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Artists Who Died by 50: Grant Wood

Updated on October 8, 2015
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

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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.

Birthplace of Herbert Hoover
Birthplace of Herbert Hoover | Source

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.

One-room Schoolhouse
One-room Schoolhouse | Source

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
Stone City, Iowa
Stone City, Iowa | Source
Spring in Town, 1941
Spring in Town, 1941 | Source

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.

Daughters of the American Revolution
Daughters of the American Revolution | Source

Have you seen any Grant Wood paintings before this?

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Painting Camouflage

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.

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Source

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.

Veterans Memorial Building Window, Cedar Rapids
Veterans Memorial Building Window, Cedar Rapids | Source
Source

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.

Woman with Cactus, the artist's mother
Woman with Cactus, the artist's mother | Source

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
American Gothic | Source

American Gothic

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
Spring
Spring | Source

The Regionalists

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.

The Appraisal
The Appraisal | Source
Source

Legacy

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.

I think every president has had his face superimposed into American Gothic
I think every president has had his face superimposed into American Gothic
Kermit and Miss Piggy
Kermit and Miss Piggy

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.

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Artsy Comments Welcomed

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      CorneliaMladenova,

      I love his landscapes too. There is something very graphic and unique about them, yet realistic too. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • CorneliaMladenova profile image

      Korneliya Yonkova 

      2 years ago from Cork, Ireland

      Awesome hub again, Denise. I have seen American Gothic many times but never had a slightest idea who the author was. And now thanks to you I learned that this great artist had created really great paintings. Love his rural landscapes :)

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      A list is probably a great idea Denise. I may just take that advice, and will see about the Aussie artists.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Jodah,

      I would love to read about your favorite Australian artists. I have a long list of "to dos" as well. I'm a list maker so when I wonder, what should I write about now, I can just go to my list for ideas. Thanks so much for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Thank you for including Grant Wood in your series Denise. I didn't know a lot about him apart from "American Gothic" which is a true icon. I still have a lot of catching up to do of other hubs in this series. This has actually given me an idea for a hub about one of my favourite Australian artists. We'll see, I keep intending to do a certain hub, and end up writing others instead. (my list of "to dos" is getting bigger). I enjoyed this.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      DDE,

      Thank you for saying so. I think most people have seen the art internationally but don't know much about the artist behind the work. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I learned a lot here and was not familiar with some artists mentioned. Informative and with lovely photos. Tweeted!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      phoenix2327,

      I think you are right about that. It is cleaver the way he can make it look flat and round at the same time. Must be part of his charm. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 

      3 years ago from United Kingdom

      What an interesting style he had. It has a one-dimensional feel to it yet there is much depth. Fascinating.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      BlossomSB,

      Oh, I think you are right about the Mother-in-law's Tongue. My mom used to have one. So glad you like this biography. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      I'd never heard of him before, but I've really enjoyed reading about him and seeing those paintings. The farm ones, especially, tell a story. The plant that his mother holds is commonly known here as Mother-in-law's Tongue!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      purl3agony,

      Me too. And not just Grant Wood but all artists. Museums have become a place people don't visit like they used to. Who finds time to see great art anymore? If we don't see it on the internet or in books, we don't usually bother. I'm guilty as well. I don't remember the last time I planed a trip to the museum... maybe it's time. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Rachel L Alba,

      I do too. I think I must be a farm girl at heart. The rolling fields and fresh plowed earth, the promise of something growing. I guess that's why I love living here in the Central Valley of California; there's always something growing even in winter. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 

      3 years ago from USA

      Another great hub! I'm enjoying your series on artists lost before their time. I saw an exhibition of Grant Wood's painting many years ago. His work is really amazing. I hope your hub encourages readers to explore his paintings beyond "American Gothic" and discover more of his talent.

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 

      3 years ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      Hi Denise, I always liked this type of painting. Especially if it's of country life. Thanks for sharing.

      Blessings to you.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Reynold Jay,

      Well, I'm just tickled that you like my work so much. And don't you just hate it when the Spam folder gets things you don't want it to have, but leaves out things that should go to trash? I know I do. Thanks so much for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      pstraubie48,

      Thank you, I appreciate the pins and tweets. I'm glad you liked this one. It's true, he died very young and seemed so lonely to me. Working so hard at so many things but only achieving minimal approval. Still, thats the life of an artist. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 

      3 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      It is nice to see more than the one work of art that one so often sees. Love the parady as always. Hey--I'm hooked on you, Denise and your wonderful articles. I discovered my HUBS emails were going to SPAM! My goodness! Now I'm back in the loop and not gonna let that happen again.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      3 years ago from sunny Florida

      Very interesting...his work has always been a fascination to me.

      I did not ever really look at the dates of his life...how tragic to lose such a gift to the world of art so soon.

      Thank you for sharing this.

      Angels are on the way to you this evening ps

      shared pinned g+ tweeted

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