Although Grant Wood claimed to have painted only one satire, Daughters of Revolution, he seems virtually alone in that opinion (Corn, 100.) Much of the discussion sparked by his most famous painting, American Gothic, revolved around the level of satiric intent, and Wood was henceforth typecast as a satirist, a label which ignored his vast artistic skills and interests (Corn, 101.) Nevertheless, in perusing Wood's painted works, it is difficult to argue that many of them are not satiric at most and gently ironic at the least. Wood observed his fellow Americans with what can only be described as an amused eye, and more than once sought to capture and slightly deflate that into which so much patriotic stock was put. Wood's genius in these pictures of things most American--Daughters of Revolution, American Gothic, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, and Parson Weems' Fable—are his restraint and appreciation of the power of understatement. He treads carefully in these, not failing to bring an appropriate amount of American majesty and patriotism to the forefront, but always slightly undercutting the nationalism of the image with elements of ironic whimsey that complicate the meaning of the paintings. Wood also produced several paintings that, while hardly entirely serious were much more personal and devoid of a "national" character. Again, they seem to have been born of Wood's ever observant and ever amused eye, but the treatment of his subjects in these--notably Adolescence and Victorian Survival--is more gentle, more affectionately ironic than popularly satirical.


 

 

 



Details of farmer and wife from
American Gothic
1930

 

The final entry in this category, and whose place here is admittedly tenuous, is Return from Bohemia, certainly the most puzzling and opaque work Wood ever produced. Although it was intended as the cover illustration for Wood's never-finished autobiography of the same name, the 1935 drawing does not appear particularly complimentary to either Wood or the native Iowans he painted around him. It seems a satire, but what, exactly, is being satirized remains mysterious.

Much ink has been spattered in an attempt to get at the "real" meaning of American Gothic. The painting has been interpreted as a full-blown satire of mid-Western types and suspicions; it has also been adopted as the icon of middle America--staunch, right-thinking, and fearless. During World War II, the painting was used as a propaganda piece; it was meant to remind the American public what they were defending (Corn, 142). Corn notes that "throughout the first decade of its life, the painting continued to elicit a variety of interpretations. By and large, the farther a critic lived from the Midwest, the more predisposed he or she was to read the painting as satire or social criticism. Local commentators usually saw the painting in a benign light" (131). Through the seven decades since its creation, American Gothic has been the vehicle for innumerable satires, visual puns, and political or social commentaries (see Wanda Corn's comprehensive visual essay on the many uses American Gothic has been put to.) Grant Wood, finding himself in the center of a national controversy over the painting after its unveiling in 1930 at the Art Institute of Chicago, "would only confess that American Gothic represented ‘types' he had known all his life and that he intended no ridicule by including their ‘faults,' which he summed up as ‘fanaticism and false taste'" (Dennis, 120).

Regardless of how he chose to explain the painting to the public, the European-traveled Wood could not have failed to understand the resonance of the word "gothic" in the title, as well as the pointed inclusion of a gothic window on the Midwestern farmhouse. The gothic aesthetic in Europe assumed an awesomeness and a spiritual power that, at its height, spoke of man's greatest monuments in art and architecture. Wood's American Gothic includes the elongation of the window, echoed by the elongation of the faces of his farm people, as a reference to this apparent awesomeness. Otherwise, there is little of awe to be found; the people are simply clad, standing in front of an average house. They appear most definitely human: the divine light that envelopes figures in many pieces of gothic art is quite clearly avoided. Their expressions are similarly human; the man is suspicious and protective of his charge (the wife/daughter controversy rages on) but also appears to be waiting for instruction. The woman looks off to her left, an expression perhaps of concentration, perhaps of disapproving interest on her face. Neither person is open to strangers, to approach; they seem to feel no need to justify their response to the viewer's intrusion. The irony in American Gothic seems to lie in the contrast between what is American in the picture (small town, perhaps small-mindedness, simplicity, defensiveness) and what is not "gothic." Perhaps Wood's point is simply to celebrate--with a wink to the more sophisticated--the extravagance of simplicity in both mind and surroundings of America's heartland; perhaps he intended to remind his audience that the America was not built on a bedrock of complexity but rather on a bedrock of solid farmers, dating back to Thomas Jefferson's idealized yeoman. In attempting to express this, Wood ironically painted an image of elusive meaning. And perhaps, that is the final level of satire in the painting; Grant Wood surely knew that no national mythology could ever be as simple as the people wanted it to be.

Wood stirred up more controversy with his next American satire. Daughters of Revolution took a pointed shot at the Daughters of the American Revolution, a group which Wood found ridiculous and contradictory to the extreme. Calling them "those Tory gals," Wood remarked contemptuously that the DAR were "people who are trying to set up an aristocracy of birth in a Republic" (Corn, 100). Wood further disliked the DAR because of a controversy over a World War I memorial window that the artist had been commissioned to do in the late 1920's for his hometown, Cedar Rapids. Wood found that the best stained glass factories were in Germany, and spent significant time overseas working on the window with German craftsmen. Upon his return and the installation of the window, the local DAR chapter protested, claiming that it had been made by America's enemies and thus dishonored the memory of those it sought to memorialize. Cedar Rapids was so divided over this that the dedication for Wood's window did not take place until thirteen years after his death, in 1955 (Garwood, 102). It is easy to imagine that the window's undedicated presence in downtown Cedar Rapids would have continued to gall the artist and inflame his irritation with the DAR's mission.

Again in this painting, Wood approaches his subjects through many layers of satire. Perhaps most jarring is the juxtaposition of the title and the ladies pictured. That these self-satisfied, teacup-raising, and meticulously coifed septuagenarians might have a thing to do with revolution is nothing short of absurd. Wood has painted the three ladies in a soft-focus haze that at first seems to render them more gentle and sympathetic. Two elements undermine this softness. Perhaps the most noticeable element in the painting is the clawlike hand breaking clearly through the haze and raising the teacup in a wordless and seemingly inappropriate salute to the Revolutionary War. Corn writes: "The hand holding the teacup tells us more about the Daughters. It is ringless, which suggests the woman is a spinster, and it is thin and bony, looking very much like the chickens' feet in some of Wood's other paintings." Further, the softness of the focus deepens the ladies' eyes until they are beady and animal-like. They peer out of the painting, waiting only to be recognized for their inherited glory; they are not unlike purebred animals. Wood has further amused himself by placing the ladies in front of Emmanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. Although the famed work was considered an American treasure and treated as something of a documentary painting, the truth was that Leutze had painted it in Germany, using the Rhine as a model for the Delaware, and, it was suggested, German soldiers for the models (Corn, 101). The correlation between this beautiful irony and Wood's undedicated memorial window must have pleased him endlessly; perhaps this is the reason why he fully agreed that this painting was indeed a satire. Wood even managed to make the composition of Daughters of Revolution a part of the satire; the arrangement of the ladies's heads echoes Leutze's triangular composition, while their straight and smug mouths follow the lines of the Washington's boat.

Both Parson Weems' Fable and Midnight Ride of Paul Revere refer explicitly to popular stories of American history that Grant Wood, quite obviously, cannot quite take seriously. Less satirical is Midnight Ride of Paul Revere; Wood is not above some amount of reverence for the beloved story. However, he paints in a distinct storytelling mode. This landscape is not Massachusetts in the eighteenth century; it is more like Iowa, or more likely, a childhood fantasyland of Disney-like rivers, illuminated roads, folk-art buildings, and a tiny, tiny Paul, fleeing through the village on what appears to be a rocking horse. The picture is decisively cinematic; we swoop in from above to a dramatically lit set where the church steeple points the way to heaven, and the darkness both metaphorically and actually is everywhere but here. Wood is clearly not trying to paint a "real" occurrence in American history. He is humorously commemorating a mythological event, one that he must have learned about as a child, and remembers with a child's eye. But Wood is not actively "debunking" the story of Paul Revere; rather, he is appreciating it for what it is: an important story in American history, one that preserves a sense of heroism and drama, and an appreciation for the myths that shape American self-perception.

Parson Weems' Fable caused far more uproar when it was unveiled in 1939. Parson Weems, the largest figure in the painting, was the itinerant myth-maker who had recently been demoted from the status of George Washington's first biographer to popular hack when the public "discovered" that such stories as the cherry tree incident had been invented by the preacher for his 1806 edition of Life of Washington the Great. Wanda Corn believes that the

"parson...is a thinly disguised surrogate for the artist himself. Parson Weems and Grant Wood are alter egos, both creators of lore, both enriching the national imagination with colorful stories about America's heritage. Fables, the painting makes clear, are inventions; they are based on history but transformed by the artist into colorful tales" (120).

Wood has gone beyond the creation of a colorful tale in this painting. In the tradition of the rocking horse which Paul Revere rides, the artist has ventured into the absurd in order to bring home his ironic point. While Parson Weems himself holds back a curtain rimmed with cherries, he points to the scene of Father Washington's discovery of his son's transgression. Little George, apparently with one magnificent blow, has nearly felled the perfectly spherical cherry tree. To make matters more difficult, the elder Washington is facing not only an unrepentant son, but one who has the head of Gilbert Stuart's dollar-bill Washington perched on a young boy's body. The young/old Washington glares at his father out of the corner of his eyes, while holding the offending hatchet out of his father's reach. Clearly, although Parson Weems is patiently instructing us to look at the scene he has created, something is not quite right. George is acting up, irritating his father, and obviously not coming in on cue with his famous "I cannot tell a lie..." line. Father Washington seems to be barely controlling his temper. The incoming storm clouds, his reddened face and the organized comedy of pointing hands all suggest that he is about to backhand little George. Of course, as little George has the famous head, this would seem disturbingly blasphemous. In the background, a black mother and son provide an example of correct filial respect; the boy, holding a ladder rather than a hatchet, helps his mother pick cherries from their upright tree. However, even that is complicated by the assumption of their slavery; where is the motivation for filial respect?

On one level, this painting is Wood's salute to Weems, the storyteller. Perhaps the man duped a nation for over a hundred years, Wood seems to say, but it was still a good story, and it promoted the right ideas--truth, respect, and good family relations. On another level, Wood is amusing himself again with the mythological elements of the tale; he celebrates its storied qualities, that it is not true and so can be illustrated in an entirely whimsical way. Hence, the curtain is fringed with cherries, the house in the background is Wood's own in Iowa City, the cherry tree is perfectly round, and no one has to guess at who the little boy is because a well-known head can be grafted onto the little body. Realism in no way has to be an issue. And on yet another level, Wood is questioning American worship of great men and the national creation of heros to fill out our galleries. The defiant little Washington has felled the tree in one blow; should we admire him for that act of greatness or disparage him for his unfilial attitude? Wood makes the point that this little boy will grow up to be the father of our country quite nicely; do his later exploits, Wood asks, justify a childhood mythology? And finally, his childhood defiance, as captured in this picture, surely must prefigure his later defiance of the crown, and his place as a leader of the Revolution. From a different point of view, the adult Washington was no hero, but a contentious rebel--as he is pictured here.

Both Adolescence and Victorian Survival address the subject of age with Wood's usual ironic touch. Adolescence is as much a painting about youth's beauty and awkwardness as the earlier Arnold Comes of Age. The difference lies in the fact that Adolescence is set on a roof-top and deals with what Wood's friend from Cedar Rapids, Darrell Garwood, called a "three-chickened allegory" (219). In the painting, a young pinfeathered chicken rises unsteadily between two older, complacently surly hens. As the hens frown, the young chicken stretches her neck and attains her full, gawky height, silhouetted both majestically and amusingly against the lightening dawn sky. She coyly covers herself with her meager wings and turns her head, gazing at the world beyond out of the corner of one hopeful eye. The picture, compositionally, is perfectly balanced, the two hens weighting each other and the farm's tiny windmill echoing the chicken's long neck. This balance makes the young bird appear ever more graceless; the tiny head and skinny neck and legs surrounding the shapeless and dumpy body seem every teenager's nightmare. The visual fable is rendered more touching by the role models who surround the young bird; after a brief period of barnyard excitement, she will undoubtedly settle into the rotund irritation of her elders.

The tension between the machine age and a simpler past that exists, often unremarked, in much of Wood's work comes to the forefront in Victorian Survival, the nearly photographic painting modeled on his maiden aunts, Tillie and Sarah (Corn, 88). Washed in sepia tones, the painting gives the impression of a nineteenth century tintype. The elderly woman sits erect, gazing apprehensively out of the rounded frame; her hair is parted and pulled back severely, and she wears only a dark dress, a broach, and a choker ribbon around her neck. Next to her, in place of traditional portraiture accessories, an upright telephone stands in profile. She seems to be pointedly ignoring the modern intrusion, anxious in the possibility that it might ring. Her abnormally long neck, emphasized by the ribbon, is Wood's main point of satire. In painting her disproportionally, Wood has produced a mocking relationship between her tense body and the lounging, newfangled telephone; the phone's stand echoes her neck, but where she is protecting herself from the device, the phone is pointing itself at her, implying some level of menace by its disrespectful glare. As is often the case, Wood's intent is unclear. Is he amused by the woman's discomfort with this icon of modernity, or is he sympathetically recording her inability to accustom herself to the inevitable changes she lives through? Wanda Corn reflects that

"given the humor in this painting, there is no doubt but that Wood had mixed feelings about these arch Victorian types, including those presented in American Gothic. He could readily see their faults and excesses, but as he realized that their breed was disappearing, he became sentimental and memorialized them in his paintings" (88).


Sentimental seems too direct a word to describe Victorian Survival; perhaps it would be more accurate to ascribe a poignancy to the painting that is not evident in the tintype of Wood's aunt Tillie. Wood has not positioned his Victorian lady as Matilda Peet sat; she appears stronger, gripping the table next to her, slouching slightly, and looking directly into the camera. Wood's creation sits with her hands clasped, holding herself together; she gives the impression of some delicacy, arousing a protective feeling that Aunt Tillie does not.

Return from Bohemia, Wood's enigmatic drawing of 1935, was intended to capture his conversion from the European "bohemianism" of his early years in Paris to regionalism upon his return to Iowa. Wood places himself front and center, flanked by native onlookers and framed by a barn, an icon of rural Iowa. Outwardly, it seems a simple narrative to unravel; he has come home and, now famous with his newfound style, is beloved and watched by his fellow countrymen. Unfortunately, none of the details of the drawing support such a simple reading. Wood glowers severely from his seated position, looking, it seems, at us, the viewer. He does not wear his overalls, and in fact, is sporting the round glasses that he affected during his Parisian years in the 1920's. The people surrounding him look down rather than at the canvas he is working on; some appear to have closed eyes. Obviously, they are not celebrating his return to the homeland, unless they are engaged in some sort of prayer, which would be incomprehensible given the setting. It appears that they do not understand what he is painting, that, in effect, they are not an appreciative audience. However, their expressions otherwise are peaceful. To complicate the picture further, Wanda Corn points out that "although [Wood] paints in an Iowan barnyard, which would be appropriate for him as a regionalist, he is painting on canvas and using a big, thick brush, implements of his early, not his late, work" (112). It would seem out of character for Wood to satirize the Iowans who supported his work most vehemently, and further out of character to engage in the sort of self-aggrandizement that seems to follow from the worshipful positions of his onlookers. Perhaps he is satirizing his own dogmatic stance for regionalism and against the artistic colonialism he saw as Europe's curse on American art; however, this also seems unlikely as he never found reason anywhere else to hold his beliefs up for public amusement. Return from Bohemia remains an extremely puzzling image.


Detail of gothic window from
American Gothic
1930

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Memorial Window
from Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building
192 7-29

 

 


Details from
Daughters of Revolution
1932


Wood's rendering of Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware from
Daughters of Revolution
1932

 


Washington Crossing the Delaware
1851
Emmanuel Leutz
e



Detail of folk-art style house
from
Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
1931



Detail of rocking-horse rider from
Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

1931



Detail of the elder Washington from
Parson Weems' Fable
1939

 


Detail of hand arrangment from
Parson Weems' Fable
193
9




George Washington,
The Lansdowne Portrait

1796
Gilbert Stuart

 


Detail of obedient son from
Parson Weems' Fable
1939


 

 

 


Detail of young chicken from
Adolescence
1933

 


Detail of older hen from
Adolescence

1933



Detail from
Victorian Survival
1931

 


Detail of telephone from
Victorian Survival
1931

 


Wood's self-portrait from
Return from Bohemia
1935

 


Detail of onlooker from
Return from Bohemia
1935