Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Painting America For Americans

Two bronze lions weighing more than two tons each, gifts from the late Mrs. Henry Field, poised on the prowl and in an attitude of defiance, flank the entrance.  They have stood in this position at 111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, since 1894.  All who enter the Art Institute of Chicago cannot help but notice their regal stance.

As you wander from gallery to gallery within this building, you will undoubtedly find yourself walking through Gallery 263.  It is the home of one of America's most iconic paintings.  This painting was first shown to the world in 1930 at the Art Institute of Chicago.  American Gothic: The Life Of Grant Wood (Abrams Books For Young Readers, September 5, 2017) words by Susan Wood with pictures by Ross MacDonald chronicles the creative journey of this American painter.

Grant Wood loved to draw.

His farming family didn't have a lot of money, so Grant used charred sticks to sketch on brown wrapping paper or cardboard torn from cracker boxes.

He drew what surrounded him, the rolling lands of Iowa.  When his dad died, the family left for the city.  After Grant won a prize for a drawing, he began to devote himself to his art, teaching himself and gaining the proper supplies by selling his work.

Eventually Grant became a student and a teacher of art but something was missing.  He wanted to make a name for himself outside of Iowa.  In Europe he studied the work of Impressionists like Claude Monet, Cubists like Pablo Picasso, and the work of Piet Mondrian, an abstract painter.  None of these styles spoke to Grant Wood's heart as a painter.  One day while standing in a museum in Germany, he knew what he wanted to do.

Back home in Iowa Grant traversed the Iowa landscape until he saw what he needed.  It was a particular home with a particular window.  Using his sister and his dentist as models, Grant worked for months, moving his work to accommodate their schedules.  The shape of their faces and expressions were changed to reflect the America Grant knew.

It was 1930.  People needed this American Gothic by Grant Wood.  It mirrored their souls.  Due to the success of exhibiting this work, Grant continued to paint the American countryside which held his affection.  Just like some of the people he depicted in his paintings, he was usually garbed in overalls.

With a pleasing blend of conversational narrative and information author Susan Wood adeptly presents Grant Wood's beginnings and his search for an artistic style.  Her research is evident in the included details; charred sticks to sketch as a boy, the third prize in a national contest for his oak leaves, studying art in magazines before any formal education, and traveling to specific countries to study specific artists' works.  She links his travels in Europe by repeating a phrase

wasn't in Grant's heart.

This is followed by what did touch his heart and what continued to touch his heart through his art for the remainder of his life.

Prior to his painting of the American Gothic Susan Wood gives us insights into the thought process for selecting this particular house and the models.  She explains with understandable, fluid thoughts as to why the American people were captivated and connected to this painting. Here is a portion of a selection of her writing from this title.

With all of its careful details, Grant's painting looked
like real life---and a little more.  People saw themselves---
and something hopeful, something heroic---in American
Gothic.  Here was a no-nonsense painting of the way
things used to be, when honest work and a simple life
kept families safe and strong, and even just a little bit

The full color palette used throughout this book is immediately seen on the opened dust jacket.  There is a predominant use of hues of yellow, causing a luminous quality to each image.  The landscape we see on the right, front, crosses the spine and spans the entire back to the left.  In the center of the back on the left sits the house with the Gothic style window.  Ross MacDonald has portrayed this time period and this setting with excellence.  You can feel the peace of the pastoral setting.

On the book case portions of two, two-page pictures occupy the front and the back.  The first is of Grant standing on a hill beginning a painting with a landscape.  The second includes his winning artwork with other paintings from his youth.  In various shades of yellow the opening and closing endpapers with elongated letters spell first American and then Gothic.

All of the illustrations span, except for two, two pages, edge to edge.  Ross MacDonald alters his perspective in keeping with the text.  He gives us a feel for the vistas Grant Wood experienced in Iowa, brings us close to individual pieces of art, takes us across the ocean to those places visited by Grant, inside and outside, and makes us a part of the first exhibition of American Gothic.

One of my favorite of many pictures shows Grant at night working on the American Gothic.  A crescent moon shines through the window.  Pots filled with paint brushes, a stool, rags and other canvases are placed about him as he leans in to add a detail to the painting.  This inside scene stretches to the right showing several settings from Iowa; a spinning tornado behind a family seeking shelter in their basement, a basket filled with corn, a farmer and his wife bundling stalks of corn into shocks and above them another farming couple beaming at the landscape.  All we see are their faces.

Even after a single reading of American Gothic: The Life Of Grant Wood written by Susan Wood with pictures by Ross MacDonald readers are well aware of the world which shaped Grant Wood and how he shaped the world of art by introducing Regionalism.  After several readings the peace people must sense when standing before his artwork envelopes you.  At the close of the book Grant Wood's art and several photographs accompany a two-page author's note.  This is followed with sources and a time line.  I highly recommend this title for your professional and personal collections for its information and inspiration.

To discover more about Susan Wood and Ross MacDonald and their other work, please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  A special website has been designed for this title.  There are educational resources, other valuable links to museums and a Grant Wood video.

A new year means it's a whole new opportunity to experience the fascinating and captivating world of nonfiction.  Educator Alyson Beecher the host of Kid Lit Frenzy is starting her seventh year of challenging readers to read more nonfiction.  I am happy to participate in this challenge and look forward to the titles selected by other bloggers.

Artwork by Sarah S. Brannen


  1. Wow, this sounds fascinating! I'm sad to admit that I really knew nothing about Grant Wood, and actually pretty little about American Gothic!

    1. When I was in college I took an art history class which has helped me appreciate all kinds of art. With that being said this book taught me quite a bit more about Grant Wood. It is very well done.

  2. I saw American Gothic long ago, and didn't know about this book, Margie. What an interesting story of someone who might not have gained any fame if he had not followed his heart. Thanks for sharing so many links to the author's and illustrator's sites, too!

    1. After reading this book, Linda, seeing the American Gothic in real life is definitely something I have to do. You are welcome about this links. I always try to have extras in my posts to help people use the titles in their classrooms and libraries.

  3. I appreciate the comprensive review. Reminds me to take the time to savor all aspects of a picture book.

    1. You are welcome. Picture books have so much to offer readers on many levels. Thank you for visiting.

  4. Can't wait to get my hands on this one!

    1. I think you are really going to enjoy it, Annette.