Grant Wood was an American painter from Iowa. He is best known for his painting American Gothic, an iconic image of the 20th century. His work is widely embraced by conservatives in the United States.
What you may not know is that Grant Wood was a flaming homosexual.
Go Grant Wood!
Wood's father was a Quaker with a Puritanical streak in him. He married a spinster schoolteacher, and the couple had four children: Frank, Grant, Jack, and Nan. Wood's father, Maryville (pronounced "Merville"), was stern, imposing, unemotional, and gaunt. While Frank and Jack took after their father, Grant was weak, pudgy, frightened, and clumsy -- and rarely partook in farm work at all. Wood's father died in 1901 when Wood was just 10 years old. His mother, Hattie, and he moved in with relatives in nearby Cedar Rapids. Frank and Jack graduated from high school, and never spoke to their mother or siblings ever again. Wood was mentored in high school by Emma Grattan, a teacher who helped him develop his artistic side by getting him involved in acting, drawing, metalwork, jewelry making, and music. Wood attended several different art schools in the years following high school, but none of them for more than a few months at a time.
In 1916, Wood, his mother, and his sister moved into a small one-room shack in Cedar Rapids. Their financial condition was perilous, but through sales of jewlery and his work in a nearby railroad blackmithery he managed to save enough money to build his mother a one-room bungalow on the edge of town. They lived there for seven years. Wood enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917, but World War I ended before he could be shipped overseas.
Wood spent the summer of 1920 in Paris. He had become enamored of Impressionism, and studied art formally and informally in Paris over the next several years (even going so far as to spend an entire year there during one point). Upon returning home, he painted his first male nude, Nude Bather. He induced 16-year-old local boy Peter Funcke to pose naked by Indian Creek for him; Funcke agreed, but only on the condition that his face not be recognizable. In 1924, Wood moved his mother, his sister, and himself into a one-room carriage house near a funeral home.
One of Wood's first major paintings to be publicly exhibited is this 1922 work, Adoration of the Home, intended for use as a billboard for a local real estate agency. The work contains startling nudity, and his friends (mostly heterosexuals) modeled for the work.
In 1924, while in Paris, Wood painted his second male nude, The Spotted Man, a pointilist work which depicts a nude, muscular man facing away from the viewer in contraposto pose. In 1928, Wood was commissioned to design a stained glass window for the Veteran Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids. His own sister, Nan, modeled as the grieving figure of "Freedom" which dominates the window. Along the base, he included six corpse-like soldiers (each depicting a different war in American history). One of them is nearly nude; his assistant, Arnold Pyle, modeled for this image.
In the summer of 1928, Wood visited Munich. Whatever he experienced there left him very shaked, and utterly changed his artistic style. Wood's friends never wrote about what happened there, and Wood himself never wrote about it (not even in his personal diaries or papers). There is some suggestion that Wood finally came face-to-face with his homosexuality, and realized he could not return to the United States without suppressing it wholescale. In Paris, Wood's friends said, Wood immersed himself deeply in the gay culture -- spending large amounts of time in gay cafés, gay bars, and gay art salons drinking heavily with gay French men and boys and engaging in long talks about art, poetry, politics, and culture. He also carried on a number of one-night stands and weekends with men, but formed no close friendships or relationships (emotional or sexual) with French homosexuals.
But Paris' gay community was flamboyant, fantastic, and in many ways on the extreme of French culture.
That was not true of Munich. In Weimar Germany, gay people came as close to being mainstream and accepted as they would at any time in the next 70 years. Gay men in Munich were not part of an isolated fringe. They were at the center of German culture and politics, and accepted and assimilated nearly as much as straight people were. Facing a return to homophobic Iowa, Grant Wood may well have realized that his trips to Europe could lead to only one thing: He would either have to abandon his mother and sister and whole world to live in Europe, or he would have to repress everything and return home.
Immensely shy, socially awkward, pudgy, boyish, only barely educated, and frightened by the entire world, Grant Wood chose to repress and return to Iowa. His whole life revolved around his unhealthy, too-close relationship with his mother and (to a lesser extent, his sister). He simply could not give up on them.
Having returned to Iowa, Wood decided that Impressionism made him appear too sissy. He now abandoned Impressionism (in fact, he and his supporters would later go so far as to deny that he ever practiced that style) and took up a form of Realism. He modeled much of his work after the Mannerism of Flemish Renaissance painters, Early American folk arists (like Charles Willson Peale), and Beaux Arts painters in the U.S. These painters emphasized realism but also figurativeness -- resulting in elongated figures that nonetheless were realistically depicted. Instead of painting that emphasized emotion, energy, and whose brush strokes were clearly visible, Wood's style now emphasized vast, smooth fields of uniform color. Figurativeness could apply to landscapes as well. Impressionism emphasized the depiction of the color and emotional "feel" that one got from an image; the painting one created should convey these feelings, rather than a representation of the thing itself. Figurativeness, however, required that a painter depict fields, houses, trees, people. They could be cartoonish, but they had to be depicted.
Wood's style eventually became known as Regionalism, and was one of the first truly American painting styles.
In 1930, Grant Wood painted his masterpice, American Gothic.
Almost immediately thereafter, he painted his great homosexual masterpiece, Arnold Comes of Age.
Grant Wood had taken a job as an art teacher at McKinley High School in Cedar Rapids, and Arnold Pyle was one of his students. Good looking, slender, tall, with highly toned pectorals, and thick black hair, Pyle was just the type of man that Grant Wood continued to fall in love with over and over throughout his life.
Pyle was just 18 years old when he became Wood's studio assistant. Since Wood's studio consisted of the one-room carriage house, Pyle spent most of his days in the house, watched over by Hattie Wood (then in her 70s). In 1932, Wood founded the Stone City Art Colony at nearby Stone City, a ghost town which had formerly housed the workers for a limestone quarry. For two summers, he lived there in a wooden trailer with Wood. He taught picture framing classes, and became a noted regional artist in his own right (in oils and watercolors).
Arnold Comes of Age was painted when Pyle turned 21. Like several of Wood's portraits, it significantly elongates the neck and body. Wood also painted Pyle's head to be much larger than it should be (and, in fact, as can be seen in the underpainting, Wood intended for it to be twice as large as it ended up being). Three distinct planes divide the background: Some fields, a river, and a river bank. On the river bank at right are two nude youths, skinny-dipping in the river.
Much of the painting is somber, reflecting Wood's sadness at being unable to consummate his relationship with Pyle. Pyle's face is slightly downcast, the eyes have a faraway look, his sweater is a vast field of black, and his torso casts a shadow across the nude youths. The two youths are drawn in a traditional Adam and Eve setting, representing the expulsion from Eden -- and represent the loss of innocence, and the threat of punishment for indulging in homosexuality. But one of the youths is drawn with his buttocks extended backward and his back swayed, a clear invitation for sexual intercourse. There is continually twinning in the painting (twin trees, twin youths, twin haystacks, twin bushes), indicating the relationship Wood felt with Pyle. To the left, a butterfly lands on Pyle's sleeve. The Butterfly Teashop was their favorite hangout in Cedar Rapids, but the butterfly was also a well-known symbol of homosexuality.
Arnold Comes of Age was painted at the same time as American Gothic, and the two images share much of the same conflicted emotional tone.
Here's a curator talking some more about Arnold Comes of Age.
American Gothic was an overnight sensation when it was exhibited. Wood quickly followed up with two erotically charged images of farming landscapes (all the hills look like male buttocks): Young Corn (1931) and Fall Plowing (1931). Later that year, his Apparaisal depicted his art dealer and friend Ed Rowan as a rural woman trying to sell a chicken to a pudgy city woman (clearly Wood himself). He ended the year with Midnight Ride of Paul Revere -- a dreamy, surrealistic take on the classic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -- and The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover -- a work that buries the former president's cabin in a landscape so changed and redefined that the committee which commissioned the work rejected it.
In 1933, the Stone City Art Colony folded due to lack of funds. Wood got a job the following year at the University of Iowa art department, a teaching position which he retained until the end of his life. In 1933, Wood painted Daughters of Revolution, a satirical image of three old biddies (who belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution) having tea and clearly condemning with their eyes the viewer -- all while Edward Leutze's iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware hangs in the background. His 1934 mural Dinner for Threshers ostensibly shows a cutaway of a huge farmhouse in which dinner is being served for a mass of farm hands. Only, the image clearly emphasizes the men's buttocks!
In 1935, Grant Wood married Sara Sherman, a former light-opera singer seven years older than he. Apparently aware of Wood's homosexuality, Sherman apparently didn't care. Strong-willed, progressive, and a bit bossy, Sherman saw in Wood a little lost child who desperately needed looking after. Shunned by Cedar Rapids society, she moved Wood and his household to Iowa City, where Wood purchased a large seven-room mansion. Unfortunately, this also meant that Sherman's daughter and her ne'er-do-well son-in-law also were able to move into the Wood home. Sara quickly found that her daughter and son-in-law began monopolizing Wood's time and money. Wood's mother died shortly after they moved to Iowa City, and Wood seemed enamored of Sara's handsome, athletic 28-year-old son-in-law.
Wood's productivity as an artist dropped off sharply after his marriage. Although he continued to teach and lecture, his artistic work was almost nil. In 1937, Wood hired handsome, young, athletic, slender Park Rinard as his personal secretary. Although not a homosexual himself, Rinard clearly understood Wood's attraction to him. But Rinard's presence only further pushed Sara to the side, which made her woefully unhappy.
In 1936, Wood produced the highly erotic Spring Turning, ostensibly a farming landscape but one which was openly attacked in the press as homosexual. But Wood couldn't stop himself. Later that year, he produce a lithograph, Saturday Night Bath, which depicted a 10-year-old boy standing in a giant tin washtub, drying himself off with a towel. Although the boy is facing away from the viewer, the towel is caught tight against his round, muscular buttocks. In 1937, Wood produced another lithograph, Sultry Night, which depicted a nude, hairy-chested man pouring a bucket of water over himself while he stands next to a horse trough. The U.S. Postal Service declared it obscene and refused to allow it to be sent through the mails. The model for the work was undoubtedly Eric Knight, the man who later wrote the classic children's novel Lassie Come Home. A second Saturday Night Bath was also produced in 1937, this one depicting an older man dipping a bucket into a horse trough while a young, nubile stud stands nearby, stripping off his shirt.
Grant and Sara Wood divorced in 1938 after four years of marriage. Wood initiated the divorce proceedings, citing physical abuse. Sara, herself the victim of an abusive marriage at one point, in all likelihood never hit Wood. But since she was a large, strong, bossy woman, the charge might well have stuck in court. Sara never contested the divorce, and they parted in horrible circumstances. (Sara became penniless, sought work as a housekeeper and cook, and ended her days in a one-room cabin on the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington.)
In September 1939, Grant Wood produced his first painting since 1937. Parson Weem's Fable is perhaps his second best known work. It ostensibly depicts the legend of George Washington having chopped down his father's cherry tree. When confronted with the dirty deed, Washington says, "I cannot tell a lie; I did it." His father, ecstatic at his son's honesty, does not punish him. The fable had originally been told by the Rev. Mason Locke Weems, and was often been accepted as truth by the 1930s. The painting is highly allegorical, and full of disconcerting images. (For example, Parson Weems holds his hand in such as way as to indicate deceit. Washington's father's eyes seem closed. Washington's face is that of the old president, not a young boy.) The compositional elements are surreal and indicate a "real world" (inhabited by Weems) and a false world (behind the curtain Weems holds). The fable is about honesty as a virtue; the painting is all about how Weems told a lie to promote honesty.
In 1940, Grant Wood was nearly fired from the University of Iowa after allegations about a sexual relationship between him and Park Rinard surfaced. That they surfaced at all was surprising: His homosexuality was an open secret in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and he had as much as been called gay in the newspapers many times over the years. His long bachelorhood, his obvious disinterest in women, his clear infatuation with boys and men, his effiminacy, his sham of a marriage, and his artwork were noted repeatedly by the press. The real reason for his "outing" was not his homosexuality, but rather his conservative, atelier style of teaching -- which newer faculty found inhibiting. His job was saved only after the university created a new "College of Fine Arts" and transferred Wood out of the department of the arts and into the new college. Wood's personnel file was sealed so that the minutes of meetings containing the accusations against him could not be read.
Wood took a year-long sabbatical, traveling to California to visit his sister and her husband. Wood seriously considered abandoning Iowa for the sunny, progressive shores of Los Angeles. In early 1941, as his sabbatical ended, Wood stayed in a one-room former railroad station in Clear Lake, Iowa, and began painting again. Nothing was ever finished during this time, but he was clearly reinvigorated by the idea of leaving ultra-conservative, homophobic Iowa for liberal California.
In the fall of 1941, however, Grant Wood fell seriously ill. He taught only a few weeks that year, his illness was so bad. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Surgery did not halt the spread of the disease. In extreme pain, he spent his last weeks at the University of Iowa Hospital, heavily sedated with morphine. He rambled incoherently about moving to California and hiring a young, muscular Asian boy as his housekeeper.
Grant Wood died on February 12, 1942, just two hours before his 51st birthday.
At his death, critics eulogized not only Grant Wood but regionalism, declaring the genre dead. Abstract Expressionism became the muscular, masculine painting style favored in the post-war era. Ironically, Abstract Expressionism was epitomized by flaming homosexual Jackson Pollock. Largely forgotten for the next 30 years, Grant Wood was the subject of a number of major new shows in the 1980s, and was adopted by right-wing conservatives as epitomizing the "American values" that conservatism sought to project. (The irony of an ass-worshipping homosexual whose works undermined, satirized, and parodied those values was lost on them.)
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Nan Wood Graham died in 1990 at the age of 88. She'd spent her life as a minor celebrity, reveling in the fact that she was the model for the spinster daughter in American Gothic. She refused to acknowledge her brother's homosexuality, and perpetuated hundreds of myths about him, his "wives," his female lovers, and his productivity as an artist. She sued several biographers from "slurring" her brother's good name, and prevented several other biographies from seeing print.
Park Rinard enlisted in the military during World War II. He entered Iowa politics, became a close aide to two governors, and joined the staff of Sen. John Culver (D). He became a tireless advocated for civil rights, opposed the Vietnam War and the death penalty, and supported equal rights for women. He was an early, vocal, and persistent advocated for gay rights in the 1960s at a time when that was an astonishingly brave, even dangerous, thing to do. When he died in 2000, Sen. Culver said that Park Rinard was the intellectual godfather of progressive politics in Iowa for the last half-century.
After her divorce, Sara Wood worked as a cook and housekeeper, then moved to Los Angeles and then New York City to try to break back into show business. She became a companion to a ditzy girl in a wealthy family in Oakland, California. She so improved the girl's mental health that the girl married -- leaving Sara without a job. The grateful family moved Sara to their estate on Orcas Island in Puget Sound. She lived there as caretaker, cook, and housekeeper for the next two decades. Although the estate was later sold, the new owners kept her on. Sara Sherman Maxon Wood died in a Bellingham, Washington, nursing home in 1979 at the age of 96.
After leaving his job as Grant Wood's assistant in 1935, Arnold Pyle became the advertising manager at the Collins Radio Company, and later their personnel manager. He stopped painting about 1945. When he retired from the company in 1968, he returned to painting -- often depicting the night sky in watercolor. In June 1973, he attended the first annual Grant Wood Art Festival in Wood's home town of Anamosa, Iowa. Pyle died in an automobile accident traveling back to Cedar Rapids on his way home from the festival.
Peter Funcke went on to become a police officer in Cedar Rapids. He retired in 1952, worked for Collins Radio from 1952 to 1966, and and died on January 18, 2004, at his home in Marion, Iowa. At the time of his death, he was 100 years old. He was the oldest living police officer in Iowa, and had witnessed the adoption of the automobile by police and the first use of two-way radios in police cars. He was a noted sharpshooter, golfer, woodworker, and bicyclist (he rode a bike daily until he was 92 years old).