How American Gothic became an icon


It’s two people, a house, and some sky. Isn’t it a little overrated? Just a second, just a second… put down the three-tined pitchfork. So, I understand that Grant Wood made an incredible painting. You can see it in all the little details. Like how the pitchfork’s lines are repeated in the house, and farmer’s shirt. Or how there are complementary patterns in the window drapes, and the woman’s dress. The painting is technically complex. But look at this, this is what you get when you Google “American Gothic parody.” Pages and pages of the exact same joke. Star Wars, Minions… (giggles) … Minions. There are so many parodies. You don’t get everywhere from Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Janet,” to Mulan, “Not to mention they’ll lose the farm,” with nice lines alone. These parodies happened because there was something
bigger that made this painting so famous. And understanding the secret to American Gothic’s success actually helped me to appreciate it for the first time. Nobody would have guessed Grant Wood’s painting
would be a huge success. Born near Anamosa, Iowa, he grew up in the big city: Cedar Rapids. But in the 1920’s he frequently traveled to Europe. Impressionism was an inspiration. So was Pointillism. Older artists influenced him too. He said Jan van Eyck’s look changed his art. I think you can see it in these long, flat faces that Wood drew himself. The result of that traveling was a guy who was half European artiste, half Iowan farm boy. So, when Wood passed by this house in Eldon, Iowa, he saw something. Something gothic – that weird, slightly ominous window – and something American, too. He made sketches of the house, and enlisted his dentist, and yes, his sister, as models for the painting. There were some tweaks as the painting developed – the weeds in front of the house disappeared. The original rake became a pitchfork. Wood promised he’d elongate his sister’s face so she wasn’t recognized as the wife of this older dentist. Wood completed it in 1930. That year, the painting made its way to the Chicago
Art Institute, for a contest. But it got bronze. Third place. The first mention in The New York Times was dwarfed by
an ad for stomach acid medication. Wood sold American Gothic to the museum for $300. That’s the big question. How did a third place, $300 painting, featuring a dentist and the artist’s sister, turn into an icon? America changed a lot from 1880 to 1920. This chart shows all the jobs. The big one to notice is agriculture. In 1880, almost half of all Americans were on the farm. Now let’s go to 1920. Agriculture went from 48% to just 25%. In 1880, about 30% of Americans lived in cities. By 1920, it had jumped to more than half. America was split between city and country. In the 20’s and 30’s, city people started snarking. The critic H.L. Mencken is a good example. (Imagine Bill Maher, but more famous with 20 extra IQ points, and less pot.) Mencken called small town people the “booboisie.” This kind of thing was common. In 1920, Main Street was a hit novel that was basically about how
small towns stunk. American Gothic was perfectly balanced for this big, nasty fight. Some city people saw the couple as the “booboisie.” Some country people saw them as authentic Americans. Remember that blue and black dress, (or white and gold dress)
that went viral on Buzzfeed? That didn’t go viral because it was a great picture, it went viral because it was a great fight. In 1930, American Gothic wasn’t that different. Grant Wood knew what he was doing. This is Grant Wood’s 1935 self-portrait, Return from Bohemia. He’s trying to look like a solid Iowa artist. But he was always Bohemian, too. In 1932, Wood painted Daughters of the Revolution. He said it was his only satire. An American myth blocked by women clinking their tea cups. Or look at 1939’s Parson Weems’ Fable. It honors the story of George Washington refusing to lie
about chopping down a cherry tree. Then, the curtain pulls back. That American story is just something Parson Weems made up. Farmer, artist, real American, artistic snob. Grant Wood kept everybody guessing. If you think about it, his approach to art was not that different than all those stupid parodies that try to have it both ways. Half the time, they are honoring the painting, and the idea
of a solid American couple. And half the time they are calling it a joke. What the satirists might not realize, is that when Grant Wood
painted his sister and his dentist, in front of a house in Eldon, Iowa, he was doing the same thing. Just in case you were worried about Grant Wood’s sister
hating her famous portrait, she did convince her brother to paint another portrait, that was a little more glamorous and
probably a little more true to life.

100 thoughts on “How American Gothic became an icon

  1. Did you ever take a look at the expressions in these faces? I always thought that was the real reason. I thought it captured American Puritanism perfectly.

  2. i like the painting of little george washington… looking just like the portrait from the dollar bill.

  3. I hear people say " how the hell are we going to explain meme culture to our kids?", this is how.

  4. I live in Australia. I'd never heard of this painting before and I found this video to be very interesting. Thank you, Vox, for telling me all about it!

  5. Some clown like Paul Walker(dead or alive I don't known this guy from Adam) gets 3 BILLION views on you tube and you guys go after a painting thats 90 years old? Where's the context or perspective? I guess we'll have wait 90 years to see how well Mr. Walkers work hold up.

  6. Doesn’t seem as though like Overrated answered its own question. Did I miss something? Grant Wood being as ironic in his intentions as his countless parodies doesn’t seem answer the question. I suspect American Gothic is an icon because American Gothic icon. You know, like song We Are Here Because We Are Here on an endless loop.

  7. Literally saw this painting in the Chicago Art Museum today owowowowowowowowo😂

  8. Can anybody help me identify the iconic painting of a young girl with a metal leg brace on, she is sat down in front of an old farm house. Thank You.

  9. Wow! there are real life people who modeled for the painting. That is amazing!

  10. Where did it become an icon? Only, i think, Whit t within America, but that doesn't count as icon

  11. The original is in Chicago’s art museum… so is the pointillism painting. Thank me later.

  12. Bro imagine losing to an ad for stomach acid medicine

  13. I live in the city where Grant Wood lived and we have american gothic statues everywhere

  14. QwertyQwerty qwertyQwerty qwerty qwerty assay qwerty quagmire adj quota qwerty

  15. i feel like vox did a vid on the mona lisa too? pls do more famous paintings

  16. I haven't even heard in my life what american gothic is still i watched the whole video curiously. This is what we call good production quality fellas

  17. this painting has changed. I remember an older lady next to him with glasses looking forward with him.

  18. At first when I saw this video, at anytime/anywhere before, I never saw this painting, now I've seen it.. I've been seeing it everywhere????

  19. Oh the jobs for agriculture dropped in the 1920s i wonder why????????????? hmmmmmmmmmmm

  20. I’m so confused? I’ve never heard of or seen this paining. Is this just an American thing?

  21. Never noticed the Mulan one, but I’m probably never gonna unsee it

  22. I always feel scared when I look at this painting..but after watched this video..It'd never be the same anymore..I really can understand the joke😂

  23. And now someone on Twitter made one of Jim Pickens. We have come a long way indeed. 👍

  24. Random unnecessary Bill Maher dig. Intellectually speaking, Maher could run circles around you, buddy.

  25. You forgot Green Acres parody of Oliver and Lisa standing in front of their ramshackle farm house.
    Correction you did include the Green Acres parody.

  26. this was in my art teachers classroom and i was so confused on why it was there? idk

  27. I didn't even know this was a painting… I was looking for the movie American Gothic with a very similar cover.

  28. The Art Institute of Chicago which owns the painting also owns the world's largest collection of parodies of the painting.

  29. 1:29 lmao totally irrelevant but can someone tell me this painting's name? Really beautiful style

    Edit:
    Lmao nevermind found it already, the painting is named Woman With A Parasol by Claude Monet

  30. They did a meme with Pelosi and Schumer of thos picture! It is hysterical

  31. Please do try to give a clear direction to your commentary. At the end of the video i feel as if i heard a million scattered thought but not one concrete one. It’s sort of like a feather being dragged over your skin, you know something is there but you have to think and look to understand it. Just try to be clear with your commentary.
    Sorry if i hurt your feelings!

  32. Did you guys know, Grant Wood was born in a small town near Council Bluffs, Iowa? Near mu town!

  33. Ok, But is anyone gonna talk about how Amy Schumers mother Tonya Harding is in the painting?

  34. The name of the painting is everything. “American Gothic”.

  35. If he had not sold it to a museum,…. it might have been lost "for all antiquity". But that museum probably put it on a wall, and then polaroid cameras, kodak film, and letters in the mail…. did the rest.

  36. I always liked it because of the look on the woman's face. Its like she's telling him she's unsatisfied with this farm life.

  37. This painting always used to creep me out, it seems so unsettling to me.

  38. every year in my town we have this great festival, and there's this poster contest. This year's winner was a really good American Gothic parody

  39. We have a huge statue of American Gothic that gets shown at the Iowa State Fair. I'm going to see it tomorrow if it's there!

  40. i don't get his last statement when he said "what satirists might not realize, is that when Grant Wood painted his sister and his dentist, in front of a house in Eldon Iowa, he was doing the same thing". Who was doing the same thing? Can someone pls explain

  41. You guys didn’t really explain how it became an icon and how the painting itself became an argument. What was the argument exactly and how did Grant “know what he was doing?”

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