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American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting Hardcover – June, 2005

3.8 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Probably no painting ever achieved iconic status so quickly as Grant Wood's flat, meticulous rendering of two people, a house, a pitchfork and a barn. Its title refers to the architectural style of the building in the background, but from its first appearance before the public in 1930, American Gothic has been regarded not as a work of art but as a work of rhetoric: a crafted, compelling statement about American life with which the viewer may or may not agree. Which aspect of that life and what kind of statement has fluctuated, as Biel's lively history shows. He does a terrific job laying out the various aesthetic and political preoccupations of the relentlessly self-regarding American century, and how they attached themselves to the work, which turns 75 this year. (The painting is detailed and contextualized in 30 b&w and eight color illustrations.) Because Wood was both an Iowan and a confirmed bohemian, the carefully staged composition was at first understood to be a pointed (or ungrateful?) satire of Midwestern puritanism; as the Depression sank in, the grim pair came to convey a noble tenacity that rallied a stricken nation. By the eve of World War II, "the celebration of the 'native' slipped into nativism" and the painting's shift from "irony to identification" was complete: the once equivocal pair came to stand for an unironic and universal American "us" whose claim to authenticity might be questionable or objectionable, but never hesitant or insincere. Biel's confident and lucid readings recover layers of complexity from a deceptively simple work. Agent, Michele Rubin at Writers House. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Famous the year it came off the easel (1930), Grant Wood's signature work has metamorphosed in our time into a text for parodies, editorial cartoons, and advertising. American Gothic's originally serious reception, both irate and approving, gives cultural historian Biel an irresistibly sinuous story, which is full of ambiguity. No critic, however effete or erudite, can explain what the painting is about. Wood himself, under indignant protest from fellow Iowans, refuted that he was mocking them, while cultural tastemakers praised the very satire the aggrieved detected in the woman, man, pitchfork, and eponymous Gothic window. Fast-forward one decade and the image had transmuted, in critical commentary influenced by world war, from being an attack on pinch-faced provincialism into a symbol of patriotic Americanism. That iconic status didn't last: postwar postmodernists consigned Gothic to the vale of middlebrow taste, but one step from its descent into camp in the 1960s. Integrating the biographies of Wood and his sister (the painting's female figure), Biel's narrative is an intelligent, pithy, and humorous exploration of Gothic's molting interpretations. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 215 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (June 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039305912X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393059120
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,557,682 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
American Gothic the book is as enigmatic as the painting it purports to chronicle. The author while quite well versed in literature and history, shows a definite lack of chops when it comes to Art History.

At times the book reads like a drunken pointless ramble by a highly educated man. You hang on and try to make order out of the meanderings, but in the end there is no point. Which is a shame considering the deluge of cultural minutiae thrown at you.

Minutiae that often has no real connection to the painting in even a tangential fashion.

This book is a discussion of how a painting can be used as a cultural weapon, and how that weapon can and does change hands over time. It's all a matter of perspective and the way a static object that is somewhat enigmatic can reside on one side of the fence today, and the other side tomorrow. After 172 pages Mr. Biel seems incapable of nailing down the crux of the situation.

It's pointed out repeatedly that Grant Wood's American Gothic couple has countenances that defy interpretation, yet there is not one word of mention in relating it to the Mona Lisa, and the age old question of what she is thinking. The dust jacket photo shows American Gothic hanging next to the Mona Lisa, so obviously SOMEBODY thought of this connection. Maybe the Dust Jacket Art Director should have proof read the book....

Mr. Biel talks about how the use of the word 'heartland' was used by both sides in the last presidential election.... not that this has spit to do with Grant Wood's painting.

And yet he's managed to fill 172 pages in discussing ONE painting without even so much as noticing that the woman's apron/dress is billboard flat. Mind you this is a rural/farm setting....
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting" by Steven Biel is a brilliant interdisciplinary study of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" and its ever-changing meanings over the past 75 years. This engaging book intelligently discusses the painting's substantive role in 20th Century America's struggle for cultural identity. The author's cogent, well-researched and accessible writing has produced a book that should interest a wide audience, including historians, artists, pop culture afficianados and general readers.

Mr. Biel profiles the artist's problematic personal life and his transformation from expatriate bohemian to earnest painter of American regionalism to illuminate some of the ambiguities that have been transposed into "American Gothic". For example, might the cathedral-like architecture and the model's buttoned-up attire represent the artist's own religious guilt and repressed sexuality or is it merely a recording of small-town Puritanical morality? Do the age differences between the male and female figures suggest a father/daughter or husband/wife relationship, with the varying meanings entailed by such a reading, and what does it say about the artist's adult relationship with his mother? According to Mr. Biel, these are a few of the painting's enigmatic qualities that serve to fascinate new generations of viewers.

Painted in 1930, we learn that "American Gothic" was initially greeted with praise from the artistic vanguard who appreciated its Menckenesque critique of the culturally backward Midwest. However, as the Depression wore on, Mr. Biel writes that the steely determination of the subjects appealed to a mass audience that was in search of stability and reassurance in a time of crisis.
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Format: Hardcover
It is the most familiar of American paintings, and needs just a few words to bring the image to mind: a sturdy farming couple, standing in front of their house, with the man holding a pitchfork. If you have never seen Grant Wood's famous "American Gothic" in its original oil on beaverboard incarnation at the Art Institute of Chicago, you have seen it in reproduction, and even more often in parody. It has inspired praise as art or as satire or as realism or as social commentary, and condemnation for all that, too. Grant Wood himself was rather tight-lipped about it, but in _American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting_ (Norton) Steven Biel has looked at the painting in many different ways. He has not shown what the painting means; no one could do that. He has shown what different generations and schools of thought have made of it, and it is clear that the painting has inspired plenty of careful thought as well as raucous takeoffs. Not bad for a couple of dull old farmers in a frame.

Biel first examines the originals the artist used in composing his painting. The house, with its clapboard siding and gothic window, actually exists. It is on Route 16 in Eldon, Iowa, and Wood conceived of the painting when he drove by the house in 1930. Wood used models for his two subjects, neither of whom posed in front of the house, and neither of whom posed together, and neither of whom was a farmer. The woman was Wood's sister Nan, whose face was too rounded so he lengthened it. The man was Byron McKeeby, an Eldon dentist. Wood knew the type of faces he wanted, and he knew the clothes, too, ordering a "prim, colonial print" apron and overalls from a mail order house in Chicago.
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