Grant Wood's landscapes are unquestionably a visual balm. The viewer is drawn in to the rolling hills, tiny farmhouses and swaths of country roads easily. To spend a day living in a Wood landscape would surely be far from unpleasant. However, as Wood was painting the American Midwest in the darkest years of the Depression, it seems important to consider his hopeful and loving approach to a subject matter that was highly contentious at that time.

The style that Wood used was unique to him and to his vision of the American landscape; he had developed it through the late 1920's until it came to full fruition with Stone City, Iowa in 1930. Wood had abandoned his earlier Impressionist-inspired style for a clear and studied vision. No longer did his brush strokes create texture and attempt to follow the European ideal of capturing moving patterns of light and shadow. Rather, Wood ordered the landscape, stylized the hills and trees into his characteristic swellings and ovals, and removed the atmospheric effects that study in Paris had taught him to employ. Wanda Corn remarks in a catalogue of Wood's paintings that Stone City, Iowa is a "seminal painting; it sets a style the artist would refine and modify, but never fundamentally alter, for the rest of his life" (74).


 
Detail of rolling hills from
Spring Turning

1936

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of Wood's landscape painting is the sensuousness of the land itself. The rolling hills ( Fall Plowing and Spring Turning) overwhelm and embrace the tiny human elements that exist; in the face of these green hills that seem to breathe and undulate, the farmer in Spring Turning and the farmhouse in Fall Plowing are reduced to little more than recognizable abstractions. Corn sees strong eroticism in the landscapes; she writes that Wood is painting the Mother Earth in her nearly human form. The hills are anthropomorphized, she explains, clear examples of "rounded thighs, bulging breasts, and pregnant bellies" (90). Whether Wood actually intended the land to be taken anthropomorphically or not, it is true that through all of the landscapes, natural geometry is based on curves, ovals and circles, where manmade geometry is sharply defined, linear and cornered. Interestingly, people exist between these two extremes; although farmhouses are sharply lined affairs, the farmers themselves are rounded and fluid.

Also striking in Wood's landscapes are the stylization and regularity. Young Corn, Near Sundown, and Fall Plowing are perhaps the best examples of this. In these paintings, Wood's fluffy, impossibly round trees stand solidly against the visual recession of the straight, sharp rows of planting and hay. Meanwhile, the curved lines of hills or road draw the viewer back into the depths of the horizon line. Because so many of Wood's landscapes are painted from atop a hill or rise, the impression of swooping movement as the eye travels through the painting is prevalent. However, the landscapes remain very still and give the impression of reverent silence; if there is movement in the painting, it seems very slow and regular--the act of plowing or planting. This contradictory impression of movement and stillness underscores the vastness of the land Wood is painting: essentially, he seems to be implying the non-specificity of the picture. The viewer may move through the painting, but the view from the horizon line will be the same, although the distance traveled is great.

Although Wood's landscapes were received as idealized visions of America's heartland, a critical feature of the paintings is that they are pointedly not contemporary. America in the 1930's was in the grips of the machine age, erecting skyscrapers and building technological marvels like the Hoover Dam--yet machines do not enter into Wood's landscapes. Dirt roads organize some of the paintings, but even in New Road there is not an automobile to be found. In fact, in Arbor Day and Stone City, Iowa travel is undertaken on horseback. Only in Death on Ridge Road do motor vehicles come into a Wood painting; there, significantly, they are instruments of destruction and chaos, disrupting the idyllic landscape. Similarly, machines have not entered the farmed landscape itself; plows are hand held and organic, and tractors or mechanical threshers are entirely absent. The foreground image in Fall Plowing presents the plow alone, still imbedded in the earth. Wood clearly means to set up a symbiotic relationship between the earth and hand-held tool, but the machine is pointedly excluded. He draws out the partnership between the farmer and land itself; the farmer alone is the keeper and tamer of the land, but the land, far from being a tired, dry wasteland of the 1930's, is receptive and bounteous, responding to the farmer's cultivation with grateful rewards. Quite obviously, Wood's landscapes are not about America in the 1930's. Rather, they reflect an America of the 1880's or before; on one level, they are nostalgia for a constructed American past, one that existed no more in the nineteenth century than it did in the twentieth. Perhaps also, they are a significant part of the constant search for a usable American history, one to learn from and replicate. Wood threw his hat into the ring, making his case for the America his countrymen could revere.

The case most often made for Wood's landscapes points to them as merely a hopeful and optimistic vision of an idealized America, not so different from the small-town snapshot paintings of Norman Rockwell. The fact that they were painted during the Great Depression underscores more fully what appears to be Wood's total refusal to acknowledge the national situation at hand. Some felt that his avoidance of "realist" subject matter represented an abdication of artistic responsibility, or a contradiction of his regionalist tenets which dictated that artists should depict what they see around them. Surely these geometric and carefully constructed landscapes were not what Wood saw around him; more likely, they were what he wanted to see. Wood's landscapes remained, to the end of his life, relentlessly buoyant; even January, one of his few winter scenes, stays true to his regularity and stylization, but includes the tracks of a rabbit in the snow, an icon of life and activity in the icy landscape that saves it from something like Wallace Stevens' "mind of winter."

What appears to have been overlooked in the popular readings of Wood's landscapes is a kind of ironic regret that pervades the beautiful scenes. Wood was painting what he longed for, an agrarian paradise where the land took care of her own before the machine came to torment her; further, this was an America without urban centers and thus free of the social complexities of mass unemployment, crowded conditions, factories and industry. However, Wood was also clearly aware that this was a fantasy America; his outright satires, such as Parson Weems Fable or Daughters of Revolution, more than suggest that he comprehended the mythologies on which America was built. I would argue that Wood understood fully that his nineteenth century landscapes were a part of the same sort of mythology around which the American ideal of itself was structured. James Dennis notes of Spring Turning that

"this discrepancy between myth-turned-reality and pure myth occurs in most of Grant Wood's farmscapes, each picture integrating a modernized pastoralism with a traditional agrarianism. The agrarian myth presupposes the fixed symbol of a yeoman tending his family farm by hand on a small-scale, subsistence level in complete harmony with his natural environment. But in Wood's pictures the isolated farmer figures, which recall those noble husbandmen and perform symbolically as a vestige of the agrarian myth, are preserved in an idealized farmscape whose pastoral dimension has acquired a twentieth-century scale through the counterforce of mechanization" (216).

Critics after his death complained that Wood's landscapes were emotionless; that reading seems shortsighted. Rather, the landscapes are distanced, both from the painter and the viewer. Wood's stylization and nearly sculptural approach to elements of the paintings suggest a told story rather than a snapshot of memory. Again, a comparison to Norman Rockwell seems useful: where Rockwell thrived on the minute textures and details that made his paintings photographic, Wood avoided such details to render a mythological haze. The complexity of the landscapes lies in Wood's layering of myth, hope, reality and imagination. The final sheath of irony that Wood could not help but include in such paintings reminds us that, regretfully, these are images of an imagined past.


Detail of abstracted people from
Young Corn
1931


Detail of tree recession from
Near Sundown
1933


Detail of nineteenth century travel from
Arbor Day
1932


Detail of car from
Death on Ridge Road
1935


Detail of hand-held plow from
Fall Plowing
1931


Detail of rabbit tracks from
January
1940