Who’s That Girl?

PrintPrintEmailEmailScores of readers chided us for using Grant Wood’s American Gothic on our November cover to illustrate a story about divorce: Don’t we know that the pair in the painting are father and daughter, not husband and wife? We could hardly have gotten more letters if we’d identified Emanuel Leutze’s best-known painting as Jefferson Crossing the Delaware. But before firing our picture editor, we did a little digging to discover whether we had, in fact, misinterpreted one of America’s most familiar works of art.

In 1930, when Wood spotted the painting’s distinctive house (which is still standing) in Eldon, Iowa, he sketched what would become American Gothic on the back of an envelope. He imagined two people whose long faces would echo the shape of the arched window behind them, eventually choosing his sister, Nan Wood Graham, and his dentist, Byron H. McKeeby, as models. In a 1933 article, Wood wrote that he envisioned the pair as husband and wife: “I finally induced my own maiden sister [in fact, Nan had been married for six years] to pose. … The next job was to find a man to represent the husband.” Wood also used the word wife in his correspondence in reference to the woman.

The painting was unveiled in October 1930 and instantly became famous—or, in Wood’s native state, infamous, for many lowans thought he was making fun of them. The clear age disparity between the two faces—Graham was 31 and McKeeby 62—also ruffled some feathers. So Wood and his associates began to change their story. With a vagueness typical of the literature on this topic, a 1944 biography by Darrell Garwood says that “what had started out to be a farmer and his wife became a small-town businessman and his daughter.”

Ever since, critics have disagreed on the nature of the relationship. The Stanford art historian Wanda Corn, for instance, author of Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision (1983), firmly believes the figures are father and daughter, but James M. Dennis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison insists in Renegade Regionalists (1998) that they are husband and wife.

So who’s right? If only Wood had given the woman a pitchfork to hold, we might have settled the matter by looking at her ring finger. Since he didn’t, the safest course may be to do what Dennis did in an earlier work, Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture (1975), and simply refer to the figures as “the man” and “the woman.”