gave Wood the use of the carriage house next to his funeral home. Wood transformed the space into a quirky, efficient, uniquely decorated artist's studio. After he returned from his final trip to Paris in 1926, he told his Cedar Rapids friend, journalist William Shirer that "like a revelation, my neighbors in Cedar Rapids, their clothes, their homes, the patterns on their table cloths and curtains, the tools they used. I suddenly saw all this commonplace stuff as material for art. Wonderful material!" The artist established his signature personal style around this time, which included denim overalls - the practical, utilitarian style of dress seen around the region, thus casting himself in the Regionalist mold.
He became the city's versatile, all-purpose artist, painting murals, designing stained glass windows, taking portrait commissions, and decorating homes. The support of the community as a whole, both like-minded artists and individuals willing to pay him for work, further encouraged Wood's identification with Regionalism. As art historian Joni Kinsey notes, "artistic cultivation...really could be achieved in an area known primarily for agricultural cultivation, and both were rendered more authentic and compelling by their alliance." Wood's subjects were drawn from stereotypes of the region - farmers, gossipy old ladies, small-town bankers, Shriners, masons and the like - but he treated them with affection and humor, rather than the disdain seen in contemporary literature produced by ex-Midwesterners like Carl Van Vechten and Sinclair Lewis.
The artists of Cedar Rapids were not alone in this belief in authentic, local-level cultivation of culture and were part of a much larger cultural trend between the world wars. Particularly through the New Deal years, both emotional and economic recovery from the Great Depression hinged upon national identity through regional achievement.
Although he'd committed to regional subject matter, a final journey to Europe - this time, to Germany - inspired Wood's mature style. In 1928, he travelled to Munich to oversee the fabrication of a stained glass window design for the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building. The precise realism of the Flemish masterworks held at the Alte Pinakothek by Hans Memling, Hans Holbein, and Albrecht Dürer struck Wood with "the lovely apparel and accessories of the Gothic period," and he said that the style reminded him of his own work as a child, before he was taught to use a "soft, evocative style."
Wood's profile soon leapt from local jack-of-all-trades to nationally recognized Regionalist painter. In 1930, American Gothic won a medal at the Art Institute of Chicago's annual exhibition. The artist was then 39, and this was only his third painting exhibited outside his home state. The Institute promptly purchased the work, elevating Wood's reputation exponentially. With his new-found recognition, Wood joined up with Ed Rowen - a prominent figure in Cedar Rapids art circles, and future head of the Fine Arts Section of the Public Buildings Administration - and other artists to form the Stone City Art Colony. Located near Wood's rural hometown, the artists lived in charming white-painted wagons, and taught classes through Coe College. The colony attracted artists from throughout the Midwest, including John Steuart Curry, a Kansas artist who would soon - along with Wood and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri - stand as a representative of Regionalist art.
Between 1930 and 1934, Wood painted several of the works he is best known for - Arnold Comes of Age (1930), Victorian Survival (1931), Appraisal (1931), Daughters of the Revolution (1932), Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931), and Dinner for Threshers (1934).
Beginning in 1934, his life changed dramatically when he was appointed director of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) mural project for Iowa and also became a professor of Art at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. Often described as a "shy bachelor," a euphemistic phrase to mask his homosexuality, Wood abruptly married Sara Maxon, a singer from Cedar Rapids in 1935, and moved to Iowa City, leaving the comfort and support of his hometown. Both his professorship and marriage proved tumultuous. He completed only one painting in the following three years, spending most of his first year in Iowa City renovating and decorating the pre-Civil War house he and his wife bought, turning it into a "modern-eclectic" environment, in the same grain as his studio in Cedar Rapids. A lounge chair he designed for his home, with an elongated ottoman, was briefly mass produced, marketed in 1938 with a cardboard cut-out of Wood. Other commercial opportunities, which the artist pursued for financial reasons, became more frequent. His fame also brought a commission from Steuben glass, part of a series of vases designed by 27 contemporary artists, including Henri Matisse.
In Iowa City, Wood immersed himself again with the arts community, joining the Times Club, a group of intellectuals that hosted guest speakers through the S.P.C.S. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Speakers), publishing the Revolt Against the City (1935), a Regionalist Manifesto, and routinely exhibiting in major national exhibitions. The period, though, was not a happy one for Wood. His marriage ended after only three years; his beloved mother died, and he had little time for painting, prompting critics to question whether the artist had passed his prime. Although he did produce several notable works - Parson Weems' Fable (1939), Spring in the Country (1941), and Adolescence (1940), his numerous illustration projects and lithographs provided a target for critics who felt his work was too illustrational and his reputation too dependent upon media attention.
Late period and Death
The worst of Wood's personal troubles, though, stemmed from his own department at the University of Iowa. These disputes caused him distress up to his unexpected death in 1942 and also contributed to the diminution of his legacy in the art world. When Wood was hired in 1934, he was considered a "liberal" painter, working in a more modernist style than many of his colleagues. When a new administration was installed in 1936, he was cast as a "reactionary" by the new department chair, 30-year old Lester Longman, an historian of medieval Spanish art who preferred "internationalist" avant-garde modernism. Clashes on subject matter and teaching style escalated. In 1940, Wood wrote to Earl Harper, the Director of the School of Fine Arts, complaining of his department chair's "general disparagement of my work and what I am working for," and asking for the studio art and art history departments to be separated. The University was anxious to retain Wood, their most famous faculty member, but his request was denied. Instead, they sent him on sabbatical for the 1940-1941 academic year. Longman took Wood's absence as an opportunity to discredit Wood, publicly criticizing his paintings, showing slides at conference lectures to demonstrate where he worked from photographs.
Time magazine came to investigate some of the unflattering rumors. Although a story was never published, the nature of the "charges" became known. Longman's criticism of his work was less damning than his indication that Wood's "personal persuasions have nothing whatever to do with our granting his leave of absence." A more forward statement regarding Wood's homosexuality was recorded from a meeting with the University's president regarding the "strange relationship between Mr. Wood and his publicity agent." While opinion on style and modernism were debatable, homosexuality was the one accusation in 1940 that could have ruined Wood's reputation even by implication. The problems at the art department were otherwise carefully documented, and this statement is the only mention of Wood's personal life. Longman continued to undermine him by authoring articles calling upon defenders of "true art" to "attack" "reactionary" and "communazi" art, including Regionalism. He solicited written opinions from art historians with similar views on Regionalism - including Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art and Lloyd Goodrich of the Whitney Museum - to submit to the University as "evidence to show that as an artist he [Wood] is not so important as his publicity would lead one to believe." They all agreed that Wood's "sensationalist" and "provincial" popularity was without "enduring worth."
Despite Longman's efforts, Wood, as well as Benton and Curry, remained "populist chic" with collectors at the time. Celebrities including Cole Porter, Alexander Woolcott and Katherine Hepburn all acquired his work. In 1941, Wood was given a new title and studio and was removed from Longman's supervision. Wood's productivity was just returning to normal when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that October. He died months later, in February on 1942, just short of his fifty-first birthday.
The Legacy of Grant Wood
Wood remains one of the most loved and most controversial of the American Regionalist painters. American Gothic (1930) is equally superlative, as arguably the most iconic work of modern American art, not to mention the most parodied. But the professional scuffles he endured at the University of Iowa regarding both his artistic merit and sexuality colored his historical reputation, putting him, as some writers have phrased it, in a constant state of rediscovery. The most enduring element of Charles Longman's crusade to discredit Wood came via one of his protégées, Horst Janson. In the early 1940s, Janson wrote several articles characterizing Wood and Regionalism as fascist. He went on to teach at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, and later authored the widely used survey text, The History of Art. His opinion of Wood not only resulted in the artist not being mentioned in the text, he also included Regionalism in a single, rather negative paragraph, minimizing a distinctive strain of modern American painting for generations of students.
Despite this, Wood's realist style and the ethos of Regionalism became the "house style" for WPA projects. The program and its effect on artists lined up perfectly with Wood's personal philosophy of community and collaboration between artists. Artist James Brooks wrote in "Artists at Work" that the Federal Art Projects "took competition between artists out of the art world, so we started to see ourselves as part of a whole." Franklin Delano Roosevelt felt that the program helped to bring art to all Americans, stating that citizens have been "taught to believe art was something foreign to America and themselves. They have discovered in the last few years that art is something in which they have a part. They have discovered their own towns in pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors." Though WPA art also fell out of favor - interestingly, not for being presumed to be fascist, like Wood, but Communist in influence - the projects put realist modernism in front of millions of Americans in post offices and federal buildings across the country.
Wood's teaching was a conduit for more specific, personal influence. As her professor, Wood encouraged Elizabeth Catlett - who earned an MFA in sculpture from University of Iowa - to draw subject matter from African American culture and her own experience. She became associated with Regionalism and left wing activism and was investigate by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s.
In the catalogue for the 2018 Whitney Museum exhibition, Barbara Haskell argues that however well Wood's art provided a "window into American consciousness" during the Great Depression, the power of his work endures due to its "mesmerizing psychological dimension." Despite his deep engagement with his community, Wood, in hindsight, communicates an "eerie sense of silence and isolation." In his meticulously observed images fused with "imagined memories of childhood, he crafted unsettling images of estrangement and apprehension that pictorially manifest the disquiet of modern life." This trend within Wood's work can be seen reflected in later American realist artists including Andrew Wyeth and George Tooker.
Wood's homosexuality opens another avenue for re-evaluative scholarship and has evolved considerably in the past three decades. In the 1990s, acclaimed art historian Robert Hughes first art-historically "outed" Wood, describing him as "a timid and deeply closeted homosexual," and described his work as "an exercise in sly camp, the expression of gay sensibility so cautious that it can hardly bring itself to mock its subjects openly." This characterization has since been seen as unfairly ignoring the cultural context of the 1930s, when discretion about sexuality was the rule. More recent appraisals, such as Henry Adams's, have looked more to the work and less to personal judgement, arguing that "homosexual feelings fundamentally shaped [Wood's] artistic vision, and ... his masterpieces are permeated with what might be termed a homosexual outlook, which is evident in their play of double meanings, with sexual ambiguities, and their camp sense of humor." Art historian Richard Meyer more recently disagreed, stating that Wood's sexuality was not a code by which to interpret his work, and cautioned against microscopic searches for expressions of sexuality in his art. Meyer states that bringing Wood "out of the art-historical closet is understandable, even commendable," but that scholars "should not lose sight of the intricate play of silence and suggestion, ambiguity and avoidance, that shaped Wood's life and art." Sighting Christopher Hommerding, he points out that "gay" was not yet an identity, and trying to reconstruct the artist as such would "wipe away the fact that public discourse of American art in the 1930s did not allow for any affirmative discussion of same-sex desire or experience."