SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
They've looked like somebody's grandparents for years, but this month that stern farmer and his wife in the iconic painting, "American Gothic," actually turn 75. That's how long ago Grant Wood painted them. The balding man with his three-pronged pitchfork, the woman in her apron with the rickrack standing by her man. If you are near a computer, you can look at "American Gothic" right now at npr.org. To commemorate the painting's 75th birthday, Thomas Hoving has written a biography of "American Gothic." Mr. Hoving was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a decade. He's in our New York bureau.
Surely, this is one of the most famous pictures ever painted. What's the reason for that, Mr. Hoving?
Mr. THOMAS HOVING (Author, "American Gothic"): When it first hit the public eye in 1930 in Chicago in an annual art show, people were completely overwhelmed. The reason back then was that it was a severe, trim, impeccably painted, meticulously observed work of art, amongst others that were kind of tired ...(unintelligible) wanna-be stuff. And it never has lost its legs.
STAMBERG: But also, that painting's been the subject of spoofs and satires, skits on "Saturday Night Live." What's the reason for that?
Mr. HOVING: The spoofing started with Meredith Willson's fantastically gorgeous "Music Man." The curtain comes up and there you see the man and the wife in little River City looking exactly like the painting.
Mr. HOVING: And people burst into laughter and applause, and then it became fair game.
STAMBERG: In your book you ask readers to look at the picture as if they'd never seen it before, and then very quickly just list first impressions. And my list says `Severe, determined, religious, no music in their lives.'
Mr. HOVING: Good for you. Now you put that aside and then you have to map that painting. You have to pass your eyes, force your eyes, over every tiny little bit, and then you'll begin to see the truth. And come back to those marvelous words you wrote down and you'll find out you're pretty spot on, except no music. I think you're wrong with the no music, and you'll find that when you map it.
STAMBERG: Why? Why am I wrong about no music?
Mr. HOVING: The music is in her face, looking way off someplace. The music is in the curl of her hair that's slipped out from that tight bun, right?--that tight, severe bun.
Mr. HOVING: And she's wearing a brooch, and I think she's looking to go to Rome. `Anytime I can get out of here, I'm going to split for bella Italia.'
STAMBERG: Yeah, she's wearing a cameo.
Mr. HOVING: The cameo he bought in Italy on one of his trips.
STAMBERG: Actually, it's an anomaly now that you mention it. And now that I'm looking at that cameo, it feels as though it doesn't belong because of the severity of the rest of it.
Mr. HOVING: Is it severe or is it just--I mean, you look at his face and you're absolutely not sure whether he's about to scowl further--or he's not scowling, he's just looking neutral--or smile. The guy was, in real life, Grant Wood's dentist. He had a series of gum problems and he was in the chair for hours, and he fell in love with Byron McKeebey's long, oval, Gothic face.
Mr. HOVING: And once he grabbed his hand when he was coming out of the chair and McKeebey said `I don't know if I was ever going to get the hand back.' And he looked at the hand and he said `This is a marvelous hand. This has strength. This has character.'
Now if you put your thumb or put a piece of paper over the hand at the bottom...
STAMBERG: Of the painting, mm-hmm.
Mr. HOVING: ...of the picture, holding the pitchfork, the painting collapses.
Mr. HOVING: Yeah.
STAMBERG: It's holding it together.
Mr. HOVING: Also, the pitchfork--you couldn't lift hay with it because the way it's mounted on the wood stick is about a quarter of an inch, so--snap.
STAMBERG: So the man was his dentist. Who's the woman? Who was the model for the woman?
Mr. HOVING: It was his sister, Nan Graham Wood. And he said, `I promise you that I will change the look so nobody will recognize you.' Well, he tried to change it to make it like a 14th-century Gothic French sculpture, but people immediately recognized her. And Byron, not too long after the picture was exposed, on a long trip on a train going to California--the people in the bar club car--you know, those marvelous old bar club cars--they began to look at him and say, `Hey, wait a minute. Aren't you a character in Grant Wood's painting?
STAMBERG: Oh, gosh.
Mr. HOVING: So much for disguise.
STAMBERG: Yeah. Well, I've said it was a farmer and his wife, but Wood himself--first he said that and then he changed his mind about their relationship.
Mr. HOVING: Well, he bowed under critical pressure. He was a very sensitive, retiring guy, a mischievous guy, funny guy, but he couldn't take flak. And he got letters from people saying `Such a young wife' and `What is this all about?' So it became a daughter and then it became a wife and then it became a daughter--depending upon who he was trying to deflect. But it's his sister, so it's OK.
STAMBERG: So there you are, yeah. This is painted in 1930. It's the heart of the Depression. Do you think that was on his mind? Do we know that? When he made this painting sort of--a painting about fortitude and withstanding the worst things that can happen?
Mr. HOVING: Could be. You can interpret it that way. But I don't see anything in it in his entire career--he really didn't go in for depicting political moods. It doesn't seem to be there. He loved the idea of frontier, and Iowa was a frontier. These two people are supposed to--he described it--be the fortitude of that frontier feeling--you know, `Against all odds we're going to win' and a `fortress of our house' and so on.
STAMBERG: Wood himself from Cedar Rapids, Iowa; born there, lived most of his life there.
Mr. HOVING: Right.
STAMBERG: You say that this is one of the best portraits ever painted in America in the entire 20th century. Really?
Mr. HOVING: And I stand by that against all criticism. Well, you look at the others and it's sta--equal. I mean, Eakins, Copley, Gilbert Stuart; he's up there with these characters.
STAMBERG: I think you have to defend yourself more than that.
Mr. HOVING: No, you don't have to defend it because I'm right, and when you're right you don't have to defend. You proclaim.
STAMBERG: So is this your proclamation about this painting, Mr. Hoving?
Mr. HOVING: Well, it's a crackerjack, tightly painted, really magnificently carried out--it's just--the way he did it is just brilliant. And it lasts year after year, and people say, `Gee, I would like to talk to these people. I'd like to know what's on their mind.' That's the sign of a good portrait. It shows character.
STAMBERG: Thank you very much. Thomas Hoving. His new book is called "American Gothic: The Biography of Grant Wood's American Masterpiece." The painting is 75 years old this month and it's on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.
RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
The painting is a touchstone of American culture, depicting an upright Midwestern family on the farm. Its story is the topic of Thomas Hoving's book American Gothic.
The Grant Wood painting American Gothic is a touchstone of American culture, depicting an upright Midwestern family on the farm. The story behind the painting is the subject of Thomas Hoving's book American Gothic: The Biography of Grant Wood's American Masterpiece. A native of Iowa, Wood and his paintings were rooted in the Midwest. His style, however, owed something to the realism of 15th-century northern European artists. Susan Stamberg interviews Hoving, already a best-selling author and once the director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, about his exploration into Wood's most famous painting.