Grant Wood‘s iconic American Gothic (above) is one of the world’s most recognisable paintings, and as such its subject matter has been the cause of much debate since its unveiling in 1930. Most presume the painting to be satirical and the two characters to be husband and wife, whilst many Iowans were/are furious at being depicted as “pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers” as a result of the painting.
Below: A 1941 letter from Wood himself, to a Mrs. Nellie Sudduth, in which he discusses the painting, the story behind it, and the public’s reaction.
Transcript follows. Image courtesy of CampSilos.
March 21, 1941
Dear Mrs. Sudduth,
Thanks for your very kind letter, and please forgive my delay in replying. I have just returned from a long lecture trip in the East.
I enjoyed your reactions to “American Gothic” very much. The persons in the painting, as I imagined them, are small town folks, rather than farmers. Papa runs the local bank or perhaps the lumber yard. He is prominent in the church and possibly preaches occasionally. In the evening, he comes home from work, takes off his collar, slips on his overalls and an old coat, and goes out to the barn to hay the cow. The prim lady with him is his grown-up daughter. Needless to say, she is very self-righteous like her father. I let the look of her hair escape to show that she was, after all, human.
These particulars, of course, don’t really matter. What does matter is whether or not these faces are true to American life and reveal something about it. It seemed to me that there was a significant relationship between the people and the false Gothic house with its ecclesiastical window.
Incidentally, I did not intend this painting as a satire. I endeavored to paint these people as they existed for me in the life I knew. It seems to me that they are basically solid and good people., But I don’t feel that one gets at this fact better by denying their faults and fanaticism.
In general, I have found, the people who resent the painting are those who feel that they themselves resemble the portrayals.
Thanks for urging me to come out to the West. I have been out there a few times and admire the country. But the mountains are not for me. This midwestern farm country is in my blood. By build and by disposition, I am a prairie schooner.
It was an additional thoughtful gesture for you to enclose the spray of sage brush. I have enjoyed sniffing it.
With appreciation and best regards.
Mrs. Nellie B. Sudduth