Getting Gothic

I had a very gothic summer. Let me explain. One of the most famous pictures in the world is American Gothic by Grant Wood, and I got to see it this year.  I also visited the house in the background of the painting.

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The house sits in a tiny town in Southern Iowa called Eldon. I grew up about forty-five minutes from Eldon and have driven through it countless times. Never once, though, did I visit the house. This summer, I decided to finally make the journey. It sits in a small park off the main road, and I am using the term “main road” very loosely. For being so famous, the house is much smaller than you expect. When we pulled into the parking lot, my kids both said, “That’s it?” The house is well-preserved, though, and there is a nice visitors’ center and plenty of wildflowers.

They only do tours of the house on certain days, and the day we arrived wasn’t one of them. The visitors’ center has a nice display about the artist and his work. They also have clothes and pitchforks so you can stage your own version of the painting in front of the house.

The painting resides in the Art Institute of Chicago. It, too, was much smaller than I expected, but it was nice to see it after seeing the house. It is supposed to be of a father and a daughter, which surprised me. I’d always thought them husband and wife.

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Seeing the painting and house got me thinking about how works of art become something much bigger than first envisioned. Perhaps I expected them both to be bigger because of the importance of the artwork. It is sometimes seen as a parody of rural life, but Wood didn’t intend it this way at all. He meant it more as a tribute. Interestingly, the painting has been parodied in almost every way imaginable. The particular feel of the painting survives even if the subjects are cats or aliens or famous celebrities.

Perhaps it’s the human spirit that comes through in the painting and lends itself to the parodies that have followed. In spite of all the silliness, we still feel connected to those two simple people in the original painting. All the hoopla is grounded by the intimacy of their small, simple setting. We find a bit of ourselves reflected back in their eyes.

A link to the Art Institute’s page about the painting is here.

A link to a website for the house is here.

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