Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Grant Wood, 1930

This famous painting has become an icon of the Puritan strain in America. The poems below hardly need any commentary. Both of them are essentially humorous; both point out the echoes contained in the painting; both get inside the minds of the models, making us see the process of posing (and by extension, the painting itself) as somewhat absurd rather than solemn.


Just outside the frame
there has to be a dog
chickens, cows and hay

and a smokehouse
where a ham in hickory
is also being preserved

Here for all time
the borders of the Gothic window
anticipate the ribs

of the house
the tines of the pitchfork
repeat the triumph

of his overalls
and front and center
the long faces, the sober lips

above the upright spines
of this couple
arrested in the name of art

These two
by now
the sun this high

ought to be
in mortal time
about their businesses

Instead they linger here
within the patient fabric
of the lives they wove

he asking the artist silently
how much longer
and worrying about the crops

she no less concerned about the crops
but more to the point just now
whether she remembered

to turn off the stove.

~ John Stone


I particularly like

the tines of the pitchfork
repeat the triumph

of his overalls

and of course “this couple / arrested in the name of art”



We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.
  ~ Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard,
recalling the forgotten days of silent film

Dentists don’t pose, he repeats
each time the painter pesters him
to stand in borrowed bib overalls
and stoically hold a hayfork

as if he’s a testament to honest work
being able to fight off Depression
foreclosures out on the Great Plains.
He never lets on how he loathes

the low, board-and-batten
farmhouse and its falsely pious
gothic window (from a kit
out of a Sears, Roebuck catalogue).

Never mind that lines on the arches
of that upper window repeat
in the creases in his lower face
or the upward thrust of the tines

of a common farm tool recur
in the front of a smudged denim
outfit the artist loans him
to embody a symbol in the painting

(not a portrait, the artist assures him).
Dr. McKeeby never discloses the cluster
of clear thoughts huddled inside him
as he stands in his dental office

with as much down-to-earth dignity
as he can muster after office hours
while clutching a clean hayfork
and silently staring at nothing.

    ~Lenny Lianne


Lenny Lianne explains:

It's interesting to note that the figures in Grant Wood's "American Gothic" never posed together.  The model for the female figure was his sister and the male, his dentist.  Another tidbit is that on the woman's dress is some ric-rac binding which was out of favor at the time of the painting (The artist had a hard time finding some) but, after the painting, ric-rac had a resurgence in popularity.


This is fascinating! Thank you for giving us the background of this painting. Wow! So the "farmer" really was his dentist! This blows me away. The painting will never be the same to me. Again, reality proves to be wilder than anyone suspected. 

In the poem I especially like 

Never mind that lines on the arches
of that upper window repeat
in the creases in his lower face

But more important in this poem is the revelation of how fake it all is.  This is a dentist in borrowed overalls, clutching a “clean hayfork,” and that the “gothic” church window has come from a Sears-Roebuck catalogue. All this exposes the artificiality of art. Nevertheless, this illustrates the saying that art is a lie that tells the truth.

It’s interesting that the epigraph from Sunset Boulevard reminds us that faces can be eloquent. Grant Wood wanted the faces to be solemn, a comment on the Protestant work ethic; these two poems pull us away from that dour seriousness.

This painting by Grant Wood is so well known that it has indeed become an American icon.  But it stands for a time when the idea of “pursuit of happiness,” enshrined by Thomas Jefferson as one of “unalienable rights” (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) was certainly not prominent, to put it mildly. 



This is such an interesting painting.  Perfect title: "Gothic" and the church window, his "frock" coat. Her almost nun-like dress. The pitchfork reminds me of the trinity: father, son and holy ghost. 

I love the insights into Wood's painting – like poetic license. I guess artists bend the truth to make a point. It's so funny. Thanks.

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