I suspect I first saw American Gothic after seeing the cover of the British paperback of Philip K. Dick’s The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike and then watching (or rewatching) The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has a copy on the wall in one scene and I think has two characters dress up as the people in the painting. It was only then that I discovered who Grant Wood was (although I forget how) and the myriad parodies his masterpiece has inspired.
I don’t suppose I ever thought that it was on display somewhere, or that I would see it, but I once heard that it would be the centrepiece of an American painting in the 1930s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts I knew it would by my chance to see it in the flesh. Although, it was with some trepidation – would it stand up to the hype?
So we have two people, a young going on middle-aged woman on the left, an older man on the right, a white board house behind them and a red building over his left shoulder. It’s not clear whether they are wife and husband or daughter and father, but he is in front, holding a three-pronged pitchfork. Their clothing echoes each other and the setting: her dress or apron seems to the blinds in the church-like window behind them, her collar and neck broach answers the button on his collar less shirt and his glasses. The curve of her neckline echoes the curve of his dungarees and the pitchfork. Meanwhile, the vertical tines parallel the lines on his shirt, the dungaree seams and the boards and pillars of the house and red building. The vertical leads to a lightning conductor, not quite above the tine and, what is presumably a spire in the distance.
He looks deadly serious, has a high prominent forehead and John Lennon specs, and grasps the tool of his work firmly, even as he may be wearing his Sunday best jacket, possibly his only jacket. If we take the picture to be contemporary with its painting, 1930, there is perhaps an old fashionedness about it, although I assume we still heft hay about. He’s not quite looking at us, he’s perhaps looking at the artist, or over his shoulder.
She isn’t looking at us or the artist – her head is turned, her eyes elsewhere as perhaps she wants to be? Her blonde hair is tied back, severe, and yet a lock has escaped, dangling down.
And behind her, the stoop, with cactus — mother-in-law’s tongue, a three-pronged echo of the pitchfork and a begonia. Cacti are prickly, not exactly welcoming, but are hardy and survive in the heat. There’s a window behind that, with green blinds, looking a bit battered.
The house frames the two heads – her eyes just above the guttering of the roof, his lips in line, the roof meeting the wall of the upper storey in line with his ear lobes.
Of course, what you never see in reproductions of the painting, is the frame. It’s a rather thick, grey wood, unvarnished, pitted with holes like it has wood worm. (I don’t know what that looks like, to be honest, but it’s how I’d imagine that.) It’s practical and not at all showy – the broach, the jacket, the plants, they’re showy.
There’s an echo of Northern Renaissance paintings – something like the Arnofini portrair but reversed and the couple here are closer together. There’s a cold, undead, touch to the skin. The enigma of their exact looks makes me think of this as the American Mona Lisa.
And so anyhow, it turns out that she is Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, and he is their dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, and they are envisaged as daughter and father. The apron was mail order, I think from Sears. The house is the Dibble House, in Eldon, Iowa, apparently built in the Carpenter Gothic style in 1881-82.
And yes, the painting is remarkable in real life too – worth the price of the ticket alone.