The American painter Grant Wood (1891-1942) was one of the principal Regionalists of the 1930s. He depicted his Iowan subjects in a deliberately primitivizing style, sometimes satirizing them.
Grant Wood was born on Feb. 13, 1891, at Anamosa, Iowa. His father, a farmer, died in 1901, and the family moved to Cedar Rapids. There Grant took drawing lessons from local artists and attended high school. He studied design briefly in Minneapolis at the Handicraft Guild, taught school near Cedar Rapids, and then took a job in 1913 in a silversmith shop in Chicago and attended night classes at the Art Institute. In 1916 he registered at the Art Institute for full-time study as a "fresco painter."
During World War I Wood served in Washington, D.C., where he made clay models of field gun positions and helped camouflage artillery pieces. After teaching art in a Cedar Rapids high school, he left for Europe in 1923. He spent most of the next 14 months in Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian. The paintings he did in Paris were in an impressionistic manner. On his return to America he spent the summer of 1925 painting pictures of workers at a dairy equipment and manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids. His paintings began to sell, and he was able to give up teaching. To supplement his income he decorated house interiors.
In 1927 Wood received a commission for a stained-glass window memorializing the veterans of World War I to be installed in the Cedar Rapids City Hall. To learn the technique of stained glass he went to Munich. There he admired the work of the 15th-century French and German primitive painters and began to work in a linear, primitivizing style. In the late 1920s he painted portraits of his mother and local Iowans.
Wood's work is usually seen as espousing the homespun virtues of the people of Iowa. The acid overtones in such works as his well-known American Gothic (1930) are generally missed. Wood's maiden sister and the local dentist posed for the picture. Behind the prim, straightlaced couple, who stand self-consciously erect and stiff, is a flimsy Gothic-like structure. Wood had a special distaste for the conservatively patriotic organization, Daughters of the American Revolution, which he satirized in his Daughters of Revolution (1932). Here he posed a group of proud, self-righteous, elderly ladies, obviously insular in their experiences and philosophies, gingerly holding their teacups, before the familiar Emanuel Leutze painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. In Wood's Victorian Survival (1931) he shows a stiffly grim, elderly Iowan woman. Here the insularity is combined with a certain diabolical quality.
After the Works Progress Administration was established, Wood directed the 34 artists working at the University of Iowa and planned and executed a series of frescoes at Iowa State University in Ames and elsewhere. He died in Iowa City on Feb. 12, 1942. He was one of the major Regionalists, a group of painters who in the 1930s employed a variety of naturalistic styles (in marked contrast to the modernistic idioms of the previous two decades) for a subject matter that was obviously American in content.
Darrell Garwood, Artist in Iowa: A Life of Grant Wood (1944), is chronological and anecdotal; the few illustrations of paintings are of poor quality. University of Kansas Museum of Art, Grant Wood, 1891-1942: A Retrospective Exhibition of the Works of the Noted Painter from Cedar Rapids (1959), is useful.
Graham, Nan Wood, My brother, Grant Wood, Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1993. □