GRANT WOOD was an American painter, born on this date (d: 1942) best known for his paintings depicting the rural American Midwest, particularly American Gothic, which has become an iconic example of 20th-century American art. As a gay man in Iowa, he was forced to hide or disguise his same-sex references and representations, but they are there, hiding in plain sight.
Wood was married to Sara Sherman Maxon from 1935–38. Seven years older than Grant, she was born in Iowa in 1884. Even his own friends considered the marriage a mistake for Wood.
Wood taught painting at the University of Iowa’s School of Art from 1934 to 1941. During that time, he supervised mural painting projects, mentored students, produced a variety of his own works, and became a key part of the University’s cultural community.
He was a closeted gay man. There was an attempt on the part of a senior colleague, Lester Longman, to get him fired both on moral grounds and for his advocacy of regionalism. Critic Janet Maslin states that his friends knew him to be “homosexual and a bit facetious in his masquerade as an overall-clad farm boy.” University administration dismissed the allegations and Wood would have returned as professor if not for his growing health problems.
In 1939, the U.S. Post Office Department refused to distribute a lithograph by Grant Wood, declaring its depiction of a nude man bathing by a horse trough “pornographic.” Wood, ever the closeted artist described the work euphemistically as a “shy bachelor,” and was surprised and affronted, and cropped the nude figure out of a painting based on the same image, leaving a vision of a dark tree against a rolling green landscape.
One doesn’t need a contemporary sense of gay identity to see that there is something wonderfully queer in Wood’s world. Lay aside the many images with overtly homoerotic subject matter and you still have a large body of work in which lines are being crossed, categories jumbled and expectations confounded.
The idiosyncrasies of his works seem to flow not simply from the fact that Wood was gay, but from a deeper, transformative sense of gender. His America can never be neatly sorted into traditional ideas about masculine and feminine, and that, even more than the nudity of the man depicted in the problematic 1939 lithograph, may have been what unsettled the U.S. Post Office prudes.
In 1930, the same year American Gothic debuted at the Art Institute of Chicago and made Wood an overnight sensation, he painted Arnold Comes of Age, a portrait of his former high school student and assistant Arnold Pyle. In the painting, Wood depicts the 21-year-old Pyle as spindly and dark, mournful against the riparian countryside during the last warm days of autumn, as two small skinny-dippers exhaust themselves at the water’s edge. At Pyle’s elbow is a brown butterfly — a gay symbol at the time — and yet, like Wood himself, it nearly disappears into its environment.
The day before his 51st birthday, Wood died at the university hospital of pancreatic cancer. He is buried at Riverside Cemetery, Anamosa, Iowa. His estate went to his sister, Nan Wood Graham, the woman portrayed in American Gothic. When she died in 1990, her estate, along with Wood’s personal effects and various works of art, became the property of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa. In 2009, Grant was awarded the Iowa Prize, the state’s highest citizen honor.