American Gothic is a painting by Grant Wood from 1930. Portraying a pitchfork-holding farmer and a younger woman (imagined to be his wife or daughter) in front of a house of Carpenter Gothic style, it is one of the most familiar images in 20th century American art.
Wood wanted to depict the traditional roles of men and women as the man is holding a pitchfork symbolizing hard labor. Wood referenced late 19th century photography and posed his sitters in a manner reminiscent of early American portraiture.
Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The judges deemed it a "comic valentine," but a museum patron convinced them to award the painting the bronze medal and $300 cash prize. The patron also convinced the Art Institute to buy the painting, where it remains today. The image soon began to be reproduced in newspapers, first by the Chicago Evening Post and then in New York, Boston, Kansas City, and Indianapolis. However, Wood received a backlash when the image finally appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Iowans were furious at their depiction as "pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers". One farmwife threatened to bite Wood's ear off. Wood protested that he had not painted a caricature of Iowans but a depiction of Americans. Nan, apparently embarrassed at being depicted as the wife of someone twice her age, began telling people that the painting was of a man and his daughter, a point on which Wood remained silent.
Art critics who had favorable opinions about the painting, such as Gertrude Stein and Christopher Morley, also assumed the painting was meant to be a satire of rural small-town life. It was thus seen as part of the trend toward increasingly critical depictions of rural America, along the lines of Sherwood Anderson's 1919 Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis' 1920 Main Street, and Carl Van Vechten's The Tattooed Countess in literature.
However, with the onset of the Great Depression, the painting came to be seen as a depiction of steadfast American pioneer spirit. Wood assisted this transition by renouncing his Bohemian youth in Paris and grouping himself with populist Midwestern painters, such as John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, who revolted against the dominance of East Coast art circles. Wood was quoted in this period as stating, "All the good ideas I've ever had came to me while I was milking a cow." This Depression-era understanding of the painting as a depiction of an authentically American scene prompted the first well-known parody, a 1942 photo by Gordon Parks of cleaning woman Ella Watson, shot in Washington, D.C.
American Gothic is one of the few images to reach the status of cultural icon, along with Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch's The Scream. It is thus one of the most reproduced — and parodied — images ever. Many artists have replaced the two people with other known couples and replaced the house with well known houses. References and parodies of the image have been numerous for generations, appearing regularly in such media as postcards, magazines, animated cartoons, advertisements, comic books, and television shows. One of the most-seen depictions occurs in the movie version of the musical "The Music Man". At the climax of "Iowa Stubborn", two River City townspeople pose as the farm couple; framed within part of a discarded pool table crate. The credits of Desperate Housewives feature another parody of the painting.
Famously American Gothic was used in Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Picture Show and is parodied by the two characters Riff Raff (Richard O'Brien) and Magenta (Patricia Quinn) who dress up as the man and the woman while standing in front of a white church. O'Brien's character even carries a pitchfork. Wood's American Gothic also hangs on the wall of the hall in the Rocky Horror House later in the film. It also briefly features in Rocky Horror's sequel Shock Treatment where it is hung in the wardrobe. Additionally, the title sequence to the American television show Green Acres also parodies the "American Gothic" painting.
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