This familiar painting was exhibited publicly for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago, winning a $300 prize and instant fame for Grant Wood. The male model for American Gothic was Wood’s dentist, Dr. Bryon McKeeby. What you might not know is the woman was the artist’s sister, Nan Wood Graham. The models sat separately and never stood in front of the Gothic style house in the background. Grant dressed his models as if they were tintypes from an old family album.
The portrait of the somber Midwestern farmer is often misinterpreted. The woman is not meant to be the man’s wife, but his unmarried daughter destined to stay on the farm to assist and care for her widowed father. The man and woman, in their solid and well-crafted world, with all their strengths and weaknesses, represent survivors.
At the time the painting was shown in 1939 critics said the plain, stern-faced Iowa woman “would turn milk sour”. The following year, by way of an apology, Grant painted Portrait of Nan. “It’s really a kind of love letter from Grant to his sister” said Wood’s biographer, R. Tripp Evans. “He adored Nan. And it’s a painting that he felt very close to as well, one of very few of his mature paintings that he kept for himself.”
Nan is holding a plum in one hand and a chick in the other. Most likely Grant liked the idea of the chick to convey Nan’s tenderness. Purchased in a dime store the chick turned out to be more than a handful. “It wouldn’t eat toast without butter or potatoes without gravy, said Nan.