This 20th century American icon of art wasn't famous until farmers demanded an apology for mischaracterizing themselves
Try looking up “American Gothic parodies.” You’ll get hundreds and hundreds of pages full of satirical replicas of American Painter Grant Wood’s most famous work. These comical copies of Wood’s original, are some sort of mockery of American pop culture meant to provoke laughter on people. In these parodies, we can find the replacement of the Iowan farmers for movie characters, animals, politicians, and cartoon figures, such as the Minions. American Gothic has to be the most parodied piece of artwork out there, there is even a website called americangothicparodies.com with a mass collection of parodies of this painting. But why?
This iconic painting, created in 1930, depicts a gothic house with two farmers (a man and a woman) in front of it. Both with long serious faces, and the man is holding a pitchfork. One could argue there isn’t anything comical about this illustration that could give reasons to laugh about. However, if we take a look at the background of its origins and the scandal that came after its publication, things start to get more clear.
Wood entered the painting in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it received a bronze medal (third place) and $300 USD cash prize. The institute decided to purchase the painting and has kept it ever since. This takes us to our big question: how did a third place painting ended up being so well recognized to the point where kids on the internet can understand its parodies? It all began after the competition. Newspapers, like the Chicago Evening Post, published photographs of the winners’ painting, of course Wood’s American Gothic was included. This created a backslash from the residents of Iowa who were offended by how Wood had portrayed them. The artist came out to defend his piece by saying that he hadn’t intended to mock Iowans, but nothing he said actually solved things. He stepped into a difficult and cultural dilemma which he couldn't get out but instead, his painting received much attention.
The debate over the misinterpretation of Iowans, and farm states in general, grew even bigger. By this point in time (during the Great Depression), more Americans had shifted from agricultural jobs to the manufacture industry. This caused friction over rural and urban areas. Some say, Wood’s intentions were more than clear. He was a pioneer in the American realist modern art movement known as "American Regionalism," in which artworks transmitted the “real” essence of the rural and small town scenes. His American Gothic painting questioned his perception of Americans in general, claiming that he had become too used to the European way of life to see the reality of his country. Thus, was his painting a satire of American rural population? He stated the following:
"There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life.”
Other things to know about American Gothic are that Wood’s inspiration came after spotting the white cottage house in Iowa during the summer of 1930. Something about the rustic and arched architectural style of the house made him use it as background for his painting. His models were not farmers at all, nor were they married, or even posed together. The male model was his dentist and the woman was his own sister, Nan, whose facial features he adapted to fit the painting's style. The models are often associated with an Iowan married couple, yet the female model is supposed to represent the farmer’s daughter, not the wife. The debate over its meaning made this painting famous and I believe the reasons behind its parodies, are due to the simplicity of the illustration. If you think about it, you can easily replace the painting models for any couple posing in front of a farm’s house, holding a pitchfork, and people would immediately associate it with American Gothic.
The Mona Lisa and The Scream, both have many parodies of them out there as well. But, so far, and considering it was created more recently, American Gothic wins by far in parodical mentions. Whether it incorrectly illustrated the rural people of American, is a debated that seemed to never reached a conclusion. Now we remember the painting for its many, many, many adaptations.