Wood burst onto the American art scene in the thirties
with his submission of American Gothic
to the jury for the annual exhibition of American paintings and sculpture
at the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting was admitted and awarded
the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal, as well as a three hundred dollar
prize, and it was quickly purchased by the Friends of American Art at
the Institute for another three hundred dollars. Notices of the picture's
popularity were carried in papers as far away as New York and Boston,
and critics struggled with the meaning of the serious couple and the
Grant Wood had arrived.
American Gothic would always remain his most famous and most enduring work, but others became well-known during the thirties; Stone City, Iowa, Parson Weem's Fable, and Midnight Ride of Paul Revere all achieved fame on their own, and then were purchased by such Hollywood names as Katherine Hepburn and Edward G. Robinson. Grant Wood's rise to fame was a popular movement, propelled more by coverage in Time, Life and the New York Times than in academic journals of the day. The New York Times and Time primarily were interested in Wood as a mural painter and as a part of the Regionalist triumvirate--the other two being John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton (Jewell). Life covered Wood's specific paintings, with a two page spread in 1940 for Parson Weems' Fable, and a retrospective following his death in 1942. His paintings enjoyed a grass-roots popularity throughout his life that transcended place; mid-Westerners seemed to regard him as their own, while the Boston-New York-Chicago crowd appeared to find his paintings a reassuring balm after endless Depression-era bad news from the heartland.
However, the academic response to Wood was not vast during the Depression. The Literary Digest, covering him briefly in 1932, praised him for painting American subjects, and closed the article with the faint remark that "any future account of the artistic rediscovery of America must include his contribution" (14). As would happen so many other times over the following decades, this discussion of Wood's work simply seemed an excuse to use the image of American Gothic, which graced the first page of this article. Two articles of note appeared in 1935, neither terribly positive. James Sweeney of The New Repubic lambasted Wood for his lack of sensibility to color, "slack compositional sense," "flabby, characterless figures," and "feeble sense of modeling." Sweeney was also the first, but certainly not the last, to characterize Wood's paintings as reminiscent of a "gift-shop atmosphere" (76). Perhaps the tenacious reviewer's most prophetic statement in the attack is his last: "That Grant Wood should be accepted and celebrated as a representative American painter is of more interest as an economic symptom than as an art event" (77). It was certainly true that Wood's popularity rapidly fell off with the changed economy following World War II.
Ruth Pickering wrote a far less bloodthirsty essay on Wood in the September 1935 issue of North American Review. To her, he was the "painter in overalls" who "hoisted his overalls on a stick to scare away the city connoisseur and the academician" (271). She admired his choice of subject matter, his belief in regionalism, and his American eschewing of the abstract in favor of the illustrational. Several pages into the essay, Pickering benignly condenses what academics and Eastern intellectuals came to dislike about Grant Wood by 1950: "His color is clear, his outlines unblurred, and his surfaces polished. His intent is easily understood. His work is nearly always popular among simple people" (273). Pickering's main problem with Wood, it turns out, was that he didn't fit the image of the fiery, romantic painter--he is no mad Van Gogh or emotional Cezanne. Rather, she complains mildly that "no trace of hysteria, no sense of excitement lodges in Wood's Quaker temperament. No very unruly emotion, either of love or of hate, if it ever swayed him, remains unmastered." It is his ability to organize his composition so well, she suggests, that applies the "dead hand. There is little terror in the painting because there is little life" (277). He is, she allows, "truly charming," an epithet that would seem to be the kiss of critical death to a serious painter.
In 1937, Thomas Craven wrote a far more congratulatory article for Scribner's Magazine, hailing Wood as "one of our most distinguished painters" (16). Craven decided that Wood's "highest attainments lie in the field of portraiture and figure painting...by dealing unreservedly with local psychologies, he has created characters which, though rooted in the Iowa soil, belong in the gallery of American types" (21). Like other reviewers of the decade, Craven plays up to Wood's supposed simplicity of nature and artistic intent; he would not, in this time period, be credited with an ability to paint allegorically or to tell complexly layered stories on canvas. Still, Wood's popularity during the 1930's seems to be related deeply to the Depression; whether his paintings were perceived as simplistic and charming or as social commentaries, the landscapes and "gallery of American types" gave a sense of hope and grounding to people around the country during a turbulent time.
Wood died in 1942 and a retrospective show was quickly arranged in Chicago. With the isolationism and inward-looking of the Depression years behind the United States and the new internationalism of World War II looming, Wood's nationalist vision and vocal denunciation of European artistic traditions made him an easy target for critics looking to score political points. Art Digest, in late 1942, gleefully hosted "The Grant Wood Controversy", a showdown between eastern critics and letters to the editor from the voices of Wood's popular support. Editor Peyton Boswell drew the lines of battle:
Critics were merciless. In the Chicago Sun, Dorothy Odenheimer wrote that Wood was simply "a provincial whose vision was restricted in more than a physical sense to the rolling hills of Iowa. He had no taste, no sense of color, no feeling for texture...no atmosphere, no smell of the soil, no wind in the air" ("Chicago Critic Attacks Wood's Art"). Even those who had supported Wood a decade before jumped ship in the face of the new internationalism; C. J. Bulliet, mentioned above as one of the first to endorse Wood and American Gothic in 1930, in 1942 wrote of the famous painting as "small-souled" and of Wood as a painter of "small merits" ("Knocking Wood," 12). Fritizi Weisenborn, the well-known New York critic, summed up the argument of the intelligentsia:
Numerous readers, including Wood's contemporary Thomas Hart Benton, wrote in to Art Digest and other magazines to protest Wood's talent and popularity. Benton in particular wrote vehemently in support of his friend: "...they hated him because the straight simplicity of his mind threw a sharp light into the twisted involutions of theirs. And they hated him because he was a successful American artist which is something intolerable in the hothouse cults of our art world."
The final blow which silenced even the most dedicated Wood supporters was thrown by a little known professor named Horst Janson. Janson had been a colleague of Wood's at the University of Iowa, and had quarreled with the artist about everything from regionalism to the structure of the art department. Apparently, there was little love lost between the two men by the time Wood fell ill in 1942 (Dennis, 213). Following World War II, Janson mounted what can only be termed as a smear campaign; he seemed to decide his life's work lay in destroying Grant Wood on both a personal and artistic level. Sadly, he was not unsuccessful. Janson's tactic was to draw a parallel between Wood's regionalist work and the Hitler-approved art of National Socialism in Germany during the same decade: