The name Grant Wood trails behind any mention of Iowa like an echo. He showed Iowa to the world. You can tell he loved the shapes of this place – the way the land is divided into sections, a patchwork of fields, hills and trees, segmented neatly by the ditches and water. The way he paints the landscape makes it feel easy to understand. Everything has its place. Soybeans are sprouting in rows. Hay is already cut and baled. His human subjects are quiet and concentrated.
But just like Iowa, there’s emotion right under the surface of the reserve. There’s a painterly tenderness in the folds and the hills of a Grant Wood painting, just the slightest magnifying glass to make us take a second look at a place that can feel predictable if you don’t pause to appreciate it.
This past week, a friend and I made the drive to Eldon to visit the site of the house that is the backdrop for Wood’s “American Gothic” painting. Two hours and 15 minutes from Davenport, someone later asked, “Was it worth the drive?” Yes. “American Gothic” is perhaps the most famous painting to come out of this country. It’s a pilgrimage to take for anyone who loves art and anyone who has a fascination or affinity for rural America.
What I love about the American Gothic house is that they didn’t move it – it’s still the perfect picture of the rural Midwest, sitting unchanged as the rural Midwest changed around it.
The house is tiny, dwarfed by its own porch and that huge Gothic church window that attracted the artist in the first place. In the famous painting, there’s a red barn to the right of the house. In real life, there’s a road and a few mobile homes.
To get there, you drive through downtown Eldon, population 920. Follow the brown signs into a residential area and toward the edge of town.
On a Sunday, the sidewalks were empty and the main street diner was closed. All was quiet, except for the line inside the corner convenience store. The modest houses were surrounded by elaborate gardens – rows of tall corn, already with the first signs of tassels, and a cellar’s worth of still-green tomatoes, squash flowers and beans.
Most people go to the American Gothic house for one reason: to take that photo. You know the one – man and woman, side-by-side, house in the background.
The woman at the museum and gift shop spends her day shooting this exact iPhone photo for people. She knew what she was doing and she seemed to love it. Stand here, she pointed. Shoulders here. Eyes here. Stop smiling. Here’s your pitchfork. (They have a full closet of overalls in varied sizes, pitchforks of different heights and brown brocade pinafores, just for this purpose).
Over the years, audiences and arts writers have offered varied interpretations of what’s going on behind the expressionless faces in the American Gothic painting. When it first came out, some thought Wood was making fun of the characters it portrayed. Years later, when viewers needed to believe something different in the depths of the Great Depression, people said it was a celebration of the strength and resiliency of rural America. As far as I know, Wood never shared his “meaning.”
The American Gothic house was my third stop on the Grant Wood trail that follows his life and work in eastern Iowa. The trail starts at the Figge Art Museum, if you are in the Quad-Cities, and ends in Cedar Rapids.
My second stop was discovered on accident when my dad was visiting and we were driving back from the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa. The one-room schoolhouse where Wood taught is now an occasional gallery and arts center off the highway. It was closed, but we pulled over anyway.
Darkening clouds were rolling in at the edge of that 12-mile Iowa horizon. In the foreground, I saw Grant Wood’s Iowa – a fence, a freshly planted field, and in the distance a red barn portioned off from the field by a mowed lawn. The sky was divided in two – clear blue sky and storm clouds.
It was perfect and beautiful in a way that caught me off guard, in a way I had not seen before, and in a way that I would not have noticed if I hadn’t stopped to stand by a schoolhouse where the artist had once been.