Grant Wood at the Whitney

May 23, 2018

1 Comment

On Thursday, March 22nd, two days after the first day of spring and one day after the fourth nor’easter in March, we decided to go to the Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District of lower Manhattan to see the Grant Wood exhibit titled American Gothic and Other Fables.

Daughters of Revolution, 1932 – a satirical work by Grant Wood, Washington Crossing the Delaware, is in the background

My interest was peaked by a full-page review about the exhibit sent to me by a friend in Chicago. It appeared in The Wall Street Journal and is by Judith Dobrzynski who writes about culture for a number of publications.

As soon as I started to read it I realized that I knew very little about Grant Wood (1891 to 1942). It was time for a change, so I called a friend and we decided to take the subway down to the Whitney. This turned out to be quite painless. We took it to Union Square, went down two stairways to the “L” train, got off at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue and walked west to the Whitney.

I had never been on the “L” in my life so I was glad that my pal was more informed than I was. Also, the “L” on all the signs was so faded I could barely see it. I think it’s been there since 1903.

The Whitney itself was great: bright and spacious with lots of light streaming in. We zoomed up to the fifth floor and started looking at the exhibit. The first thing we saw was Wood’s whimsical corncob chandelier that makes one smile. The next was an elegant silver and ivory coffee pot and the third was a spectacular wrought iron fireplace screen that he designed.

Grant Wood’s whimsical corncob chandelier, 1925 – Decorative Arts – Courtesy of the Whitney

This was the first indication that Grant Wood was a craftsman and designer as well as a painter. In 1927 he was asked to design a stained-glass window, which he had never done before. He traveled to Germany to consult with experts and learn as much as he could.

The Whitney made a half-scale model of Wood’s 20 ft. x 24 ft. creation that he designed for the Veteran’s Memorial Building in downtown Cedar Rapids – truly spectacular and awe-inspiring.  

The centerpiece of the 120-piece show is his American Gothic painting that is on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic, 1930 – Courtesy of the Whitney. The 30 3/4” x 25 3/4”painting is oil on beaverboard and the models are Wood’s sister, Nan and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby

In her Wall Street Journal article Dobrezynski notes that, “Wood’s iconic painting, American Gothic is so renowned that when it arrived in London last year for an exhibition, The Guardian [a daily newspaper] called it “a huge moment” because save for its appearance in the same show in Paris three months before, this arguably “most famous of all American paintings” had never before “left American soil.”

This reaction is strikingly different from when the painting first appeared. The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that Iowans were furious because they thought Wood depicted them as grim-faced puritanical Bible-thumpers. He responded by saying he never meant to mock these rural folks – he wanted to honor them.

Grant Wood’s Spring Turning, 1935: Courtesy of the Whitney. This is one of my favorites. See the white spec on the lower left? That’s a farmer and his horse. It’s quite visible when one sees the work itself

The Iowans have a point. All his subjects have very dour, serious expressions. The one we found “extremely grim” was Wood’s Daughters of Revolution, a sendup of three haughty women standing before Washington Crossing the Delaware.     

Towards the end of our visit we saw a lounge chair and ottoman designed by Wood as well as his commissioned murals, book illustrations and magazine covers. He was even on the cover of Time in May 1940. It sold for 15 cents – definitely another era.


Shaun Nelson-Henrick

1 Response

James P. Healy
James P. Healy

May 29, 2018

Hello Shaun – When Grant Wood is reincarnated, I hope he does a revised version of “American Gothic,” where the two people are smiling -, and sends it to the Iowa State Capital in Des Moines to make the Iowans happy!


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