This week, KAZoART’s editorial team has chosen to explore one of the best-known paintings of the 20th century. Even if you don’t know the name of the painting or its painter, you will almost certainly have seen it somewhere before. American Gothic is a 1930s artwork that has inspired endless reinterpretations in pop culture and which continues to stand out for its modernity. KAZoART offers a detailed analysis to uncover its secrets.

A truly cult artwork

In the early 20th century, US-artist Grant Wood painted the American rural Midwest and its inhabitants, who had been left destitute by the 1930s Depression and the automotive revolution. Wood himself had developed his skills in Europe and was deeply inspired by Flemish painters.

Grant Wood, American gothic
Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930) / Via Wikimedia Commons

Wood’s best-known work is indisputably American Gothic, produced in 1930 and a key piece in the American Regionalism movement. At first glance, the portrait—set in Eldon, Iowa—strongly resembles Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

The artwork now included in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection has since been copied and reinterpreted on many occasions. Allusions to it are made in Disney’s Mulan, in the TV series Dexter and Desperate Housewives, and even in The Simpsons. Impressions often now depict the “couple” in modern garb, wearing streetwear or disguised as characters from Star Wars.

Three details in-depth

#1 A man and a woman

Grant Wood, American Gothic
Grant Wood, American Gothic, Oil, board, Art Institute of Chicago, 1930

Just who is the woman with the stern expression and the austere, bespectacled man holding a pitchfork? Are they a couple? Is he her father? Her brother? A friend? He certainly seems older. In fact, Grant Wood asked his sister Nan (who complained he had made her look ugly) and her dentist Dr McKeeby to pose for this portrait of a farmer and his unmarried daughter.

The man is wearing blue dungarees that resemble work clothes, but his black jacket suggests he is prepared for a special occasion, as does the cameo jewelry worn by the woman. Some claim the two figures are settlers and the woman is indeed dressed in a colonial-style apron. In any case, neither character seems particularly friendly or content!

The artist considered the painting a realist celebration of the people of the Midwest region and their moral values. Nonetheless, the artwork was poorly received by the local population when it was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. They felt the protagonists’ morose appearances were an attack on their less happy and progressive rural life than that experienced by the city-dwellers of the time.

#2 The pitchfork

Grant Wood, American Gothic
Grant Wood, American Gothic, Oil, board, Art Institute of Chicago, 1930

The inclusion of a pitchfork in the work is intriguing and almost seems to be a character all of its own. The teeth are facing upwards, in an unorthodox position, where a farmer would normally have planted them safely in the ground. This detail has raised many questions over the meaning behind the artwork. The pitchfork’s shape means it could be a symbol of virility and sexuality, which was synonymous with perversion in the puritanical Midwest.

It could also be interpreted as a “do not enter” sign. It begs the question, what goes on in the house behind closed curtains? Does the father want to protect his daughter’s virtue? In any case, the pair of farmers seem very attached to the pitchfork—as well as their puritanism and their life far from the city. Many different interpretations are possible, further increasing the piece’s mysterious appeal.

#3 The Gothic house

Grant Wood, American Gothic
Grant Wood, American Gothic, Oil, board, Art Institute of Chicago, 1930

To understand the painting’s title, you need to look at the house behind the two characters, which makes reference to the house’s neo-Gothic architectural style. The arched window is typical of Gothic houses.

The fact the curtains are drawn in the middle of the day is also an important detail. Many critics have wondered if this might indicate the pair are grieving. Might they be lamenting the ebbing of an era they were sad to see end? In the 1930s, progress was already in full swing.

Similar artists at KAZoART: Les Duf by Armel Jullien

This oil painting depicts Mr and Mrs Dufournier, nicknamed “the Dufs”, who played the role of grandparents for the artist. The strange atmosphere recalls the man and woman in Wood’s painting, seen here in Haute-Loire, France, where the KAZoART artist lives. Once again, we find ourselves wondering what is going on in the minds of the quiet, rural characters, the heirs of a now somewhat outdated era.

Les duf, Armel Julien - Peinture à l'Huile
Les Duf, Armel Julien – Oil paint – On sale at KAZoART