The Right Face

By Brad Dison

American Gothic is one of only a few paintings which has transcended being merely a painting and has become a cultural icon.  Like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch’s The Scream and James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, commonly known as Whistler’s Mother, American Gothic has become one of the most famous paintings in the world.

In the summer of 1930, Grant Wood, a painter from Cedar Rapids, Michigan, was riding with a friend and fellow painter named John Sharp through the town of Eldon, Iowa.  The two painters were looking for inspiration when Grant spotted a little farmhouse with a distinctive upper window.  Grant later explained he “saw such an American Gothic house in southern Iowa, and I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long, to go with it.”

Grant made a quick sketch of the house on the back of an envelope.  On the following day, Grant got the permission of the homeowners and made a more detailed sketch with oil paints from the front yard.  Grant never saw the house again.  Back in his studio, Grant began painting the gothic farmhouse.  Needing more detail, he requested and received a photograph of the house from the homeowners.  Throughout the process of painting the house, the background in the painting, he considered who he would get to be the male and female models for the people in the painting.

He took great care in picking the female model because he needed someone who would be unoffended by his stretching her face in the painting.  After considering several friends and family members, he settled on Nan Graham.  Grant said Nan’s, “face is nearly as round as mine, so I had to do a great deal of stretching.”

Grant struggled to find the right face for the male figure for his painting, a struggle which had held up the works of other famous artists.  While painting the Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci had trouble finding the right face for Judas, which he said had to be villainous.  Leonardo spent days walking the streets of Milan, Italy in search of just the right face.  Each face he saw was eliminated for one reason or another until he finally found his Judas.  Similarly, Grant looked carefully at every man he met and considered everyone he knew.  Years before Grant had the idea for the painting, Byron McKeeby had built a bridge for him.  Grant, somewhat of a starving artist, traded a bridge for a bridge.  In lieu of payment, Byron accepted a painting by Grant of a famous bridge in Paris.  Byron had just the right face for Grant’s painting.  With little convincing, Byron agreed to be the male model for Grant’s American Gothic.  A short while later, Grant finished the painting.

In October of 1930, the Art Institute of Chicago accepted two of Grant’s paintings, Stone City and American Gothic, for inclusion in their annual American Artists exposition.  Hundreds of paintings were submitted and rejected.  The Art Institute would accept no more than two paintings each year from the same artist.  For Grant to have two entries accepted was an exceptional honor.  In addition, Grant won the coveted Norman Wait Harris bronze medal and a cash prize of $300 for American Gothic.  Newspapers at the time described it as “a painting of a Gothic type of home at Eldon, IA with two imaginary figures of the artist’s conception of Gothic individuals in the foreground.”

When the exhibition opened, American Gothic became an instant hit.  Newspapers throughout the United States published photographs of the painting and incorrectly described the subjects in the foreground as being of a farmer and his wife.  Wood set the record straight and explained that it was a farmer and his daughter.  In late November, Wood learned that the Friends of American Art had purchased American Gothic for inclusion in the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection.

Not all who saw the painting were impressed.  Mrs. Earl Robinson of Collins, Iowa suggested the artist “hang the portrait in one of our Iowa cheese factories because the woman’s face would positively sour milk.”  In response, Mrs. Nan Graham, the lady in the painting, said she was proud to have been the model for the painting and retorted, “I wish that jealous woman would send me her photograph.  I have a very appropriate place to hang it.”  The lady in the painting whom Grant carefully selected was his younger sister. 

Byron McKeeby, uncomfortable with the publicity he received from the painting, said all of the publicity should go to Grant.  For five years Byron refused to admit his connection with the painting.  “Grant chose the face, I didn’t,” he said with his usual warm smile.  It was true that Grant traded a bridge for a bridge.  Byron builds Grant a bridge and Grant gave Byron a painting of a famous bridge he had painted in Paris, a painting which is now much more valuable than the bridge Byron made for Grant.  You see, Byron was Dr. Byron McKeeby, Grant Wood’s dentist.

Sources:

  1. The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), October 28, 1930, p. 5.
  2. The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), October 29, 1930, p. 19.
  3. The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), November 27, 1930, p. 12.
  4. The Des Moines Register, December 28, 1930, p.39.
  5. The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), January 25, 1931, p.4.
  6. The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), February 28, 1931, p.5.
  7. The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), March 24, 1935, p.4.


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