The Depression of 1929 had left many Americans homeless, jobless, and hopeless. Their "American Dream" had failed. One-third of the country's labor force was unemployed. Americans were in need of a sense of reassurance and stability, a renewed faith in the country and the American system of capitalism.
There was a resurgence of nationalism with greater emphasis on Americanism and praise of the traditional virtues of agrarian America. Patriotism became fashionable again as an anxious public turned from the sophisticated avant garde Europeanism of the 20s back to an enthusiasm for old American art and artifacts. This rebirth of interest in the American past stemmed from a search to recover the traditional values of home, family, country-the values that Americans perceived as the building blocks of our country's greatness. The economic crisis forced artists working in Europe to return home, to explore the unique aspects of their native culture, to capture the distinct regional flavor of their surroundings. Regionalist writers like Sinclair Lewis and painters such as Wood, John Stuart Curry, and Thomas Hart Benton responded to these changes by glorifying the land, people, and values of rural America in their art.
WOOD'S POSITION IN AMERICAN ART
If the 1920s had debunked our past, the generation of the 30s needed the reassurance of their grandfathers. With a desperate reverence for the past, Americans during the Great Depression looked back to Colonial America. It was an era that saw the beginning of our National Archives, the opening of the Williamsburg Restoration, and the World's Fair colossus of George Washington. Post office murals gave people a visual grasp of their roots. Grant Wood, too, focused on Colonial America and its first president. His Parson Weems' Fable (1939) depicts George Washington, the legendary cherry tree, and the 18th-century Anglican clergyman who fabricated the legend. Daughters of Revolution(1932) gently satirizes the Washington Bicentennial celebration. Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) playfully pays homage to another colonial hero.
In touch with his own time and culture and drawing on such popular themes, Wood delighted many of his contemporaries and enraged others. Time and Life regularly covered him, describing him as a grassroots hero, an artist who created bold and incisive pictures of the American scene. In its December 24, 1934 issue, Time wrote:
In the United States opposition to such outlandish art (modernism exemplified and first seen at the 1913 Armory show) first took root in the Midwest. A small group of native painters began to offer direct representation in place of introspective abstractions.
But to others (New York City intellectuals and modern artists in particular), Wood's popularity was suspect. "American Scene art is reactionary because it accepts a meaningless and purposeless glorification of a local phenomenon, chiefly sentimental, like an American businessman on tour in Europe, bragging about his hometown," Stuart Davis wrote in 1936. Later, in 1941, Davis accused Wood and his fellow Regionalists of using "popular American symbols, but they are symbols which have been shaped by a public ignorant of art and their continued promotion merely flatters public ignorance."
Barnett Newman, in 1942, called such painting "picture postcard art. . . cheap. . . commercial." By 1942, he felt it was "time to rid the art world of the sentiment of rural America, of sweet old pa and ma leaning on their pitchforks." [a pointed reference to Wood's popular American Gothic(1930)].
Thus, Wood was criticized for pandering to popular taste and sensibilities and for creating an art which was shallow and too easily accessible. Wood, though, felt abstract art was too foreign and too esoteric to relate to the American experience. Art, he felt, should come from deep and intimate experience of local materials and one's native surroundings; it should be meaningful to wide audiences.
He advocated regional art centers to foster a sense of community. In the summers of 1932 and 1933, he tried out his ideas, joining with others to establish a summer art school and colony in the picturesque little village he had painted, Stone City. Though short-lived, the program should be considered successful because of the collaborative spirit it developed among students, faculty, and local citizens. By 1935, Wood had become a spokesman for the Regionalist movement. He gave lectures across the country, helped found an art colony, and joined the faculty at the University of Iowa. Art, he taught, should come from an artist's intimate experience with the immediate surroundings. One should not go abroad for subjects or learn "foreign" styles of painting. Instead, he envisioned the day when artists would stay at home to found major art centers in every province of America.
The regionalist movement, however, was short-lived. By the time of Wood's death in 1942, the threat of Fascism abroad and the coming of war made Wood's benign and often humorous view of provincial America seem narrow-minded and dangerously nationalistic. Surrealism and abstraction were seen as more appropriate idioms, and Wood's kind of painting went into eclipse.
BIRTHPLACE OF HERBERT HOOVER
Background of the Site
Grant Wood captured the essence of small town mid-America in his 1931 Birthplace of Herbert Hoover. Working in autumnal tones with imaginative patterns precisely depicted, the Iowa artist painted the birthplace of his state's most famous native son. The house where Hoover was born was actually only the rear portion of the larger building that spreads across the vast lawn in the middle ground of the painting.
When Hoover was born here in West Branch, Iowa, in 1874, the family homestead was a free-standing, three-room board and batten cottage. It had been built four years before by his father, a Quaker blacksmith, and was home to the future president for the first six years of his life. Eventually, R. Portland Scellers bought the property and made major changes to accommodate his growing family of five children. He turned the cottage to one side, moved it back on the lot, then moved a two-story home from elsewhere in town to the cottage's original site. He joined the two buildings-physically with a walkway and visually by covering the entire structure with unifying white siding. Part of the Sceller family remained in the house until 1935, two years after Hoover left the White House. The Hoover family reacquired the property then and hired Bruce McKay, Grant Wood's good friend and associate in Cedar Rapids, to return the cottage to its original site and appearance.
In his 1928 presidential campaign, Hoover played up his humble frontier origins, thus, linking himself with Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. As often happens with homes of U.S. presidents, the cottage quickly became almost a national shrine, and the public flocked to West Branch to visit the "birthplace," as it was called. Mrs. Scellers, who was living in the house, allowed the pilgrims to tour the landmark for a ten-cent admission. With typical American enterprise, she even set up a souvenir stand on the front lawn to capitalize on heavy weekend traffic.
Presidential candidate Hoover returned to West Branch to kick off his midwest campaign. Before appearing at a public rally, the millionaire candidate and Mrs. Hoover had an old-fashioned farm breakfast with Mrs. Scellers at the birthplace, now the house kitchen. Hoover's return to his hometown evoked one of our country's most central and abiding myths: that in the United States any citizen, no matter how humble his origins, can achieve great financial success and even rise to occupy the country's highest office.
Always interested in American legends, particularly those native to the midwest, Grant Wood traveled the few miles southeast from his home in Cedar Rapids to the tiny community of West Branch in September 1931. His interest, according to art historian Wanda Corn, was not so much President Hoover, but more the sanctification of the Hoover birthplace. The major painting which resulted, Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, is now co-owned by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Des Moines Art Center. According to Wood's biographer James Denis, who interviewed the artist's sister, Mrs. Nan Wood Graham, Birthplace of Herbert Hoover should not necessarily be interpreted as a personal tribute to the ill-fated Republican President, for Grant Wood was a political independent who became a Democrat by the time of his death. In a letter dated February 7, 1975, Mrs. Graham explained that the painting had been "requested" by a group of Iowa businessmen who intended to present it to Herbert Hoover. The President, however, did not approve of the painting because it obscured the cabin in which he had been born by including the later large house. Consequently, the businessmen did not buy the work. After 1932, Wood did not care to exhibit the painting and was relieved when it was sold to Gardner Cowles of Look magazine through a New York gallery, Ferragil, in 1934 for $600. (Earlier, in Cedar Rapids, Wood had given paintings to friends or neighbors or sold them at token prices. In late 1930, he was pleased to receive a $300 purchase award for American Gothic from the Chicago Art Institute. These figures give some indication of how the art market has changed.)
Details of the Painting
The work focuses on the sprawling eclectic house placed center stage and spotlit almost theatrically. The white siding sparkles against the greens and earth tones which dominate the rest of the scene. Its repeated rectangles (windows, roof planes, doorway, chimneys, each "block" of the house) contrast with the repeated curves and arcs of the trees, landscape, and undulating road. Wood calls attention to the "important" part of the house, the birthplace cottage, in a number of ways. A tiny figure, dressed in a gray suit, wearing a hat but no tie, points to the cottage with a raised right arm. His shadow emphasizes his gesture. The drainpipe on the front portion of the house leads our eye back to the cottage. So, too, does the implied compositional line from the bridge abutment, man, shrub, and water pump. From the left, our eye travels from outbuilding to woodpile to clothesline to birthplace. Tree trunks are on line with the house, and sidewalks seem to radiate from it.
These devices keep the house from being overwhelmed by the masses of trees and shrubbery which might otherwise dominate the painting. The dome of a brown oak tree with five acorns fills the left foreground. (The artist signed and dated the work on one of its leaves.) Towering trees with bean-shaped foliage and echoing shadows flank the road which dips back through the right one-third of the painting. How they contrast with the delicate lacy tree in the right foreground! Its almost transparent yellow-green tracery grows on gently curving limbs, suggesting spring in this otherwise autumnal scene. The many shapes in the vegetation make stylized patterns that remind us of early American quilts and of the Art Deco ornament that was in vogue when this was painted. The orientalized patterns of willowware china may have provided inspiration for the fancifully painted trees. Wood often spoke about the Blue Willow and Staffordshire china his mother used for special occasions when he was a boy. A Staffordshire plate from the English Greengates Pottery dated 1841-97 in the collection of the Hennepin County Historical Society has stylized floral borders and trees, a "scalloped" landscape, and spatial organization very similar to Birthplace of Herbert Hoover.The viewer hovers so far above the scene that the face of the small man is indistinguishable. Wood probably borrowed this birdseye perspective (he had already used it in Stone City, 1930, and would repeat it again and again) from the 19th-century prints he loved and from lithographs on early American maps and in county atlases. But though we are far away, many details are clear: the carefully patterned lawn seems painted blade by blade; two boys in overalls walk on a bend in the sidewalk to the left; haystacks dot the field behind them; three chickens peck like tiny wooden animals in a toy farm set. We can read the sign on the front lawn: "Hoover." The pink rock on the other side of the front walkway is a native boulder placed in front of the landmark in 1929 by the Daughters of the American Revolution; it bears a plaque which we cannot decipher, but which reads, "Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, First President of the United States Born West of the Mississippi River."Thus, Grant Wood deliberately primitivized his scene, ignoring atmospheric perspective. The result is an evocation of American folk art. The repeated geometrics, careful composition, precise details, large unbroken areas, and cloudless sky combine to produce a hushed landscape forever frozen in time.
The small figure pointing to the house like a tour guide comes down through art history as a device to draw viewers' attention to what is important in a landscape. In 19th-century American prints and paintings, similar figures were often used to point out a beautiful view or important site, such as Niagara Falls. Wood would use a larger variation of such a character in Parson Weems' Fable (1939) where the myth-making cleric in the foreground points to the father of Washington, young George, and the mutilated cherry tree.
A preliminary drawing for Birthplace of Herbert Hoover shows that Wood also considered using another bit of Americana, an inset view of the original Hoover homestead. Nineteenth-century atlases and prints often included such drawings of the original log cabin or sod hut that had stood on the site where the depicted farm or residence was now; this gave an idea of the material progress made by a family in a particular place. Wood's early drawing, on exhibit in the 1983 Grant Wood retrospective, included such a device in the lower left corner: a rectangular frame, flanked by floral motifs, showed the cottage as it looked originally. Wood changed his mind and in the final painting eliminated the cottage, replaced the inset with the oak, and concentrated on the contemporary view of the eclectic, conglomerate structure.
Grant Wood was born February 13, 1891, near Anamosq, Iowa, and lived his first ten years on the family farm. In 1901, when his father died, the family moved 25 miles south to the thriving city of Cedar Rapids. The move, from rural family farm to bustling urban center, can be viewed as an example of modern dislocation. It was an experience that profoundly influenced the subjects and themes of Wood's Regionalist art. It was a move not only from country to city, but in a manner of speaking, from 19th-century agrarian America to 20th-century urbanism. Millions of Americans experienced this same wrenching transition in the early 20th century.
So interested was Wood in pursuing an artistic career that the very night of his graduation from Cedar Rapids' Washington High School, young Grant boarded a train for Minneapolis where he studied design for a summer with Ernest Batchelder at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handcraft and Normal Art. Aspiring to be a "modern artist," he took a few more formal art courses in Minneapolis and later in Chicago, but he made his living as a schoolteacher in Cedar Rapids. He explored a variety of styles ranging from Art Nouveau to Impressionism and Classicism. Whenever he could afford it, he traveled to Europe. He referred to the 1910s and 1920s as his "bohemian" years; he grew a beard, lived on the Left Bank when in Paris, and painted landscapes in a loose, Impressionist derived style. As subject matter at home and abroad, he chose what he later described as "tumble-down houses that looked 'Europy.'" In the late 1920s, Wood, dissatisfied with his Impressionist paintings, set out to invent a new visual language, one as descriptive and narrative as that of the midwestern writers he admired. While visiting Munich's Alte Pinakothek, he was inspired by the 15th- and 16th-century Flemish painters, particularly the works of Hans Memling. He felt especially drawn to the "rationalism" involved in Late Gothic and Northern Renaissance methods of designing cohesive compositions overlaid with a multiplicity of details. The young American determined to do as they had done and to paint meticulously "decorative" works of the people and landscapes he knew best. "Europy" houses no longer fascinated him. He physically and spiritually returned from Bohemia and, in 1932, wrote:
I know that our cardboardy frame houses on Iowa farms have a distinct American quality and are very paintable. To me, their hard edges are especially suggestive of the Midwestern civilization. After this line of reasoning I really found myself, and instantly my work became successful.
Hoover's birthplace was a "cardboardy" house, a most ordinary and architecturally unexceptional structure. Except for the accident of a single birth, no one would have cared about it. It has been suggested that Wood spoofed the American habit of enshrining meaningless monuments, yet at the same time he offered his own kind of homage to midwestern history and vernacular architecture.