Grant Wood’s American Carpenter Gothic
An odd etymology: Grant Wood painted into the national memory a Carpenter Gothic house, the Dibble House, Eldon, Iowa. In the picture, a pitchfork wielding father, his buttoned-down daughter, a barn, a church steeple, a window, Gothic, tripartite, symbol of the triune God. In life, the father was Wood’s dentist, the daughter was Wood’s sister, the house is and was board-and-battened wood, tight in the carpenter’s fashion, the fashion of the Chautauqua, Carpenter Gothic.
Wood observed that the Dibble House, alike much of the Carpenter Gothic, was “cardboardy”, being a thing quickly, cheaply built, thin but honest with a pretense to beauty. You might like to know, Grant Wood was an artist of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that the picture was painted soon after return from Paris, a return to appreciation of our America and a renunciation of foreign, Bohemian absurdities. Wood sincerely admitted, “All the good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”
Critics have lavished a great heap of nonsense upon American Gothic*, being as they are progressively absurd, steeped in the confusions and restrictions of foreign, Progressive orthodoxy. In truth, the picture was painted in the waning days of the Chautauqua Movement (1930), a revival of education designed to encourage the college outlook in working-class and middle-class people. In truth, there were more Chautauqua communities in Iowa than in any other state of the Union (approximately 500).
Something you should know of this nation: from our beginning at Plymouth Colony (1620), we have been a people united in education to virtue; in Plymouth Colony each house was a homeschool. You might like to know: when King George III inquired into the character of the American colonists then in revolt (1776), he was told that more books were sold to the colonists of Philadelphia than to all the population of England. Chautaquas were popular because Americans were ambitious of improvement to excellence.
When next you observe “American Gothic”, you might remember that these were a people strict in virtue, had to be, or die on the plain. High-mindedness, moral and intellectual improvement, civic arts and artistic performance were the daily considerations of those who built and lived in Carpenter Gothic houses. Something of this solid high-mindedness yet survives in Chautaqua communities, though after a visit one feels the need to rinse away contemporary NPR, Lake Wobegon, and Subarus.
Something more of the Carpenter Gothic, American Gothic: free speech, a virtue lacking at NPR though lingering at the Chautauqua camp meetings. Perhaps you have heard of Solomon Rushdie, critic of Islam, author of “The Satanic Verses” (of the Quran) who was this summer (2022) stabbed by a maddened Mohammadian when speaking at a Chautauqua in western New York State. Have you any doubt that the father and daughter of American Gothic would speak their minds freely, directly, politely without apology.
Notice the serious resolution of this father and daughter pictured in American Gothic, and you can imagine us a people immunized from fluffy Progressive adverts. Notice the strict simplicity of the Carpenter Gothic, and you can understand why this house stands picket against frivolous Progressive fashion. In speaking of his picture, Grant Wood said, “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa,” just as Americans have had to go Progressive to appreciate the Classive, just as Americans had to see Amazon Prime’s Rings of Power to appreciate J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
American art and American architecture offer a choice between Midwesterner aesthetes, the Iowan Grant Wood and the Wyomingite Jackson Pollock (whose parents were Iowans). The one, a linear stricture, mythopoetic and religious, traditional and real, patriot and true. The other, alien blobs and splots and spurts, meaningless without place or purpose, frivolous and rainbow. For the most part, Americans choose the Gothic over the Progressive, choose education over indoctrination, as the persistence of our American Gothic, as the expiration of their Blue Poles demonstrates.
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* A “comic Valentine”, an “old-fashioned mourning portrait”, a painting of “Pluto and Persephone” (Roman gods of the Underworld) by an artist who was “homosexual and a bit facetious”; a masquerading farm boy, et cetera.
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Featured Image: American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930, The Art Institute of Chicago.
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