Country Boy: Grant Wood (1891-1942)
You know that famous painting of the stern farmer holding his pitchfork, the equally stern farm woman standing beside him? It’s called American Gothic, painted in 1930, and it’s one of the most talked about, argued over, even laughed at paintings in the world.
The artist of American Gothic, Grant Wood, was an established Regionalist, those heartland artists who saw beauty and subjects fit for art outside the Modernist abstractions of the New York art scene of the 1920s and 30s. The simple lives lived in the American countryside and its small towns were, to the Regionalists, as profound and majestic as the sophisticated lives lived among the towers of Manhattan.
But any college art history major already knows this.
What isn’t usually mentioned in those art history classes is that Grant Wood, native of farm-country Iowa, observer and champion of rural America, was gay.
It wasn’t mentioned among art historians and other art academics for years because, well, it just wasn’t. First of all, to lead an openly homosexual life in rural America in the 1930s simply was not done, and thus not acknowledged; and second of all, any celebration of queer life at the time was considered a cultural element of those wild and dangerous artsy types in the big cities. But in rural Iowa? Fuggedaboutit.
So how do we know Grant Wood was gay?
The Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2018 retrospective of his work made no secret of it. The show’s catalogue essay by Stanford University art historian Richard Meyer, and a 2010 biography of Wood, Grant Wood, A Life, by Wheaton College professor R. Tripp Evans, acknowledges the heretofore unaddressed homoerotic imagery in many of Wood’s paintings.
Two images which come to mind are fairly explicit: the 1924 painting The Spotted Man, and 1939’s lithograph A Sultry Night. In the first, we see a lean and graceful nude male carefully studied from the back. In the latter work, A Sultry Night, the homoeroticism is even more overt. Ostensibly a visual record of a memory of Wood’s childhood enjoyment of pouring cold water over his body on hot summer nights, the image in A Sultry Night is not of an innocent youth but of a well-developed nude male in the prime of life, every pore of his full-frontal naked flesh taking pleasure in the water spilling down his body.
Current scholarship also takes a second look at Wood’s landscapes and other works devoid of human figures. His famous and ominous Death on the Ridge Road, completed in 1935, depicts an automobile following a longer, shinier automobile on a winding country road, while a large red truck approaches around the bend with tremendous energy. There are dark storm clouds behind the truck, hinting at the death it’s about to inflict. This is not a painting about the peace and quiet of rural America; this is a painting about danger approaching unseen by its victim. It is the perennial fear of the closeted queer.
We don’t need to rely on visual speculation regarding Grant Wood’s homosexuality, which he largely kept hidden from his Iowa community, though it’s been reported that there were rumors at the time. While in Paris in the 1920s to study the work of the Modernists as well as France’s artistic legacy—a sojourn taken by many American artists of the period—Wood and his French companion, artist Marcel Bordet, were very much part of the Paris gay scene.
Returning to his native Iowa, Wood admitted to a friend, “I guess I’m not interested in women.” Despite this admission, the times and rural life demanded certain obligations, and Wood tried to fulfill one of those obligations by an ill-advised marriage to Sara Sherman Maxon. The marriage, not unexpectedly, crumbled after only three years. Late in life, Wood eventually spent his final six years with Rinard Park, his personal secretary.
Regionalism, even in its heyday, was too often sneered at by big-city sophisticates, a mistake currently being corrected by curators and art historians. As the art world wakes up to the extraordinary skills of the likes of Thomas Hart Benton (who, by the way, has a room all his own for his mural America Today in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art), as well as John Steuart Curry, John Rogers Cox, and others, there are fewer laughs directed at Grant Wood’s depictions of the American heartland. His landscapes with their heaving curves, his figures with their muscular grasp of life, even his stern farm couple in American Gothic, reveal an artist who understood the throb of the earth and the flesh of those who inhabit it.
Gay? Oh yeah. You bet. ▼
Ann Aptaker is the author of short stories and the Lambda & Goldie award winning Cantor Gold series Murder and Gold. The latest in the series, Hunting Gold, was released in July 2022.