Grant Wood's early European influences were fairly standard for a young artist in the nineteen teens and twenties. Like so many others of his era, he adopted the atmospheric, Impressionistic style that held sway over students in Paris until modernistic styles like Cubism and realism changed the language of art. His best work of the Paris years is The Spotted Man, painted in the studio with other students; in this, Wood employed a Seurat-like pointillism. Wood was presumably familiar with Seurat, particularly Un dimanche a la Grande Jatte; Brady Roberts has theorized that Wood's best known mural study, Dinner for Threshers of 1933, is a "frieze-like procession" that owes much in figures, style and arrangement to Seurat's work (3). Wood studied in Paris and other areas of France more than once, and finally came to disavow the styles he had picked up in the artists' quarters. He returned to Iowa in 1926 after a mediocre one-man show in Paris; having floundered for nearly two years without an artistic vision he felt comfortable with, in 1929 Wood began to paint and speak of a new American style, regionalism.

Un dimanche a la Grande Jatte

The years between 1926 and 1929 clearly were crucial to the formation of Wood's mature style; in those years, he spent a significant amount of time in Germany, working on a commissioned memorial stained glass window for his hometown of Cedar Rapids. While there, Wood saw for the first time the painters of the Northern Renaissance: Durer, van der Weyden, and particularly Memling at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (Corn, 70). Wood was drawn to the Flemish masters on several levels. He observed that they painted with clarity but also luminosity; their lines were sharp, and they knew their subjects well; how different for Wood to see this against the backdrop of student days in Paris in the twenties when everything was about texture and form rather than subject. The Northern Renaissance brought local color to the art world; rather than an Italian Renaissance of mythology and Biblical tales, the Flemish masters painted their children, neighbors, wives, lovers and friends. They explored the human transactions that took place at small businesses, taverns, and sewing rooms of private homes. Their landscapes and buildings were local; the people wore contemporary clothing. However, they were not "local" pictures of limited interest; somehow, the old masters had given "stature and permanence to local models and landscapes" (Corn, 70).

Upon his return to the United States, Wood painted Woman with Plants, the experimental and loving portrait of his mother. Corn writes:

"He combined observable detail, particularly in the face and hands, with deliberate stylization and patterning in the woman's dress. He hardened edges and bathed the figure in that sharp northern light that clarifies rather than softens a figure's form. He also experimented with an old-master painting technique, using oil glazes on panel. Having gessoed a piece of composition board, he painted the figure by continually applying thin layers of color mixed with varnish to achieve something of the old masters' translucent depth of color" (70).

Woman with Plants was a success, and Wood moved on to attempt the new technique on a landscape, Stone City, Iowa. It was as if he had closed in and sharpened the background of Woman with Plants, added Art Deco idioms and still remembered the geometry and shading of his Arts & Crafts days. The Flemish masters, it seems, provided the impetus and inspiration for Wood to create his own style.

Wood scholars point to yet another European influence on Wood's mature work. Die Neue Sachlichkeit--the New Objectivity-- was a part of the German artistic response to the stringent conditions following the Versailles treaty; inspired by the clarity of the Northern masters but edged by the cynicism of post-World War I Germany, the style eschewed romantic, atmospheric effects and sought to return to "stability, realism, and to a certain extent, classical order" (Roberts, 19-20). Wood encountered this style during his time in Munich, and some critics, particularly Brady Roberts, find its influence reflected in his post-Munich portraiture as well as his satiric edge that developed through such paintings as Appraisal, American Gothic, and Daughters of Revolution (24). However, the fact that Wood employed satire in much earlier works such as East Coast View of the West: Buffalo Stampede of 1923--notice the dancing legs and high heeled shoes of the buffalo--seems to contradict this stance. Perhaps more likely is the influence on his landscapes; die Neue Sachlichkeit artists tended towards the sharp delineation of color and line that Wood began to employ with Stone City, Iowa. Certainly, this is the aspect of Wood's work that was recognized in Europe, where he was touted as an example of the New Objectivity's spread across the Atlantic (Brady, 23). The implied conservatism and nationalism inherent in the German style would later become more of an issue as American critics turned against Wood following his death and the Second World War.


Portrait of an Old Woman
Hans Memlin

(right wing of Braque family triptych)

Rogier van der Weyden

Detail from Stone City, Iowa
Clarity, luminosity and geometry reminiscent of Northern Renaissance masters

Portrait of Frau Schrimpf
George Schrimpf
Example of die Neue Sachlichkeit

East Coast View of the West Coast: Buffalo Stampede

German newspaper featuring die Neue Sachlichkeit with
Stone City, Iowa on cover