Grant Wood at the Whitney

Young Corn (1931, detail)

Not something I’d ever though to see: an exhibit devoted to Grant Wood at the Whitney Museum in New York. Eons ago, I’d seen his work on his home turf. The impression it left was indelible. I’ve often wished I could see the works on display in Cedar Rapids once again.

Woman with Plants (1929)

Woman with Plants was one of the paintings I’d seen back then. As one who had (and of course neglected) a college dorm-room sansevieria, I had special appreciation for the hearty, upright specimen Wood’s mother held in her hands.

Back then, though, I hadn’t truly cottoned on to Wood’s uncanny ability to bring out the patterns in every Iowa landscape he chose to paint. I’d lived in that landscape for many years, but only now, at a long remove from my time in Iowa, did I see how well he played its music.

Fertility (1939)

The ambiguity of nostalgia spoke loudly in the exhibit, too.

By 1935, Grant Wood began to streamline his landscape style, replacing the ornamental frills and mannerisms of his earlier work with broad, reductive shapes. He retained this stylistic simplification as he shifted to more patriotic subject matter in response to his worry that America had lost its will to defend itself against fascism, which was on the rise in Europe. He envisioned a series of paintings of American folktales, beginning with Parson Weems’s fictional account of George Washington as a child confessing to having chopped down his father’s cherry tree.

Faced with Nazi victories over the Allies in the first years of World War II, Wood turned his attention to depicting what he called the “simple, everyday things that make life significant to the average person” in order to awaken the country to what it stood to lose. [citation]

Parson Weems’ Fable (1939, detail)

What did he, and what do we, make of his depiction of slaves in the background of Parson Weems’ Fable? Wood, we are told from a wall plaque, intended the painting to inspire national pride, though he “aimed to avoid the patriotic excess associated with fascist exploitation of national mythologies.” [citation] It’s hard to judge whether he succeeded, either then or now.

Daughters of the Revolution (1932, detail)

It certainly appears he succeeded with his Daughters of the Revolution, and his intended commentary stands up today.

Wood aimed to ridicule the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for their claims to nobility based on ancestry, which he saw as antithetical to their celebration of democracy. The artist painted three of the group’s members in front of a reproduction of Emanuel Leutze’s painting of General George Washington crossing the Delaware River, contrasting the future president’s dynamism and bravery with the Daughters’s stiff poses, contemptuous expressions, and the inconsequential action of raising a teacup. New York critics celebrated the painting’s biting satire when it premiered at the Whitney Biennial in 1932, with one calling it “as delicious as it is wicked,” but it was met by protests from various DAR chapters that deemed it un-American. [citation]

The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover (1931)

Of all things, the exhibit made me wish that, in the many times I’d visited or drove through West Branch, I’d stopped at least once to visit the Herbert Hoover home.

Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), the thirty-first U.S. president, was born in West Branch, Iowa, in a modest three-room cottage where he lived for the first six years of his life. Although subsequent owners made the cottage nearly invisible by moving a two-story house in front of it, Hoover’s presidency turned his childhood home into a national tourist attraction.

In Wood’s painting, a tiny figure stands on the lawn pointing theatrically to the original home. Wood’s initial drawing for this work includes an insert featuring Hoover’s humble birthplace—a visual device like those used by nineteenth-century cartographers to symbolize progress. In both of Wood’s works, miniature buildings, foliage, and people resemble painted toys, creating an eerie hallucinatory effect that hints at Wood’s attempt to recapture the magic and innocence of childhood. The Iowa Republicans who had commissioned the work as a present to Hoover disliked the image and returned the painting to Wood without payment. [citation]

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Listening List

Michael Daugherty, American Gothic, III. Pitchfork (2013)

Michael Daugherty wrote:

I first became aware of Grant Wood when I was a ten-year-old boy enrolled in art classes at the old Cedar Rapids Public Library (now the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art). Prominently displayed in the room where we learned to draw and paint was Grant Wood’s original painting of his mother, entitled Woman with Plant (1928). I realized that Grant Wood was everywhere in Cedar Rapids: his paintings and lithographs at the Museum of Art; his farm mural at the old Montrose Hotel; his carved wooden Mourner’s Bench in the principal’s office at McKinley Junior High School; his stained glass Memorial Window at the Veteran’s Memorial Building. I often rode my bicycle past the artist’s studio at 5 Turner Alley, where Grant Wood created his most famous painting, American Gothic (1930). . . .

The title of the third movement [of American Gothic] refers to the pitchfork gripped by the dour farmer who stands alongside his spinster daughter in Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic. Many have speculated on the hidden meanings of this American masterpiece: is it a homage to the farmers of Iowa? A social satire? A political critique? A private joke? For me, this iconic painting reveals the ambiguities of American culture and Grant Wood’s dry wit. After all, Grant Wood was a founding member of the infamous Grant Wood Garlic Club in Cedar Rapids, and a practical joker, like my father. [citation]

Parts I and II of Daugherty’s American Gothic, are here and here.

Antonin Dvořák, String Quintet in E major, Op. 97 (1893)

An item about Antonin Dvorak appeared in papers nationwide — including The Gazette — in the summer of 1893 that read, “Dvorak, the musical composer, goes to bed every night at 8:30 and is up in the morning at 4:30. Thus his work is over by breakfast, and he has the rest of the day to devote to social and other pursuits.”

What it didn’t say was that the famous Czech composer had quietly moved into a house in Spillville in northeast Iowa with his wife, Anna, and their six children at the beginning of June. . . .

The summer was productive for Dvorak. He rounded up his friend Joseph on cello, Joseph’s father, John Kovarik, on second violin, and his daughter, Cecilia, on the viola to play along with his own first violin so he could see how a couple of his new compositions sounded.

His Quartet in F major, Op. 96, also known as his “American Quartet,” and his String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97 (scored for an additional viola) most likely were heard in Spillville.

It is believed he refined his “New World Symphony” on the organ at St. Wenceslaus. [citation]

In 1993, Bernard Holland reported on a centennial celebration of Dvořák’s summer in Spillville:

Spillville — then as now a Moravian farming community of 400 souls — is inundated not by floodwaters but by visiting scholars and musicians. The Martinu String Quartet and the Morava Hammer Dulcimer Band are in town. The Czech Government has sent along a bust of the composer. When not interpreting, Irina Vaneckova can be seen ducking into the New World Inn at the corner of Main Street and Route 325, advising cooks on the intricacies of the Czech hamburger. [citation]


Credits: Sources for the quotations may be found at the links in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless indicated otherwise, are mine.


10 thoughts on “Grant Wood at the Whitney

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I’m so glad I had the chance to get to this exhibit, part renewing acquaintance with an “old friend” and of course with Iowa, but equally mixed, including the snippets of information posted here, with a sense of seeing Wood and his work for the first time.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Laurent: per my comment to Mark, even though I sort of grew up with Wood in the form of American Gothic and have many resonant connections to the places he depicted, your description is absolutely on point to my own experience coming back to his work now. I think you also would have appreciated the way the exhibit was curated. One of the things I learned is that, had American Gothic not created such a sensation (at least in the US), Wood would likely have toiled away in relative obscurity, taking prize after prize in Cedar Rapids and Iowa while remaining little known outside his home state.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Sorry to be so late in replying; time is seeming to fly be even more quickly than usual as of late. I have now looked up Spencer and Addinall and am glad to be introduced to the work of both. That teacup detail is somehow riveting, isn’t it? The very way the teacup is held is a social commentary all on its own.

  1. sackerson

    All I knew of Grant Wood was American Gothic, which I always liked. Now I know something of what I’ve been missing! It’s a shame he’s not living and painting now.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      sackerson, so sorry to be so long in posting and replying! American Gothic was all I knew of Grant Wood for a very long time, too. It was a revelation to see his other work in Cedar Rapids, and wonderful to revisit that experience and then see yet more work of his in New York.

  2. Steve Schwartzman

    This is the first time I can say I saw one of the exhibits you’ve posted about—and a good exhibit it was, too. Given that Grant Wood died in 1942, World War II and soon afterwards the hegemony of abstract expressionism contributed to the decline of his reputation (with possibly the one exception of “American Gothic”). The commentary from the exhibit that you’ve quoted makes me think the art world has come to its senses and re-evaluated Grant Wood’s work.

    In 2008 we drove from Austin to northern Iowa for the wedding of a friend. On the return, I made sure to drive out of our way so we could stop in Spillville and visit both the Dvorak museum and the Catholic church where he played the organ. One curiosity of the adjacent Czech cemetery is that many of the crosses and even some of the tomb”stones” are made of metal.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Yes, while it took too long to value him properly, it was good to see this recognition and appreciation of his work. Love your side trip to Spillville for the Dvorak sites, as well as the discovery in the Czech cemetery.

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