Artists Who Died by 50: Grant Wood
The Regionalist, Grant Wood
Artists keep our memories and moments in history before we had cameras. Even more than that, they kept emotions and feeling of how people felt at that time, how they reacted to and behaved in moments that cameras could never capture. Artists have been important to our universal history since the first cave paintings were developed on the walls by budding historians. So it is sad when an artist dies at a young age. History, art and moments that could have made the world a better, more beautiful place are lost. Whether it is because of illness, depression, accident or self-destruction, many artists have left us before it was time. This artist died at the age of 50 of pancreatic cancer. This is the story of Grant Wood.
Grant DeVolson Wood (February 13, 1891-February 12, 1942)
Born Grant DeVolson Wood, he was an iconic American painter raised in east Iowa. He is best known for paintings of rural America in a style known as Regionalism. He died the day before his 51st birthday of pancreatic cancer.
Rural farm life
Grant Wood had a typical rural America view of the world, with it’s rolling hills, father plowing the back 40, followed by deep, rich, turned soil and farm animals. Skinny dipping in the creek and walking to a one-room schoolhouse; feeding the chickens and slopping the hogs. All this changed when his father died and the family moved to Cedar Rapids, “the big city.” His widowed mother had to eek out a living for he, his older brothers and sister, doing whatever she could. Grant took a paper route and soon became apprenticed in a local metal shop. His 2 brothers and sister got odd jobs as well.
“My American image is made up of what I have come across, of what was ‘there’ in the time of my experience—no more, no less.”
— Thomas Hart Benton, Regionalist
Kids helped out.
I think it was because of this that Grant Wood became such an odd-job man that he would try anything that crossed his path. After high school, he enrolled in The Handicraft Guild, an art school run entirely by women in Minneapolis. He went back to Iowa and taught in a one-room schoolhouse for a time, and did some work as a silversmith. He painted signs for local businesses and made deliveries. Anything he could do to help out his mother was not beyond him. Those were the days when kids pitched in if they could.
Have you seen any Grant Wood paintings before this?
During World War I, Grant Wood enlisted and hoped to see more of the world but was disappointed when the Army assigned him to artistic duties within the states. He never got to travel farther that a couple of states from home. He was responsible for sketching cartoons for the Stars and Stripes as well as designing camouflage uniforms for the soldiers and painting camouflage on vehicles for use in jungle areas.
Whatever pays the bills.
After the war, his mother seemed to sense that he was giving up his dreams of becoming an artist, and so she saved all he sent her during the war; enough to send him to Europe to study painting. In true Grant Wood fashion, he tried everything: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Realism and even Gothic painting in the old Renaissance style. He was especially influenced by Jan van Eyck the 15th-century Flemish artist. Back home, he took up residence in an old converted carriage house near his hometown of Cedar Rapids and turned it into an artist studio. He still worked on whatever would make money, hiring out his talents to many Iowa-based businesses when few commissions came through. He did sketches at the mortuary for promotional flyers, advertisements, business signs, and in one case, he designed the corn-themed décor (including chandelier) for a dining room of a hotel.
Stained Glass Commission
In 1928, he received a commission to design the stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids. He wanted to use the very best stained glass, so he traveled to Munich to oversee the making of the window himself. He fell under scrutiny for this, because although the window was fabulous, many people still had hard feelings toward Germany. After all we had just fought a war with them. This window did not earn Wood the popularity he had at first hoped that it would. In 2008 the window was damaged during a flood and is in process of restoration.
Your Signature Style
I think that the hardest thing for any artist to discover is his own signature style. There are so many styles and genre, media and methods to study, but in the end becoming the student of all makes you the master of none. Wood tried so many styles and none seemed to be a good fit for him. He kept painting and experimenting with his own subject matter, and kept returning to the beloved farm life of Iowa. A farm life that abruptly ended when he was only about 10, and when they moved to the city. It was still a very intrical part of his consciousness.
It wasn’t until he painted a portrait of his mother holding a cactus and entered it in the Iowa State Fair that he began to be noticed. The following year 1930, he painted American Gothic, and entered it in the Iowa State Fair as well, winning the $300 prize and becoming National news.
All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.— Grant Wood
American Gothic was supposed to be Grant Wood’s take on all the Italian paintings he had seen and studied in his European travels. He saw many Gothic cathedrals with the curved windows and knew that many farmhouses in his area also had these windows but without knowing their historical significance. He wanted to depict the American rural strength and stamina. However critics saw something else. At first the art critics assumed the painting was meant to be a satire of repression and narrow-mindedness of rural small-town American life. The trend of the day was toward increasingly critical depictions of rural America. With the onset of the Great Depression, it came to be seen as a depiction of steadfast American pioneer spirit. Some thought it was a fusion of reverence and parody for the American farmer.
Wood just came upon this Gothic Revival style house and fancied the kind of people who would live it. He used his sister as model for the farm wife and his dentist as model for the farmer. Later his sister resented people thinking she was the wife and insisted she was meant to be the farmer’s daughter, because she felt she was not old enough to be married to the old dentist. Whatever the intention, the painting because famous almost overnight, lifting Grant Wood from seeming obscurity to overnight success. It seemed he had found his signature style.
“How you do your work is a portrait of yourself.”
— Author Unknown
A group of other artists joined him in painting the rural scenery in and around Iowa and became known as the Regionalists. Painting that rural farm life, seeing the green rolling fields heavy with corn and grain to feed America was hugely desirable to the Great Depression art seekers. The Regionalist movement only lasted about 10 years and faded into the next big moneymaking art movement. The Regionalist painters, however, didn’t waiver and continued painting in their signature style until they died.
Grant Wood was given an honorary art degree and teaching positions at colleges in states of Wisconsin, Missouri, and University of Iowa’s School of Art. He traveled around lecturing on art and mentoring students.
Wood was not what you could call a handsome man. It was during this high time in his career that he met and married Sara Sherman Maxon, but the marriage was short-lived and the divorced less than 3 years later. One would have to wonder if Sara only looked at him because of his fame at the time. They had no children.
When Wood died his estate and paintings went to his sister, Nan Wood Graham, and when she died the estate became the property of Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa. It seems fitting that the state that nurtured and loved him, received his things in the end. Part of one of his paintings is on the front of the Iowa state quarter: a schoolhouse, teacher and students planting a tree.
Parodies on American Gothic
As with all famous and iconic painters and paintings, American Gothic has been used for advertising and endless satire for years since it’s first appearing in the papers. No one is safe from satire, it seems. Some of the parodies on this painting are cleaver and some are just awful and wrong. But that is for the individual to judge.