How the ‘American Gothic’ Painting Represents Survivors of the Great Depression Grant Wood via Wikimedia [Public Domain]
Grant Wood [Public domain]

The American Gothic painting is known around the world as one of the most famous oil paintings. Painted in 1930 by Grant Wood, it currently lives in the Art Institute of Chicago. The American Gothic was inspired by the early 1900’s life and Flemish Renaissance art, which Wood studied in his travels to Europe. However, he painted something closer to what he saw in his everyday life for this piece. Living in Iowa, he incorporated midwestern culture into his work. The inspiration for the painting came when Wood encountered a white house, with a large window in the style known as Carpenter Gothic. Wood sketched it onto an envelope to use as a background for a future painting.

Who Is In The Painting?

The characters portrayed in the image are very ambiguous and are open to interpretation. Many speculate about the couple in the painting. Most lands on the assumption the man and woman pictured are supposed to be husband and wife. However, the characters are actually a father-daughter pair, not husband-wife. The individuals pictured are modeled after Wood’s sister, Nan and Wood’s dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby.


The father and daughter are set in rural America. The woman is in a colonial print apron and her father is holding a pitchfork, wearing overalls. They represent the people who live in the midwest, their expressions meant to be representative of a form of strength. Their faces are stretched longer. In his words, Woods explained that he “imagined that American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house”


Grant Wood was still an aspiring artist when he painted the American Gothic. He was 39-years-old, living in an attic funeral home carriage house with his mom and sister in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As to be expected, he experienced backlash for the painting. His fellow Iowans weren’t thrilled for being portrayed as grim and stiff. However, that wasn’t quite the way Wood wanted them to interpret his painting.

So What Does It Stand For?

Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting has been combed over for meaning relentlessly throughout history. Some believed it to be a satire of rural life. Wood, however, rarely chimed in on the conversation about his piece. He did give a few thoughts on the piece, saying that it represented survivors of the Great Depression. He wasn’t trying to feed into pop culture’s view of rural life, instead, he wanted to honor it.


He also wanted to show the reflection of those living the American Gothic life had with their lifestyle and their homes. Some critics believed the painting is a satire of rural life. Either way, the sustained ambiguity has increased the painting’s appeal throughout time. It gives everyone a chance to decipher what they think of it. But, we may never truly know exactly what Grant Wood had in mind.

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