The Story Behind one of the Most Recognizable Paintings in The world

The American Gothic House in Eldon Iowa served as the inspiration for Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic.

In 1930, Wood was visiting Eldon for an art exhibition of Edward Rowan’s work, and was driving around with a young painter, John Sharp, when they passed by the house. Wood was quite taken with its Carpenter Gothic style so they pulled over so he could make a sketch. Later Wood said that the house caught his eye because of the unique window that he called “pretentious” for such a small house.

This window was first believed to be of a decorative nature but later it turned out to be more functional. Because the house was small, the inner stairway was quite tight that large furnishings could get in or out of the upper floor only through the window.

Built in 1881-1882 by Catherine and Charles Dibble, the house is a moderate size— 504 square feet (46.8 m2), two Gothic windows, and is painted in white. The Dibbles sold the house after they could no longer afford to pay the taxes.

Throughout the years, the house was owned by different people who either lived in it or rented it. In 1991, then-owner Carl Smith donated the house to the State Historical Society of Iowa and it is now a property of The State of Iowa.

This side view evinces the modest size of the house; it also obscures most of the home’s addition, giving a glimpse of the original design.

The window has two equal arches, joined together by the oddly-shaped top pane. The woman and the man standing side by side are a duplication of the window, with the roof of the house echoing the role of the window pane and visually joining the two human figures.

Scholars often debate whether the pitchfork is an allusion to the devil or something less malicious. However, its shape is significant because it repeats the composition of the house as it mirrors the shape of the panes in the window.

Plants were not included on the sketches Wood made, but he included geraniums in the original painting. The scholar Wanda Corn suggests geranium Sansevieria symbolizes the hardiness of the pioneer women.

As for the man and woman in the painting, they were modeled by Wood’s sister Nan and his dentist Dr. B.H. McKeeby. Wood explains they were father and daughter.

The woman’s face seems to be elongated and the curl behind her right ear softens the seriousness of her expression and hairstyle. The father appears to be a conservative man, but the golden collar is a bit on the showy side, confusing for the viewer. How Wood feels about his creations is still an enigma.


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