A Moment in Art History: “American Gothic” – The U.S.A.’s Most Iconic Painting?

Like many of you, I’ve found myself with a bit more time on my hands lately. Being a lover of art history, I decided to start a new video project, a Moment in Art History. Each of these videos will focus on a great work from art history; I’ll share the story of the artwork, a bit about the artist and my impressions of the art.

The first artwork in this series is Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” I love this painting, and I’m excited to launch this series with it.

I would love to hear what you think of the video! Leave a comment below.

Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is arguably one of the most iconic pieces of 20th century American Art. In this Moment in Art History we examine the painting, and learn about the artist’s background.

Art seen in the background of this video

Barn: https://pinetop.xanadugallery.com/col…

Landscapes: https://pinetop.xanadugallery.com/col…

Glass flower sculpture: https://pinetop.xanadugallery.com/col…

Portions of the script for this video were sourced from Wikepedia under the Creative Commons licensing agreement. Source material: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America…, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant_Wood

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Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

50 Comments

  1. Love Woods’ work. I had no idea that the models were his sister and dentist. I agree, Woods’ strength in this piece was his vision. And, yes, it’s the most iconic painting with the “We can do it!” poster by J. Howard Miller running a close second.

  2. What a great idea for a video series, Jason. I don’t believe i’ve ever appreciated American Gothic so much as when you explained it. Sadly, its almost camp status may have prevented many of us from really thinking about its artistic merits and significance.

    1. I feel similar, Helen. I found it very interesting to learn more about this painting, which I never gave a second thought to before.

  3. Thank you so much for this, Jason. I do agree with you. As an Iowan whose husband studied with Grant Wood and agreed with him about the value of Regionalism versus the “Eastern establishment” it is nice to see you focus on this painting. Good job.

  4. I’ve seen the painting a number of times at the Art Institute and enjoyed a tour of his work and other Regionalists at an Iowa art museum. His story is an interesting one and this painting is certainly recognizable by the general public. (We had a huge statue of this farm couple with a suitcase at their feet in front of the Riverfront Museum in Peoria for the past year!) I would say American Gothic and Nighthawks are contenders for most iconic 20th century painting.

  5. Yes, I have seen the painting many times while growing up in the Chicago area. It is startling and definitely an iconic depiction of the steadfastness and hardiness of the American character.

    Thanks for starting this interesting series.

  6. I absolutely loved this! Looking forward to more in the series (hint, hint Hopper?) I loved getting the back story on this, and wish you’d been there when I suffered through the hours of art history classes I had to have in college! You made it much more interesting!

  7. Thank you Jason. I had no idea the history of ‘American Gothic’ was so interesting, especially as it gives a nod to regionalism as a counterpoint to the ‘establishment’ of that time. Since the painting is so recognizable, it’s nice to hear the backstory, and even the controversy that surrounded it.. I’m looking forward to the next ‘Moment in Art History’.

  8. I love the idea for these videos, Jason! I have always wondered what the inspirational source was behind the painting. It’s surprising to hear about the fury of his detractors, its a good thing he didn’t live in this age of “cancel culture”!

    Looking forward to your next video. Thanks!

  9. I’m really going to enjoy these videos… it’s been a long time since my last at history class in college. This was very interesting.

    I’ve always loved this painting, and was surprised to learn that it was interpreted so negatively when it first became public.

    I’m looking forward to the next “Moment.”

  10. Very interesting Jason! I have never seen the painting in person. It has the power to take me and my preconceived ideas in any direction, for example, the woman’s gaze…. I wonder what she was thinking.

  11. Have seen in person. Also our art league has an art show every year where we paint (copy) iconic madterpieces and sometimes change items- as you say parodying the original. This one has been done so cleverly several times. Most amusing results !!!
    You’ve presented a moment in art history so well. Much more interesting than my art history class!!!! I look forward to more…..

  12. A perfect choice to begin this series. Many “iconic” works are often parodied and I think it is because they instantly recognized. I too am a lover of art history which is what led me to Art Deco, the only art movement to incorporate all previous art movements. As such, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around the world lecturing on the subject. I shall look forward to your future videos on the never ending subject of art history.

  13. I’m an academic. This was an excellent, enjoyable, informative (e.g., the models!), reflection-generating video mini-talk.I look forward to others. American Gothic still, however, always seems comic to me. There are many paintings that I consider iconic America: you have already shown the Hopper (which I love) and some may chime in with a Wyeth or Rockwell, but to me, and this is more contemporary, Scott Prior’s Nanny and Rose is about American (America) as you can get.

  14. Loved the video! One comment: in the opening section where you talk over the music, the music was a bit too loud and made it hard to concentrate on what you were saying. I look forward to the next one!

  15. Here’s another interpretation: Grant Wood-American Gothic 19
    Grant Wood seems to critique the oppressive confines of Midwestern culture more than the people themselves. In terms of composition, the tightly cropped painting indicates claustrophobic and restrictive nature of life in small-town American society. One look at the grim and humorless expressions on the models faces suggest their true feelings about there lives and environment. The ceilings of the American Gothic home might be vaulted, but the lifestyle and culture are nothing short of stifling.

  16. Fun video! While I lived in Missouri I read the biography of Grant Wood by R. Tripp Evans. It’s easy to peg him as someone who never left Iowa so It was surprising to read about his trips to Europe. I think these trips were little bursts of freedom for him and refreshed his artistic vision. In the book there’s a photo of the space he shared with him mom–it was small! The land in Iowa is so true to that in his paintings–very bucolic. I found it fun to see Richard Harrington’s barn painting in the background! Thomas Hart Benton is another regionalist but who had a very different lifestyle and outlook. I look forward to more of these videos.

  17. Over 50 years ago my brother and I got Mom and Dad to do an American Gothic pose on the front steps of our farm house in northern Minnesota. That photo was going to be on dad’s obituary 40 years later but Mom got cold feet and had it removed before everything was printed. She was worried some people would find fault in using such a picture for such a solemn occasion!

  18. Once an artist puts the artwork in the public arena, they cannot control how others’ view it, even if the artist desperately wants people to only see it one way. So many different interpretations of this work – all with merit, and a stunning piece.

    I find the placement of the window with closed curtains, high up between the figures very disturbing. To me it is saying that what goes on inside the house, is very different from how these people act in public ?
    Thanks or no thanks to Mr. Bean, the most iconic American artwork to me now is “Whistler’s Mother” !
    A great video Jason, thanks for the insights.

  19. Such a great idea, these art history videos! Refresh my art history as well as some I didn’t know at all! I look forward to more of them. Thank you!

  20. What a great little series you’ve started here, Jason. Thank you! I think there are quite a few 20th c. American paintings that are “iconic”and I bet you’ll be bringing a number of them to our attention. Meanwhile, here’s an American Gothic tidbit: The house still stands, in Eldon, IA. The American Gothic House & Center offers tours, public programs and the opportunity to dress up with the old clothes and pitchfork and take a selfie in front of the house. My husband and I could not resist!

  21. I thoroughly enjoyed this presentation! Thank you! I think there was a recent Grant Wood exhibit at the Whitney, but I missed it, so it is nice to be seeing and hearing more about this piece again. As a figurative painter, who mostly paints unconventional portraiture, this painting has a great appeal for me. I especially like the fairly tight, straightforward composition. It’s the style in which I paint myself–a hint of naivete, yet not. Looking forward to more presentations.

  22. Oh and my partner just cimpleted a jigsaw of the painting, and he had to spend ages on the freckled forehead, and the patterned pinafore.

  23. I too love this painting and have recently completed a painting that I did as a “take off” of American Gothic, using my family as models. I am a Midwesterner, and lived in Chicago for ten years, where I visited this piece often. My son attended the Art Institute, where he received his Master’s degree. Your idea for a series is a good one. I”m looking forward to the rest of the series.

  24. Well done video and very enjoyable, Jason Horejs. Loved knowing the history of this work of art, particularly the part that it was not destroyed or changed due to reactions, and seeing how it was viewed through time.

    You gave me a spurt of hope and encouragement about my own art. It can be tough to follow my own lead in doing a piece, but now it will be easier to ‘stick to my guns’ as well as to venture into the fringes, not only the beaten path.

    Thanks!
    Toni

  25. This is really great Jason, thanks for doing this and future ones. Very well done and very well spoken. Art history is a part of every curriculum in art school and watching your video took me right back, 50 yrs. Although I have to say yours is much more interesting than the thousands of slides we would see for 5 sec. Looking forward to the next one.

  26. I have not seen it in person but it is a picture most people in America recognize. Making it quite iconic. Thank you for A Moment In History KHG

  27. Thanks for your wonderful commentary. American Gothic has been my favorite American painting for 40 years. I came around the corner in the Chicago Institute and my heart skipped a few beats with the surprise of seeing it in person. I have collected hundreds of parodies of American Gothic over the years. I was even featured in an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer years ago for my collection.

    Ron

  28. Thank you for presenting American Gothic. I agree that this is the most iconic American painting. My other go to pieces would be Nighthawks or Stuart’s Unfinished Washington. I had the opportunity to see American Gothic in person years ago and have presented it to my art students. It always seems to encourage discussion and I am intrigued to hear what others think about it when they see it.

  29. Terrific video, thank you. I love art history and hearing the history of the painting and its artist. I’ve been working on a lecture about the self portraits of women artists and finding their self portraits so revealing.

  30. I think this series of videos will be amazing. Seeing other artists’ works, and hearing about them is something I can’t get enough of. It helps me try to be better in my own work, and the history is fascinating. Will look forward to the next in the series, and those thereafter. Thanks, Jason.

  31. Found your video interesting but I do not think this is America’s most iconic painting. What about Pollock, Warhol, Thomas Eakins, Frederick Church, Whistler, O’Keeffe, and Benton? Rauschenburg? Jasper Johns? Robert Motherwell, Stuart Davis, et Al? There have been so many influential and pivotal American artists in the last two centuries — sorry not more of them women as I am one — that I cannot consider Grant Wood the most iconic. I prefer his lithographs to his paintings. I have been to the Art Institute maybe 50-75 times over my lifetime and some of my favorite paintings there are by Gustave Caillebotte, Rene Magritte, O’Keeffe and the wonderful Asian art collection they have. But it was good to have you tell some of the history of the work as the non-art public think if this painting as some kind of Norman Rockwellian celebration of the humble American farmer and, as some of the more astute comments have pointed out, it’s compositional attributes allude to other things. One if my BFA professors studied with Benton, and most of those regionalist had a wry sense if humor.

  32. Hi Jason,
    Interesting piece to evaluate. I originally come from a Scandinavian family from North Dakota. Grant Wood’s American Gothic describes some of my family to a tee. Night Hawk by Edward Hopper has been one of my favorites as well.
    I appreciate your info about his take on art and the fact Grant Wood identified with mid-west rather than New York. As artists I think it’s important to stay near and dear to what is important in our lives. That is a contributing factor in making our art unique. So it was with Grant Woods.

  33. Wonderful new series Jason! Great idea!

    The sitters for Wood’s painting remind me of the old Daguerrotype and Tintype photos where people had to hold still for 5 minutes for the exposure. Smiling wasn’t possible, so folks usually assumed a passive face.
    I always looked at the painting as depicting old-fashioned values of dedication to the hard work necessary to keep a farm going. A respectful depiction.
    Thank you

  34. I enjoyed this video and hope you continue with this series. I do like American Gothic because it captures a sense of the Midwest farming communities of that time, while remaining somewhat mysterious. It is beautifully crafted but more than that it projects a deeper meaning.

    Another artist who did something similiar was Georgia O’Keeffe. She captured a sense of the Southwest in her painitngs of skulls that float over the desert landscape. They too were beautifully crafted and project a deeper meaning, a reverence for the landscape and life.

  35. American Gothic is an iconic painting and one of my favorites. I have seen it numerous times at the Art iInstitute here in Chicago and as an illustrator I have been asked to do numerous parodies of the painting which I gladly did, not only because I got paid for my efforts but also because I got to pay homage to a great piece of art. The painting is Wood’s homage to Northern European renaissance art, a double portrait like the Van Eyck portraits that graced altarpieces as well as stand alone portraits wealthy benefactors.

    Doing a parody or homage to a piece of art gives an artist a chance to really look at and study the artist’s intentions, it is like having a private conversation with the artist and it is a great learning experience.

    I am also a big fan of Edward Hopper’s paintings and etchings, no one can paint loneliness better than Hopper.

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