Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables

Mar 2–June 10, 2018

Grant Wood's American Gothic—the double portrait of a pitchfork-wielding farmer and a woman commonly presumed to be his wife—is perhaps the most recognizable painting in 20th century American art, an indelible icon of Americana, and certainly Wood's most famous artwork. But Wood's career consists of far more than one single painting. Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables brings together the full range of his art, from his early Arts and Crafts decorative objects and Impressionist oils through his mature paintings, murals, and book illustrations. The exhibition reveals a complex, sophisticated artist whose image as a farmer-painter was as mythical as the fables he depicted in his art. Wood sought pictorially to fashion a world of harmony and prosperity that would answer America's need for reassurance at a time of economic and social upheaval occasioned by the Depression. Yet underneath its bucolic exterior, his art reflects the anxiety of being an artist and a deeply repressed homosexual in the Midwest in the 1930s. By depicting his subconscious anxieties through populist images of rural America, Wood crafted images that speak both to American identity and to the estrangement and isolation of modern life.

This exhibition is organized by Barbara Haskell, Curator, with Sarah Humphreville, Senior Curatorial Assistant.

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables is sponsored by Bank of America.

Major foundation support is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Major support is also provided by the Barbara Haskell American Fellows Legacy Fund.

Significant support is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston; The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts; and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Generous support is provided by John and Mary Pappajohn and the Robert Lehman Foundation, Inc.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Commissions and Impressionist Paintings


Like many American artists of his generation, Grant Wood initially looked to Europe as the center of culture. He went abroad four times between 1920 and 1928 for a total of twenty-three months, primarily studying the work of the French Impressionists, whose loose brushwork he adopted in the first two decades of his career to paint what he later called “Europy-looking” subjects. His assimilation of the style served him well in Cedar Rapids. By the early 1920s, he had become the city’s leading artist, selling his paintings to its residents and executing commissions in a variety of styles according to each project’s needs. 

The First Three Degrees of Freemasonry, 1921

The Anamosa, Iowa, chapter of the Freemasons, the world’s oldest and largest fraternal organization, commissioned Wood to make this allegorical triptych of the three levels of Freemasonry through which members advance in a prescribed path of study and rituals. Wood grounded his image in the Masonic legend of Hiram Abiff, chief architect of King Solomon’s Temple, whose murder by individuals attempting to extract a secret password from him underscores the importance in Freemasonry of fidelity and the certainty of death. 

From left to right, Wood illustrates the building of the temple, its completion, and its decay, setting within those panels auxiliary themes of man carving his own destiny, the equality of human beings, and the contemplation of life in old age. Wood modeled the statuary in the painting on The Builder by Czech-American artist Albin Polasek (1879–1965), Michelangelo’s David, and Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker.


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Audio guides

Hear directly from artists and curators on selected works from the exhibition.

View guide

Exhibition Catalogue

This comprehensive study of Grant Wood provides new insight into the career of one of the key figures of twentieth-century American art. Exploring Wood’s oeuvre from a variety of perspectives, the catalogue presents the artist’s work in all of its subtle complexity and eschews the idea that Wood can be categorized simply as a Regionalist painter. 

The excerpt featured here includes a selection from Barbara Haskell’s overview essay as well as a preview of the plate section and illustrated chronology.

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In the News

“A new exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art reveals the complexities of the Iowa-born Wood.”
The Wall Street Journal

"Feels right on time."
The New Yorker

"Wood was much more than American Gothic."

“As this exhibition demonstrates, he is an artist fated to be perpetually rediscovered.”
The Washington Post

“Wood had altogether weirder, more singular ambitions than any of his modernist counterparts.”

“A fascinating retrospective.”

"This is no regionalist proponent of clean, country living but an artist of a much darker and more sensual vision, one for whom normalcy was delightfully perverse."
The Art Newspaper

“It will be a surprise for people who think they know Grant Wood.”
The New York Times

"The most extensive Grant Wood exhibition that's ever been mounted."
CBS News