The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Wood, Grant Devolson
(February 13, 1891–February 12, 1942)

–artist, teacher, and State University of Iowa professor—was the second son of four children of Francis Maryville Wood and Hattie (Weaver) Wood. Born on a farm near Anamosa, Iowa, Wood had a typical rural upbringing until he was 10, attending a one-room schoolhouse that he would later recall in Arbor Day (1932). His father died in 1901, however, and his family moved to nearby Cedar Rapids.

    Displaying an early interest in drawing and encouraged by his school's art teacher, Emma Gratten, Wood won his first national prize for a chalk drawing at the age of 14. During high school, with fellow artist Marvin Cone, who would be a lifelong friend and important artist in his own right, he designed stage sets for local theater and contributed drawings to the school yearbook. On graduation day in 1910 Wood took a night train north and enrolled in a summer course at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft with Ernest Bachelder, a nationally known artist in the Arts and Crafts style. There Wood learned jewelry and metal work, furniture making, and modern design, all of which would be useful to him in his varied artistic career.

    During the academic year 1911-1912, Wood taught at the one-room Rosedale School outside Cedar Rapids and took a night course in life drawing with Charles Cumming at the State University of Iowa. From 1913 to 1916 he lived in Chicago, working first in the Kalo Silversmith's Shop and then in his own short-lived jewelry-making business, Wolund Shop, with partner Kristoffer Haga. Returning to Cedar Rapids to support his mother and sister, Nan, Wood designed and built their home and worked odd jobs, building house models for a local realtor and making jewelry. In 1918 he served a short stint as an army camouflage designer in Washington, D.C.

    Back in Cedar Rapids in 1919, Wood exhibited paintings at Killians Department Store and taught art in the public schools, first at Jackson Junior High and then at McKinley High. During the summer of 1920, he traveled to Paris with Marvin Cone, experimenting with what he called "bohemianism" and painting in an impressionist style. He returned to Paris in 1923-1924, taking courses at the Académie Julian and traveling to Italy. Back in Iowa, he found a new patron in funeral director David Turner, who invited Wood to live in the mortuary's carriage house in exchange for supervising the interior decoration of the mansion. Wood transformed the garage hayloft into an ingeniously designed studio apartment that would be his home until 1935. Encouraged by a growing local clientele, Wood left teaching to create murals for businesses, decorate homes and department stores, participate in local arts groups, and create some of his best-known paintings.

    Wood's 1928 commission for a monumental stained glass window in the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building was a turning point in his career. Inspired by German and Flemish Renaissance paintings he saw in Germany while supervising the window's construction, Wood transformed his own style from a modified impressionism to a stylized clarity focused on midwestern subjects. Works such as John B. Turner Pioneer (1928- 30) and Woman with Plants (1929) received immediate praise, followed by American Gothic (1930), the iconic portrait of a stoic midwestern farmer and his daughter that catapulted Wood to national fame.

    The 1930s was Wood's most productive period. During that decade, he developed his regionalist style and ideology and created his best-known works. He created a short-lived regionalist art colony in Stone City with Marvin Cone in 1932, and formed an alliance with fellow midwestern painters John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, who were featured together in Time magazine in December 1934 as the principal triumvirate of a new artistic movement. In 1933 Wood was appointed director of Iowa's Public Works of Art Project, which created murals for public buildings that emphasized Iowa life and values. That led to his being hired as an art professor at the State University of Iowa, where he taught until his death.

    In 1935 Wood married Sara Maxon, a former singer from Cedar Rapids who was four years his senior. The marriage lasted only three years. The couple moved to a large brick house in Iowa City, where Wood became a central figure of a group of intellectuals devoted to regionalist ideals. With State University of Iowa journalism professor Frank Luther Mott, he published Revolt against the City (1935), a manifesto of regionalism that summarized the ideas Wood had been developing since at least 1930. During that period, the artist traveled widely, lecturing on the subject and doing commissions for a wide array of national patrons, including paintings from Hollywood films, a popular print series, and book illustrations.

    At the State University of Iowa, however, Wood became embroiled in academic controversies because the art department was polarized according to modernist, traditional, and regionalist aesthetics. He was particularly at odds with the chairman, Lester Longman, a modernist. Their feud grew so bitter that Wood threatened to resign in 1940. He was given a leave of absence to allow the matter to settle, and upon his return in the fall of 1941 he was removed from Longman's supervision, signaling a new phase of his career. Unfortunately, Wood became terminally ill in October and died of pancreatic cancer on the eve of his 51st birthday.

    As the most famous artist of his home state, Wood and his work remained popular in Iowa even as modernist art history relegated him and regionalism to a minor, pass ing phenomenon after his death. At the same time, however, American Gothic developed into a national icon through countless parodies, and it remains one of the world's most recognized images. Wood's work and his contribution to American art were resurrected in the 1970s, and he has since been the subject of a number of important scholarly books, articles, and exhibitions. His probing and often humorously ironic view of midwestern life is widely recognized, and he is today acknowledged as one of the most important American artists of his era. Grant Wood Elementary School in Iowa City is named in his honor, and Wood's Arbor Day (1932) was the basis for the Iowa state quarter issued by the U.S. Mint in 2004.
Sources The majority of Wood's works and papers are owned by the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the Figge Museum, Davenport, Iowa. Primary source biographies by those who knew him include Park Rinard, "Return from Bohemia: A Painter's Story, Part I" (master's thesis, State University of Iowa, 1939); and Nan Wood Graham, with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald, My Brother Grant Wood (1993). The most significant scholarly studies of his life and work are James Dennis, Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture (1975; rev. ed., 1986); Wanda Corn, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision (1983); and Jane C. Milosch, ed., Grant Wood's Studio: Birthplace of American Gothic (2006).
Contributor: Joni L. Kinsey