Paintings by Eric Sloane rarely include the human form, although sometimes a farmer is carrying a bucket by an old barn, or a fisherman is casting under a covered bridge. Likewise, paintings by Edward Hopper seldom have people in them, and when they do, Hopper’s people are either alone or couples who look as though they have just finished a conversation neither one enjoyed very much. In contrast, paintings by Grant Wood often contain people, but they seem to be beyond speaking with one another.
Best known for his painting “American Gothic,” Grant Wood (1891-1942) has been variously admired and derided. His art, usually depicting his native Iowa, strikes some people as gauche regionalism, but others see it as witty social satire of American provincialism. Still others appreciate its crisp portrayal of bygone days. Scholars study his paintings for allusions to earlier works of art and, more frequently these days, for clues to his sexuality. Meanwhile, spiritual implications of his silent characters seem fair game for reflection.
In the 11 June, 2018, issue of National Review, John J. Miller wrote about Wood’s art. Miller noted that just as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” (c. 1505) is the most famous painting in the world, the most famous painting in the United States is Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930). “If the great enigma of ‘Mona Lisa’ is her smile,” Miller observed, “then the central mystery of ‘American Gothic’ may be the complete lack of one.”
Another famous painting by Wood, “Stone City” (1930), shows a small town seemingly devoid of people. In the November, 1998, issue of American Heritage, Douglas Brinkley explained why he chose “Stone City” for the cover of his then new book, The American Heritage History of the United States: “In ‘Stone City’ Wood offered a bucolic Midwestern dreamscape, and the working farmers of America embraced it with old-fashioned pragmatism, a nod, and a wink.” Farmers viewing the painting have been amused by the mistakes made by artistic license, such as a barn too close the river.
“But whatever its technical merits and agrarian flaws,” Brinkley wrote, Wood’s painting “triggers the history-minded imagination in varied ways.” Brinkley realized from Wood’s vision of that town that American roads differ dramatically from those of Europe. “The highways of America ribbon into an endless horizon,” he pointed out, although “in every great European capital . . . all roads converge upon the city.” Wood helped Brinkley see that “the American pattern is different, as Manifest Destiny dictates: The grid disperses population centers outward, which is perhaps not surprising in a nation born of the pioneering frontier spirit.”
Even in his self-portrait, Wood does not smile, and except for “Arbor Day” (1932) and “Death on the Ridge Road” (1935), Wood’s roads are empty. With the prim homes, elegant trees, and earnest people in his art, looking at a painting by Grant Wood is like looking at a diorama in a museum. Even when his people are at work, they appear to be frozen in time.
This unsmiling stillness leads us back to the silence in Wood’s scenes. In two companion pieces from 1941, “Spring in Town” and “Spring in the Country,” people are busy with the spring planting. In town, a shirtless man in the foreground works on his vegetable garden, while other people are occupied with other tasks: a woman hanging out the laundry; a shirtless man mowing the lawn. In the country, people are also busy planting: in the foreground a shirtless man working alongside a woman with a hoe; in the middle distance, a shirtless man ploughing a field.
Along with overlooking the tiresome symbolism of impregnation, here we can set aside wondering whether the shirtless men are hints at Wood’s possible homosexuality. Sometimes shirtless men are just shirtless men. What is striking is the silence: people are not talking or singing as they toil away. Even the animal world is silent; in the country, cows graze, and in both scenes, there are no birds.
In “Dinner for Threshers” (1934), the evocation of a museum diorama is even stronger. Wood’s artistic eye has cut away a Midwestern farmhouse to expose its dining room and kitchen. It is summer, and men have been working in the fields all morning. They wear overalls and long-sleeve work shirts, and all have deeply tanned faces from the eyebrows down. Three men are outside, washing up, while fourteen men are seated around the dinner table. Three women are in the kitchen cooking dinner, and one woman has just put a dish on the table. One of the men looks up at her, but while she glances down at him, she seems to look beyond him to the kitchen. Whether he is about to thank her or flirt with her, or both, she has no time for talking when there is still work to be done.
In 1931 Wood completed “The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover.” It commemorates the boyhood home of the only American President born in Iowa. In this painting are typical Wood elements, from an empty ribboning road to tidy houses and stately trees. With a sweeping gesture, a solitary man points to the Hoover house; he looks much like a master of ceremonies on stage introducing the next performer.
A similar character occurs in another of Wood’s paintings, “Parson Weems’ Fable” (1939). There Wood drew upon a fanciful biography of George Washington by the Reverend Mason Locke Weems. Weems conveyed Washington’s integrity with a story of young Washington chopping down a cherry tree and declaring, “I cannot tell a lie.”
In Wood’s painting, Weems draws back a curtain to reveal little George and a cherry tree, but the boy has the head seen in portraits of President Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Both Wood’s version of Weems and the man at the Hoover home echo Charles Willson Peale’s “The Artist in His Museum” (1822), where Peale pulls back a curtain to show his museum.
Since Wood’s sense of history seems inseparable from his sense of irony, it is easy to see his irreverence and miss his spiritual depth. In Sister Wendy on Prayer (2006), Wendy Beckett considered Wood’s “Spring Turning” (1936). There a lone farmer ploughs rolling, neatly ordered fields. For Beckett, Wood’s idealized outward order implied inner peace, and with that insight she showed us another way to understand Wood’s art, serenity sustaining his subjects’ silence.