Grant Wood

R. Tripp Evans

R. Tripp Evans Books

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2010 |

  • In the following passage from Grant Wood: A Life (Knopf, 2010), R. Tripp Evans’s new biography of the man behind American Gothic (1930), the author examines a critical work from the artist’s mid-career: 1934’s Dinner for Threshers.
  • Fig. 1. Dinner for Threshers by Grant Wood (1891–1942), 1934. Signed and dated “Grant Wood, 1934” at bottom center of left panel. Oil
    on masonite, 19 ½ by 79 ½ inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Mr. and
    Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd.
  • Fig. 2. In the year before he painted Dinner for Threshers, Wood (right) welcomed fellow regionalist John Steuart Curry (1897–1946) to his artists’ colony in Stone City, Iowa. Clad in a pair of Wood’s trademark overalls—a gift from his host—Curry recalls the threshers of Wood’s childhood. Cedar Rapids Art Museum Archives;
    Photograph by John W. Barry.
  • Fig. 3. Wood’s father, Francis Maryville Wood (1855–1901), in a photograph of c. 1875. State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City.
  • Fig. 4. The figure at the center of Dinner for Threshers, seen from the back, constitutes the
    only portrait Wood ever painted of his father.
  • Fig. 5. Mourner’s Bench by Wood, c. 1921–1922. Carved “THE • WAY OF • THE • TRANSGRESSOR • IS • HARD” on the top rail. Oak; height 37, width 49, depth 16 inches. Wood used buttockshaped
    scallops comic effect on this bench for the hall outside a school principal’s office. Cedar Rapids Community School District, on loan to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
  • Fig. 6. In this detail Wood provides a veiled self-portrait in the same position as that of the Apostle John in traditional Last Supper imagery, where John’s head rests on Christ’s breast. Thunder and Lightning, the print on the wall above, was a childhood favorite of the artist.
  • Fig. 8. Woman with Plants by Wood, 1929. Signed and dated “Grant Wood, 1929” at lower left. Oil on Upson board, 20 ½ by 17 ⅞ inches. Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
  • Fig. 7. Last Supper by Giotto (1266–1337), early fourteenth century. Tempera on wood. On his trip to Munich in 1928, Wood may well have seen Giotto’s painting at the Alte Pinakothek. Its unusual, rear-facing apostles and emphasis
    on the “beloved” Apostle John reappear in Dinner for Threshers. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
  • Fig. 9. The left-hand panel of Wood’s triptych-style composition is replete with autobiographical references—including the artist’s (doctored) birth date, inscribed in the eave of the barn.
  • Fig. 10. The Wood family farmhouse in Anamosa, Iowa, where the artist lived from his birth in 1891 until his father’s death a decade later. Cedar Rapids Museum of Art Archives.
  • Fig. 11. The “Victorian revival” interior Wood designed for an Iowa City speakers’ club in 1935, a year after he completed Dinner for Threshers, included furnishings reminiscent of those in his boyhood home. As a child he had a hidden
    “studio” beneath the family’s kitchen table, from whence he “could peer out at the world through the arched openings in the red-checkered tablecloth.” State Historical Society of Iowa.

In the heady year that followed Maynard Walker’s show, Grant Wood executed his largest and most ambitiouspainting todate—an unusualcomposition entitled Dinner for Threshers (Fig. 1). The monumentality of this panel reflected the scale of Wood’s Iowa State murals, as well as the artist’s new self-image as a leader within a national movement. (At nearly seven feet long, the work was so heavy that it eventually snapped the easel on which it was painted.) Featuring a cast of twenty-one figures in a stage-like architectural cutaway, Dinner for Threshers celebrates the communal mealsthataccompaniedthethreshingseasonof Wood’s boyhood. As the artist explained, “Dinner for Threshers is from my own life. It includes my family, our neighbors, our tablecloth, our chairs and our hens…it is of me and by me.” Part genre scene and part family portrait, then, the work powerfully evokes Wood’s nostalgia for the days of his Anamosa youth—and summons, as well, the desire and dread that haunt his memories of this period.

For Wood, threshing day was “the big event of the year…the excitement of which I shall never forget.” Predictably,hewasasfascinatedbythemenwhoworked the giant threshing machine (or the “dragon,” as he called it) as he was by the engine itself. Too young to work alongside the men, Wood claims he watched their performance from a safe distance, clad in his “best overalls.” The men “laughed and spat and swore lustily while they got their dragon ready,” led by “the dashing, devil-may-care young farmer who operated the engine,” a neighbor of theWoodsnamedSlim O’Donnell. Relating his first encounter with O’Donnell, Wood explains:

He was known in the vicinity as a plunger and daredevil who cared more about baseball and horseracing than he did about tending his farm….He sat under the canopy of the engine, handling the levers in such a grand manner that one could not help admiring him…and spitting great gobs of tobacco juice. Finally his glance lit upon me.

“Hello there son,” he drawled. “What’s your name?”

“Grant,” I piped, the blood rushing to my face.

“Grant what?”

“Grand [sic] Wood.”

“Your hair’s kind of red, ain’t it?”

“Y-yessir.”

“Well then I guess I’ll call you Redwood.” The threshing crew guffawed appreciatively, and I stared at the ground, speechless and pleased.

Wood’s hero-worship of O’Donnell and the threshing crew not only demonstrates his longing to enter this charmed circle (“I did my best to duplicate the performance of the threshers,” he relates), but also his attraction to their physical power–as evidened by his blushing exchange with O’Donnell, whose command of the threshing machine “shook the earth beneath me. ” Indeed, in Wood’s mind the mighty machine embodied the masculine energy of O’Donnell and his crew. Like the threshers themselves, he recalls, “the engine was…hot and sweating from its long day’s labor, and the air was pungent with the smell of hot oil.” At the close of the day, O’Donnell invites an ecstatic Wood to blow the final whistle:

I clambered up to the seat beside [O’Donnell] so fast that I skinned my shin.…I could not reach the whang which blew the whistle, even from the beam over the driver’s seat, so O’Donnell lifted me up. I grasped the leather thong firmly and tugged. “Schleep!” screamed the whistle, loudly enough to shake down the strawstack. I let go in fright. “That’ll never do,” said O’Donnell, roaring with mirth. “Give her a real yank!” This time, I pulled as if my life depended on it, and held on. And what a terrific blast it was! Given this unavoidably Freudian climax to Wood’s threshing day (an event that ended when “the last of our grain dribbled from the separator”), it is clear that the annual event summoned a rather complicated range of emotions in the artist—who was, it must be remembered, in his forties when he recorded these scenes.

In Dinner for Threshers, Wood chooses not to depict the chaotic and dangerous scene surrounding the threshingmachine,butratherthe domesticsettingof theWoods’ dining room. With its fine wallpaper, lace curtains, and framed lithograph, this stereotypically feminine space serves as a dramatic foil to the decidedly undomesticated masculinity of these “ravenous men [who] swarmed in from the fields for dinner.” A voyeur to the men’s activities even in his own home, Wood recalls: “I went around to the front door and watched the men.… Never had I seenfood disappear so rapidly; it seemed to me their [sic] must be no bottoms to their appetites.”

Wood’s fascination with the threshers’ prodigious appetitesis underscoredby the ways he depicts the men’s bodies. Not only does he draw attention to their powerful backs, accentuated bythe crossed straps of their overalls, buthe also highlights the curved outlines of their buttocks–the literal “bottoms” of their appetites, and a clear target for Wood’s gaze. Although this latter detail is often lost in reproductions of the image, the original panel reveals that the the scalloped shapes of the men’s rearends are intended to align with the rounded edges of the draped tablecloth.

The seamlessness of this juxtaposition could hardly have been accidental, nor was it the first time Wood had used such a detail. In the Mourner’s Bench (Fig. 5) he made for McKinley Junior High School, for example, he carved the top rail of the two-seater into a similar silhouette of paired buttocks. Indicating both the hardness of the wooden seat as well as the likely site of its sitters’ corporeal punish-ment—the bench was reserved for those sent to the principal’s office—Wood inscribed “The Way of the Transgressor is Hard” along the bench’s top rail.

In addition to the chorus line of posteriors Wood presents in Dinner for Threshers’ foreground, he also pairs the men off across the table from one another—a composition echoed by the parlor’s framed print, which depicts similarly juxtaposed stallions. (Entitled Thunder and Lightning, the image had been a favorite of Wood’s from childhood [see Fig. 6]).Given the dinner scene’s evocationof hard-earned pleasure andeven excess—a kind of Iowanbacchanal—this phalanx of menprojects an erotic charge at oddswith its stridently wholesomesubject matter and squeaky-clean execution. As one baffled criticclaimed about the work, “all istouched in lovely…but of courseit looks damn queer as a whole.”

Compounding the strange-ness of this image is itsclear evocation of LastSupper imagery. Contemporarycritics of Dinner for Threshers recognized the style of Wood’s Italian sources, if not the specific scene he had borrowed. The American Magazine of Art claimed that the painting evoked the “cleanliness” of a Fra Angelico, whereas the New York Times compared it to the “monumental simplicity” of Giotto. More recent critics have acknowledged the work’s specific debts to Last Supper imagery, yet none has attempted to explain Wood’s unusual choice in this instance. Why would the artist have selected such a mournful subject—and indeed, one that centers upon a profound betrayal—as the prototype for this celebratory gathering of good neighbors?

To understand Wood’s motivation, we must consider er the role his father (see Fig.3) plays within this picture.Although Wood never identifiedMaryville Wood’s location in the painting, he insisted that thework portrayed “my family” and claimed, morover, that this scenewas set in 1900—the final yearof his father’s life. If Maryville is present at all in this scene, then(and it would defy logic if he were not), we may with somecertainty identify him as the central figure (see Fig. 4). Not only does the man’s blond hairconnect him to Maryville, but his position on the family’s piano stool–the least comfortable seat at the table–also suggests his role as an accommodating host.

In its central and slightly elevated position, this figure mirrors Christ’s location in traditional Last Supper imagery and echoes, moreover, the prefigurement of death foundinsuchimages.NotonlydoesWoodturnMaryville’s back to us, but he also summons the very scene of his father’s death. As Wood’s sister Nan Wood Graham related in her memoir: “Father ate a hearty meal of ham and eggs, and after reading the mail, said he thought that he would drive into town. He stepped to the window to view the weather. Mother heard a crash. Father was lying on the floor. His summons from beyond had come.” In both a perspectival and metaphorical sense, then, the window in this painting constitutes its true vanishing point.

Surrounding Maryville is a host of figures who reinforce his fate. Identified by the glowing “haloes” of their forehead tan lines, Maryville’s collection of manly apostles adds up not to twelve, but thirteen (a number that, as Wood recalled in his autobiography, his father perversely considered an omen of good luck). Among these men, we find another important figure from Wood’s Last Supper sources: the Apostle John. Also known as the “beloved” apostle, John is typically depicted in mid-swoon—his head resting on Jesus’s chest, following Christ’s announcement of his impending betrayal. In Wood’s scene, a farmer similarly leans against the woman who stands behind the table (see Fig. 6). Not only does Wood make a rather significant substitution in this case (the farmer leans toward a maternal, rather than a paternal, figure), but he also balances the pair directly opposite the window that signals Maryville’s death. Facing the woman’s breast in a nursing position, Wood’s “beloved” farmer-apostle—a veiled self-portrait—constitutes a Nativity scene within Wood’s Last Supper imagery.

Like the medieval triptychs Wood had admired on his 1928 Munich trip, this central grouping is flanked by two secondary scenes: at left we see the masculine sphere of the barnyard, and at right the feminine world of the kitchen. Triptychs are often similarly gendered. Facing the central image in an attitude of prayer, the work’s male and female donors —typically presented in the left and right panels, respectively—not only serve as models to the faithful viewer, but they also mark the divide between the living and the dead. Not surprisingly, it is Wood and his mother who occupy the donor-panel positions in Dinner for Threshers. Echoing medieval conventions of continuous narrative, the artist appears to portray Hattie Wood and himself several times within each of these spaces—creating a kind of action-sequence at the table’s margins. Wearing four different costumes, Hattie appears twice at the stove, once in the doorway, and lastly at the table itself. For his part, Wood may be seen in the three overall-clad youths standing outside the dining room—the second of whom nervously eyes the men from the front door, as Wood recalled himself doing—and finally in the seated man who supports himself at the woman’s breast. As if to reinforce his presence in this left-hand panel, Wood includes his identifying symbol, the windmill, and on the barn he inscribes his birth date—or rather, the date he claimed in his adult years (see Fig. 8). (Starting in the 1920s, the artist reassigned this date from 1891 to 1892.) At the bottom center of this barnyard scene, Wood signs his own name.

In the sum of its parts, Dinner for Threshers not only presents a tableau vivant of Wood’s Anamosa childhood, but also—and more importantly—a metaphorical account of his artistic development. From the pseudo-historical date of the painter’s birth, we proceed to the table under which he established his first “studio” as a child (indeed, in a nod to his newfound fame, perhaps, Wood enlarges this space considerably). At the far end of the composition is the artist’s first muse. Standing near the screen door from Wood’s homecoming story, the aproned Hattie bears the same distracted look of her 1929 portrait, Woman with Plants (Fig. 9)—the image that inaugurated his mature style and directly preceded American Gothic. The critical event that links the kitchen table to his mother’s groundbreaking portrait, of course, is Maryville’s death. He is both the sacrificial lamb in Dinner for Threshers, and the corpse continually resurrected from the grave.

Grant Wood: A Life will be released October 5. To order copies and to see the author’s appearance schedule, visit www.grantwoodalife.com.

R. TRIPP EVANS is a professor of art history at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.