American Gothic: The story behind one of the most recognizable paintings in the world

The American Gothic House in Eldon Iowa is a house constructed in the Carpenter Gothic style. It served as an inspiration for Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic. The house is a moderate size— 504 square feet (46.8 m2), two Gothic windows, and is painted in white.

It was built in 1881-1882 by Catherine and Charles Dibble. As they were the original owners, the house is also known as the Dibble House. However, the Dibbles sold the house after they could no longer afford to pay the taxes.

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Throughout the years, it passed through several owners who either lived in the house or rented it. In 1991, then-owner Carl Smith donated the house to the State Historical Society of Iowa and it is now a property of The State of Iowa.

American Gothic house

In 1930 the American painter Grant Wood first saw the house. Wood was visiting Eldon for an art exhibition of Edward Rowan’s work, who found Eldon to be a very interesting place and wanted to bring art to the rural area.

John Sharp, a young painter from Eldon, knew Wood through Rowan’s art gallery. One afternoon, the two were driving together and Wood noticed the house. They pulled over so that Wood could make a sketch. Later Wood would say that the house caught his eye because of the unique window that he called “pretentious” for such a small house.

This side view evinces the modest size of the house; it also obscures most of the home’s addition, giving a glimpse of the original design. Photo Credit

This unique window was believed to be of a decorative nature but later turned out to be more functional. Because of the tight corner on the inner stairway, the large furnishings could get in or out of the upper floor only through the window.

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It is still unclear why the Dibble family chose to include Gothic windows, characteristic of the church architecture. Perhaps they only wanted to add a decorative detail to their humble home.

In the American Gothic painting, one can see the realistic version of the American Gothic house and the models, Wood’s sister Nan and his dentist Dr. B.H. McKeeby. The window has two equal arches, joined together by the oddly-shaped top pane. The woman and the man standing side by side are a duplication of the window. The roof of the house echoes the role of the window pane and visually joins the two human figures.

The house as depicted by Wood in American Gothic

Wood was known for his antic sense of humor, so scholars often debate whether the pitchfork is an allusion to a devil’s pitchfork or something less malicious. However, its shape is significant because the repetition gives rhythm to the composition. The pitchfork serves as a mirror for the shape of the panes in the window.

Plants were not included on the sketches Wood made. Nevertheless, he included geraniums in the original painting. The scholar Wanda Corn suggests geranium Sansevieria symbolizes the hardiness of the pioneer women.

Grant Wood, Self-portrait, 1932, Figge Art Museum

As for the human figures, Wood explains they were father and daughter. The woman’s face seems to be elongated and the curl behind her right ear softens the seriousness of her hairstyle. The man appears to be a conservative man, but the golden collar is a bit on the showy side, confusing for the viewer. How Wood feels about his creations is still an enigma.

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Visitors dressing up and taking their photograph outside the house. Photo Credit

In one competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, a judge referred to the painting as a “comic valentine” but the jury awarded it the bronze medal. The Art Institute bought the painting and today it is part of the museum’s collection.

The painting was described in a different way by many critics. Some called it a satire of rural small-town life, others an old-fashioned mourning portrait, and during the Great Depression, the painting was seen as an illustration of the American pioneer spirit. American Gothic painting remains one of the most recognized paintings in the world.