Portraiture, many would argue, was neither Grant Wood's favorite nor his strongest artistic pursuit (Corn, 68). However, his portraits of people he knew and respected--rather than the more satirized "types" that we find in American Gothic or Victorian Survival--shed light not only on Wood's skill as an observer and chronicler of human nature, but also on the more personal allegiances of this public artist. Both John B. Turner, Pioneer and Woman with Plants unreservedly honor the subject of the painting; Portrait of Nan and Arnold Comes of Age capture the deep affection that Wood obviously held for his sister and his young assistant, Arnold Pyle. Although Wood was pressed into portraiture by well-meaning friends and produced for them sweet but mediocre pictures of their family members (Corn, 68), these four paintings capture the usually ironic painter at his most emotional and most heartfelt.

John B. Turner, Pioneer and Woman with Plants seem best viewed as a pair. The woman is, of course, Wood's beloved mother who only lived apart from him when he followed his muse to Europe in the 1920's. The artist's father died in 1901, but stories of the elder Wood's unbending Quaker spirit stayed with the family throughout Grant's life (Garwood, 23). John B. Turner was the father of Wood's main patron in Cedar Rapids, John Turner, Jr.; it does not seem unlikely that Wood painted the elder Turner, severe and self-possessed, with his own father in mind.


 
Detail of map from
John B. Turner, Pioneer
1929

The pair of paintings create an image of mid-Western society, very different from American Gothic, painted at approximately the same time. Turner is painted with an early map of the Cedar Rapids territory behind him, the area into which he arrived in the 1880's and helped transform from a frontier town to a bustling city (Corn, 68). Clad in the clothes of the prosperous businessman that he was, Turner stares from the painting, elderly but vital, and not without a touch a humor around his mouth. Wood seems to have been speaking to the great progress the mid-West had made in the relatively few decades that Turner represented. When contrasted with Woman with Plants, we see that this is a very male image; where Wood paints Turner as progress, commerce, and exploration, he paints his mother in a traditional feminine vernacular as allied with home, planting (nurturing and cultivation), and domesticity. Mrs. Wood holds a snake plant,

"an obvious reference to [her] much-praised talents as a gardener...more important, the snake plant, well known on the frontier for its hardiness, signified the sitter's resilience and strength of character, qualities Wood felt were indigenous not only to his mother but to the Midwestern pioneer as well" (Corn, 70).


Where Turner, the male pioneer, wears a business suit, Mrs. Wood wears a rick-rack apron, the broach that her daughter wears in American Gothic, and presumably, her best and only pearl earrings. The restraint of her ornamentation says much about self-denial, and her commitment to an orderly, simple home. Most engaging, as with Mr. Turner's portrait, is her expression. She looks off to her right, lost in contemplation; she appears to be both melancholy and hopeful, as well as possessed of unshakable dignity. Wood painted his mother as the feminine incarnation of the Midwest. That he used his mother to represent this says much about his feelings for this part of the country, perhaps much more than can be found in American Gothic.

While these paintings represent twinned pictures of age and accomplishment, Portrait of Nan and Arnold Comes of Age speak to the other end of adulthood. Having painted his sister as the long-faced farm woman of American Gothic, Wood sought to make it up to her by creating abeautiful and truer portrait of her three years later. He paints her as a modern young woman, with waved blond hair and a fashionably patterned shirt with framing bows on her shoulders. In an act which probably says far more about Grant Wood than it does about Nan, her brother offsets her modernity with a dignified setting highly reminiscent of colonial portraiture. The chair she sits in and the curtain behind her, as well as the chick and plum attributes she holds all refer to early American paintings of the wealthy or famous by John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart. By fixing Nan in this tradition, Wood suggests that this lovely small-town woman deserves the same grandeur and respect that her ancestors did; Portrait of Nan makes a case for democratic artistry.

The themes that Wood tackles in Arnold Comes of Age are treated with greater subtlety and grace in Adolescence, painted some nine years late on a similar theme. Although Arnold Comes of Age is not considered one of Wood's better works stylistically (Corn, 124), the earlier painting has a truth and poignancy that finds Wood at perhaps his most sympathetic. Grant Wood himself was known to be shy and retiring until he was well into his forties and had achieved national recognition for his work. Wood's friend Darrell Garwood remembered Wood as a young man:

"He was self-conscious, he stammered, he even hiccoughed. He was twenty-eight years old but he couldn't look Miss Prescott [the principal of the school where he taught] in the eye...his habit of swaying from side to side never left him, and he varied it a little by teetering and weaving" (Garwood, 61).

 

When Wood's assistant, Arnold Pyle, turned twenty-one, the artist decided to commemorate the event with a portrait. The result is the stiff and shy image of a deeply serious Arnold, tall and gawky against a landscaped background. The obviousness of the attributes--the river of life, the cornsheaths, the butterfly at Arnold's elbow--all diminish the artistic value of the picture, but Arnold's expression, facing down adulthood, seems to reflect what Wood himself must have felt in his earlier years. His clear affection for his subject and empathy for Arnold's difficult age endow the painting with unexpected life and appeal; like the other portraits, Arnold Comes of Age provides an idea of what did engage Grant Wood's sincerest emotion.



Detail of snake plant from
Woman with Plants
1929


Detail of Diana broach from
Woman with Plants
1929

Detail from
Portrait of Nan
1933


Detail of attributes from
Portrait of Nan
1933

Detail of butterfly from
Arnold Comes of Age
1930

Detail from
Arnold Comes of Age
1930