I go to college in a tiny town in northern Missouri. Kirksville is home to three colleges, but there still aren’t many non-school sanctioned activities to do in town. One of the most common pastimes for Truman students is going to a bridge outside of town known as train bridge, where, you guessed it, trains cross. Sure, there are great views of the nighttime sky at train bridge, but train watching is a strange hobby for college students. However, a little more than an hour north of lovely Kirksville is another small town called Eldon, Iowa. Eldon is home to the Dibble House, which is most famous for being the backdrop to one of the most famous American paintings of the 20th century – American Gothic. This painting also launched Grant Wood as one of the pioneers of the American Regionalist movement. The Regionalist movement aimed to represent America as it truly was, without the cosmopolitan cities. Because of this, art like Wood’s resounded with the Midwestern population because for the first time the Regionalist movement was for them rather than for those living on either coast.
The artist, Grant Wood, is a native Iowan himself, and he found himself in Eldon where he found the farmhouse which he painted in his his most famous work. The farmhouse was built in the style of carpenter gothic. In North America, home carpenters used the abundance of wood around them to construct arches and towers reminiscent of the European Gothic style. By painting this home, Wood recognized the family home as being the physical symbol of the family which resonated with many at the time of its publication.
He used his sister, and his dentist as models and painted them in clothes resembling what he saw in his old family photo albums. Although the two figures appear together in Wood’s painting, the two never sat together for their portraits to be painted. Instead, Wood worked with them individually and created sketches which he used to craft American Gothic. Their posing resembles that of the Northern Renaissance Style probably because Wood had previously studied art in Europe. And was particularly interested in the works of Jan van Eyck like the Arnolfini Portrait pictured below. The Arnolfini Portrait pictured below also deals with domesticity in portrait form, which Wood may have drawn inspiration from.
At first glance, Wood’s painting seems to truly represent what life in the Midwest may have been like during the 19th century. However, scholars have debated alternate meanings, and suggested satirical explanations for the seemingly odd composition.