"American Gothic," the iconic painting of two stone-faced Iowa farmers -- she's wearing a Puritan collar and he's holdng a pitchfork, they're standing in front of a modest Gothic farmhouse -- is the subject of two new books, just in time for the painting's 75th birthday.
Like "Mona Lisa," few viewers can look at "American Gothic" and explain exactly why it's so famous, nor can they easily see it fresh. But to those who know its history, the painting still has magic and mystery, according to Steven Biel, a teacher of literature and history at Harvard, author of "American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting," and Thomas Hoving, a former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and author of "American Gothic: The Biography of Grant Wood's American Masterpiece."
Both authors assert that "it was the house, not the people, that inspired a visual triangle so compelling that it brought instant fame to a previously unknown artist and went on to serve the purposes of art, commerce and parody over and over again," writes Kate Bolick in The Scotsman.
Wood thought the house "was silly and pretentious and roared with laughter," according to Hoving. To accentuate the house's goofy features, Wood elongated the house's proportions, narrowing the window and further pitching the roof, Bolick writes.
The Associated Press reports that tourists frequently visit Eldon, Iowa, where the house still stands, to have their pictures taken in exactly the same pose, from exactly the same angle, as the farm couple in Grant Wood's famous painting. Some of the tourists, like viewers everywhere, think the painting is a positive portrayal of hard-working Midwestern values, while others think it's a satire that reveals narrow-minded religiosity and humorlessness.
Biel, in his book, points out that the painting initially provoked hostility from Iowans who viewed it as an attack on small town life and values, portraying faithful farmers as religious fanatics and proponents of ultra-conservative politics. One farmer confronted Wood and told him he "should have his head bashed in," Biel reports.
Wood later told an interviewer that he never meant to offend anyone or to make fun of Iowa farmers.
He submitted the painting to a national exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where, after some controversy, it was awarded the bronze medal. The institute bought the painting from Wood for $300, and displayed it as one of its most prized acquisitions. The rest, as they say, is history.